Hear the word libero and immediately your mind is transported to the Italian Serie A. For of course, the term is synonymous with Italian sweepers who operated in a back three. The inelegant translation of sweeper does the more modern reincarnation of the role no justice as it’s usually the best ball playing defender who gets assigned this role. It’s the glamour role in an often thankless position.
A far more commonly used position before the advent of offside, offside traps and zonal marking, the sweeper had primary responsibility to act as a covering or ‘sweeping’ defender who cleaned up in dangerous situations. Famous sweepers include the German Franz Beckenbauer who was a true libero, Franco Baresi and Gaetano Scirea of Italy, as well as England’s Bobby Moore, all immediately recognisable as greats of the game. Although the very design of the role can mean a decidedly defensive and panicky existence for the sweeper, rise the libero in the 2017 Premier League.
Revival of the Back Three and The Ball-Playing Defender
Formations constantly go through the processes of invention, reinvention, modification, and reincarnation. A 4-2-2-2/4-2-4 from Brazil in 1970 was an ultra-fluid predecessor to the present day 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formations for example. Whilst formations and systems were primarily used by the likes of Italy, England, Argentina, and Germany to stop gifted players from exercising freedom and natural ability before 1990, the modern game uses systems more often to extract the very best out of what may be limited players in other roles. Systems are very much now engineered for specialists.
Italy has always been a safe haven for the back three and the latest renaissance began with current Chelsea manager, Antonio Conte, at Juventus. This has led to a revival of the back three which has made its way onto the British mainland. All the top English Premier league teams have dabbled with the back three and it is a very real possibility that more than one could begin the season with a system incorporating three central defenders. Chelsea and Conte used it to great effect after an inauspicious start to the season punctuated by 2-1 and 3-0 losses to Liverpool and Arsenal in weeks five and six. Conte went with the tried and tested as he realised the strengths of his team and the weaknesses of his defenders would be enhanced and masked by the three-man defence. Most importantly, it was the perfect system to allow born libero David Luiz to flourish. Sometimes suspect as a man to man defender and often in need of additional cover when he inevitably ventured forward, Luiz was allowed greater freedom as his forays into the midfield to distribute were covered by one of the hard running N’Golo Kanté or the bulldozer Nemanja Matić.
By having two more defensive minded covering midfielders who could alternate roles, Chelsea freed up the wingbacks to overlap, Eden Hazard and company to operate in the half space, and Luiz to act as the first point of distribution both to the defenders that flanked him and to both central midfielders ahead. A Conte system makes the cogs (players) look better than they are, and the system did just that. Every man was placed in the position that brought strengths to the fore and weaknesses to the background as long as that player was willing to run hard and execute the plans.
The system is all about creating overloads in personnel. Luiz acts as a third central midfielder in possession and as a third central defender without the ball. Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses provide the width which allows inside forwards and the mobile striker (although Conte apparently doesn’t like this too much) to roam in the half-space and creates uncertainty for a back four with fullbacks who can be pushed back and centre backs who are unsure of whether to press the half space or sit back.