Whenever catenaccio is talked about Helenio Herrera’s name automatically springs into conversation for the Argentine is regarded – by many – as the inventor of the defensive playing system. However, there was Nereo Rocco before Herrera, employing catenaccio at Triestina and Padova before he took the system to AC Milan, and with great success.
Rocco was a midfielder during his playing days and was known for his single-minded focus. After scoring a goal, he used to run straight to the centre circle, head down implying that he had just done his job and there was nothing to be too excited about but to re-start the game.
He went on to earn a solitary cap for the Italy national team in 1934 – a game that finished 4-0 in favour of the Azzurri against a hapless Greece. After hanging his playing boots in 1945, Rocco went into management and took up the reins of the side that he started his playing career with, Triestina. He stayed at the Trieste outfit for three years before taking charge of Treviso for another three years.
Rocco then had stints back at Triestina and seven years at Padova before he went to the club where he achieved his greatest success, AC Milan.
Tactics and man-management
Rocco saw the advantages of putting a spare man in defence. A player who would provide more protection while defending without the ball but when his team had possession he would work as an outlet to play the ball forward. The position would go on to be known as libero. His teams were known for their defensive solidity.
Rocco, a fierce competitor, would leave no stone unturned to gain any advantage over his team’s rivals. He would study them meticulously and devise his tactics accordingly. He wasn’t shy of playing rough against superior opposition.
Best Spell as a manager
He had two spells as AC Milan boss, the first lasted two years while he remained with the Rossoneri for six years in his second stint. He achieved a lot more success in his second spell and oversaw what would rank as his greatest win, a 4-1 triumph over Rinus Michels’ Total Football of Ajax in the 1969 European Cup final.
Greatest players in his legendary teams
Rocco worked with some of the greatest players of the time which includes the likes of Cesare Maldini, Gianni Rivera, Jose Altafini, Dino Sani, Giovanni Trapattoni, Kurt Hamrin and Karl-Heinz Schnellinger among others.
As a pioneer of a hugely successful and greatly regarded system, catenaccio, Rocco will always be considered amongst the greatest manager in world football. The fact that he was the first manager to win the European Cup with an Italian side cements his legacy.
Place amongst greats
For his pioneering work and unprecedented success, Rocco’s place amongst the greatest tacticians in world football is secure.
Serie A (2): 1961–62, 1967–68
Coppa Italia (3): 1971–72, 1972–73, 1976–77
European Cup (2): 1962–63, 1968–69
UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup (2): 1967–68, 1972–73
Intercontinental Cup (1): 1969