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Is the Libero Really Football's Forgotten Man?

Is the Libero Being Reinvented for the Modern Age?

By Lewis HumphriesPublished 10 months ago 4 min read

Sky Sports pundits Roy Keane and Micah Richards recently embarked on a fascinating debate about Pep Guardiola’s tactical influence and the evolution of the game throughout the EPL era.

This was built on Richards’ description on how the Spaniard’s team have evolved the game by the way in which they “play between the lines”, with Keane arguing that his own Manchester United side did this but without the same terminology or media focus on how attacks were structured.

Certainly, increased media scrutiny and data analysis has created an entire glossary of tactical jargon in recent years, but this often describes concepts and ideals that have been fundamental to the game for generations.

Conversely, there are tactical terms that are scarcely used in the modern game, with ‘libero’ offering a relevant case in point. But what do we mean by ‘libero’, and is this unique tactic currently being reinvented?

What is the ‘Libero’ Position?

Ruud Gullit was a classic libero or 'sweeper'

The libero may also be described as a ‘sweeper’, whose role is to play behind a two or three-man defensive line and provide cover deep in the defensive third.

Typically, a libero will be an astute reader of the game who uses his vantage point to proactively spot danger and intercept runs, while excellent positional sense also ensures that he performs the role as effectively as possible.

Interestingly, liberos also became key attacking players as the role continued to evolve, with protagonists like Franz Beckenbauer and Ruud Gullit renowned as skilled ball carriers with an outstanding range of passing. This enabled them to launch and construct attacks in various different ways, while retaining the luxury of stepping into space and enjoying considerable time on the ball.

Much depends on how the tactic is deployed, of course. In the 1960s, Nereo Rocco and Helenio Herrera used a defensive iteration of the libero in their European Cup winning sides, creating additional cover behind a deep defensive line that sought to man mark their opponents before launching swift counterattacks.

Conversely, Dutch legend Ruud Gullit was an offensive libero, who became renowned for powerful runs from deep when playing for PSV (midfield teammate Willy van der Kerkhof would drop into the defensive line to help cover). In just two seasons, Gullit plundered a staggering 53 goals in just 75 matches from a primary defensive position, highlighting how the libero can aid teams in the attacking third.

How the Libero has Evolved Through the Ages

David Luiz played as a de facto libero under Antonio Conte

In more recent times, we saw Brazilian David Luiz drop into a libero role during Antonio Conte’s title winning season of 2016/17.

Playing centrally in a three-man defensive line at the base of a 3-4-3 formation, Luiz would often look to launch attacks with long raking passes and switches of play, while also carrying the ball into midfield and creating an additional body in the middle of the park.

It can also be argued that Thomas Tuchel deployed the aggressive Antonio Rudiger as a de facto libero during his time at Chelsea, with the German regularly breaking lines as a ball carrier and launching attacks from deep. However, he played on the left of a back three, and often required a defensive midfielder to drop deeper and provide cover.

Broadly speaking, it has actually become increasingly rare to see classic interpretations of the libero tactic, especially in the age of the high press. With most teams now increasingly inclined to press collectively and aggressively from the front, there’s much less time and space in which a libero can operate or launch attacks.

However, we are seeing more modern iterations of the libero evolve. If we look at Pep Guardiola’s in-vogue inverted fullback tactic, for example, we see that one of a team’s wide defenders steps into central midfield when they have possession of the ball. He’s then free to break lines with his passing or as a ball carrier, before returning to his starting position during defensive transitions.

This is part of the Spaniard's constant quest to reinvent the game, as he continues to elevate the art of coaching to a new level and blaze a trail for others to follow.

Now deployed by teams like Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal, this ‘hybrid’ role works in almost exactly the same way as a libero, aside from its wider starting position. It also recognises the fact that teams now play with increasingly compact defensive blocks (both horizontally and vertically), which means that you’ll face less direct attacking threat in the wide areas).

The Last Word

While the classic libero is rarely sighted in modern-day football, the evolution of the inverted fullback or ‘hybrid’ midfielder has built heavily on this principle.

In fact, these roles share a large number of similarities in terms their attacking duties and defensive responsibilities, although their starting positions during defensive phases and instructions are notably different.

So, although we may not see liberos in the mould of Gullit in the future, players like John Stones are being allowed to reinvent this classic tactic to suit the modern game!

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