The Rebirth of Catenaccio, Or: Manchester United’s Tactics in Europe

catenaccio m. (plura; catenacci)
1. a bolt (for a door)
2. a system of defensive play in football

Catenaccio is a tactical playing scheme in the game of football. It consists mostly in a 5-4-1 formation alignment characterized by its propensely defensive attitude.

Under the definition of catenaccio lie a series of modules and tactical schemes that define the main philosophy of the team’s defensive unit. The latter’s mission is essentially that of preventing the opposing team from scoring, an objective which is achieved by closing down (or precisely, “locking” or “bolting”) the area around the team’s own net.

The word ‘catenaccio’ has given origin to the term ‘catenacciaro’ in the Italian language (nowadays almost always employed with negative connotations), which is used to describe a manager or a team who, above all, are dedicated to all-out-defense tactics, to the destruction of the opponent’s plays and the renunciation to construct any type of attacking game, simply in order to prevent opposing strikers from getting a shot on goal.

Source: Italian Wikipedia (translated by Marco Pantanella)

The question all of you are now asking: how on Earth can the term ‘catenaccio‘ be applied to Manchester United? Sure, all they did against Barcelona on Wednesday was defend (hell, even Rooney and Tevez were playing center-backs at times) but the Red Devils are a team also capable of very attractive attacking-style football, a characteristic which they’ve demonstrated many times over in the Premier League this season. So… what gives?

Gazzetta dello Sport website logo

Stefano Cantalupi (the same author of the excellent “English Clubs Dominate Europe… Is Defence the Key to Their Success?” article) has the answer in today’s Gazzetta dello Sport:

MILAN, 24 April 2008 – Roma manager Luciano Spalletti had said it on April 1, as he commented on his team’s defeat in the UEFA Champions’ League Quarter-Finals first leg: “Manchester United beat us 2-0, but they’re even more Italian than we are…“. A clear reference to the mentality shown by Sir Alex Ferguson’s side, victorious at the Stadio Olimpico of Rome through paying close attention to defensive play before launching fast counter-attacks. Last night, the Red Devils repeated the same tactic at Barcelona’s Nou Camp: they shut up shop in front of Van der Sar for most of the game, and allowed the Dutch goalkeeper to keep a clean sheet. In fact, if Cristiano Ronaldo hadn’t missed from the spot, perhaps United would have taken home another away win.

BARRICADESWayne Rooney tracking back as far as the corner flag, Owen Hargreaves playing as right-back, Carlos Tevez battling it out in centre-midfield, Cristiano Ronaldo isolated up front. “Catenaccio” is an obsolete term which no-one uses much any more, but how else to define the tactics chosen by Sir Alex Ferguson (and his loyal deputy Carlos Queiroz) for their trip to Catalonia? With ten men always playing behind the ball, this team looked less like Manchester and more like Rafael Benitez’s first glory-bound Liverpool side, the team which reached the UEFA Champions League final in 2005 and defeated AC Milan in Istanbul (under circumstances all-too-familiar for Rossoneri fans).

ENTERTAINMENT IN THE PREMIERSHIP – However, before talking about Manchester Utd as “catenaccio merchants”, a few points should be made:

  1. Firstly, it is very likely the current Prem champions will play a very different game at Old Trafford next Tuesday, attacking with much more conviction and with the clear objective of scoring goals. This attitude should be greatly amplified, when one considers the added factor of home crowd support.
  2. With respect to traditional catenaccio tactics, Sir Alex Ferguson’s version has evolved: having won back the ball, the Red Devils always seek an immediate and concerted counter-attack, never completely abandoning the offensive. In contrast, catenaccio-style football’s main creed is that of preventing the opponent from scoring, even at the cost of one’s own offensive tactics.
  3. Finally, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Manchester Utd have frequently offered great entertainment this season and that Cristiano Ronaldo & colleagues are capable of playing very attractive football. The problem is that while the red-shirted superstars put on a show in the Premier League, they seem like a different side in Europe.

STATISTICS – Sir Alex got his fingers burnt last season: does the defeat to AC Milan in the Semi-Finals still weigh on his mind? Let’s look at some figures: in the 2006-07 Champions’ League, United had already conceded 10 goals by this point in the competition. This time around they have only conceded 5. Also, the United defence will finish better than last year in the Premier League as well, provided that in the last 3 games of the season they concede less than 8 goals. With players like Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in top condition, this shouldn’t be too hard, should it?

LENIENT PRESS - ‘Negative when playing away, braver at home’ seems to be the dominating characteristic of Man Utd this season. The European press hasn’t criticised the Red Devils’ attitude however. The English tabloids have concentrated only on Cristiano Ronaldo’s unexpected error from the penalty spot, while the Spanish press (including El Mundo Deportivo and Sport, the leading Catalan sports papers) have praised Barcelona and focused on United’s “ordenada defensa” (well-organised defence). Would they have used the same measured tones to describe a similar performance from say… an Italian side? Or would they have talked about “extreme defensiveness”?

Let’s be clear: the Serie A sides were basically failures in this edition of the UEFA Champions’ League, and the quality of the top ranks of English club football is, at the moment, clearly superior. But if even a big side like Manchester Utd resorts to closing down in defense from time to time, shouldn’t it be pointed out? Admitting it with honesty shouldn’t be a problem, perhaps even praise the humility of champions like Rooney, Tevez etc. who are willing to work so hard and sacrifice themselves in uncommon roles. There’s no shame in it, surely?

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Posted in English Premiership, Managers, UEFA Champions League |

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  • 15 Responses to “The Rebirth of Catenaccio, Or: Manchester United’s Tactics in Europe”

    1. SpiralArchitect says:

      Great article! Lots of interesting points raised.

      I think it could go either way. If it works, SAF will just be praised as the ‘great tactician’. If it fails, Man Utd will just be called ‘pussies’ all over again.

      What it comes down to, & i’m using a military turn of phrase here, is that the best warhead always penetrates the best armour. With Barcelona’s attacking options & looking at the number of shots on goal they had in this game, Man Utd need to come out guns blazing to win this thing. No more defensive bullshit. Rijkaard knows this & he’ll probably be preparing for it.

    2. Steve Amoia says:


      Excellent article.

      It is a mark of a great coach and team to adapt their tactics instead of holding firm to a certain style.

      As Carlo Ancelotti said a few years ago, “If you want entertainment, go to the cinema.”

      It is also interesting to note that a French-Argentine, Helenio Herrera, refined Catenaccio to an art form during the 1960s with Internazionale.

    3. Anthony says:

      Nice to see you differentiate between this style and the Premiership, they didn’t win away in the Champions League for a while off memory, did they? Apart from Roma and Lille I think.

      It reminds me of Floyd Mayweather – you always hear him banging on about how versatile and flexible he is to suit opponents and it just reminds me of the differing stances United adopt.

    4. Frankie says:

      United’s ultra-defensive performance was a mistake. They needed to score. A 2-1 defeat would have been as good as 0-0. Either way, a scoring draw at Old Trafford and United are out. United should have tried harder to win the game at the Nou Camp. Barca now have the initiative.

      United need Hargreaves or Anderson in midfield if they are to contest the midfield. Scholes and Carrick are slow-tempo; they don’t play with energy and tempo sufficient to seize the initiative from the opposition. This was apparent against Barca.

      On the other hand, United have to play 3 tough games in 6 days. And I suppose, the players know that they can’t play flat out in all three games.

    5. Tripp says:

      Barca have the advantage in that they’re not playing for a league title as well and facing their competitor away in between the tie matches.

    6. USA - Arsenal says:

      wow wow amazing ima use this on fifa gotta respect the
      italians Juventus Milan Inter all dont over attack play great defensive counter attacking football also maintaining possesion also da forzza azzuri with 4 world cups under there belts

    7. Ian says:

      Anthony, we also beat Sporting and Dynamo Kiev away this season. We drew with Roma in the group stage away with a weakened team with nothing to play for. In fact, Milan last year was the last time we lost away in Europe. In the 6 away games this season we have drawn 3 and won 3, and of course won all the home games.

    8. Neeke says:



    9. Ahmed Bilal says:

      It’s important to dissociate what we ‘want’ to happen versus what ‘will’ happen.

      Now to want United to go gung-ho on Barca’s ass is fine, but no one wants a repeat of the Milan performance either. United, as I discussed here, are different from Liverpool (long-ball hustlers) and Arsenal (sit on the ball a lot). We have our strategies honed against the likes of Liverpool and Arsenal but Barcelona are still foreign territory. Perhaps if we had a different style of playing (and / or if we had a tall center-forward to play off on), the Barca game would have been different.

      As things stand, Fergie bet on playing the counter. It almost came off twice (1 missed penalty and 1 possible penalty that didn’t get called, but no complaints on either). On the other hand, this United side now know that they can hold their own against the best Barcelona had to offer under difficult circumstances.

      Catenaccio worked, but even if it hadn’t worked wishing for something that our team is not capable of is not fair on the manager and the players.

      Oh, and, good stuff Marco :)

    10. colver john says:

      I do not think the tactics were not bad. If we had passed with a bit more fluency and if Tevez had provided better support to Ronaldo we could have gotten something out ofo the game. After all we did have a penalty, and Carrick really should have got an assist if he hadn’t gone for glory. We also had a bunch of free kicks and corners and usually we are good from set pieces.

      I believe the tactics were also influenced by Barca’s formation. Usually they play wide but we shut out the wings cramping their style so they had to mess about in the centre of the field.

      Sure we were a bit lucky. But we are now in the position where all we have to do is win on our home ground. If Man U cannot do that, then they do not deserve to go through.

      I am not sure how Ferguson will play at old trafford. I think 4-4-2 is most likely as 4-3-3 will leave us exposed on the wings. Rooney and Ronaldo will play up top and Hargreaves will play on the right and probably Park again on the left (although i would not mind seeing Anderson playing there). It is going to be pretty impossible to leave Scholes out on the back of his performance at Nou Camp and he does not play that great with Anderson so probably it will be Carrick again.

    11. Fateh says:

      Hmmm…Well..initially i was dissapointed and frustrated at seeing Barcelona with so much possesion..but after a while i realised that they weren’t getting anywhere with it. To be frank barca never realy looked like scoring..their best chance was blasted wide by eto’o and even that would have taken a special finish to beat van der saar from that angle..whereas man united had a missed penalty..2 penalties that should have been given but werent..and a chance where carrick could have crosse for a host of red shirts that were unmarked…the bottomline..manu were too good defensively even for barca’s awesome attacking force..
      But isn’t this a mark of a great team?A defensive fortress with lethal counter attacking ability on one day and the leading exponents of beautiful football on another(are they?this q will be answered tuesday)
      That said…there was some slack passing..indeed we needlessly gave possesion away in many areas.. which was pretty frustrating
      great artile though

    12. Anthony says:


      Fair enough, thanks for pointing that out. The games do ring a bell, 4-2 in Kiev wasn’t it and 1-0 in Sporting, can’t forget Ronaldo.

      It’s probably a bit of a long running stigma the commentators associate with United that’s engrained in my head, to be honest. I’m not a Utd fan myself but I suppose that’s a fair call, just remembered another game at Benfica last term when Saha scored haha how messed up was that analysis!!

    13. Anthony says:

      Btw guys, don’t forget that even though Barca are 2nd or 3rd in la liga at the moment, the line-up they have (not that any respecting football fan could lol).

      Remember THAT Ronaldo hat-trick at OT a few years back? What a classic couple of games those two were, I must find them on DVD, like that cricket one dayer between SA and Aus in 2006! Classic stuff.

    14. Very nice article.good work.
      I would like to say,agreed that Manchester United had defensive tactics(which paid off) but its also important to note here that Barcelona hasn’t been great attacking this season either.In the last 5games,Barcelona have scored 3 and conceded 3(including wins against Schalke 04) and had a goal less game against Espanyol at home,which also had many chances for the Catalans.
      It would be stupid to expect United to adopt the same policy of all out defense at Old Trafford.Manchester United are great at home,unstoppable as their record already states both in the Premiership and in the Champions League.

    15. [...] Alex Ferguson may have been criticized for his overly defensive tactics in Europe, but in the end, who can blame him for his achievements? His team has conceded only 1 goal in the [...]