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The History of Numbers: Italy

The History of Numbers: Italy

  • We are indebted to Matteo of Jersey Vice for his help in providing information and insight – we would highly recommend perusing the site with the aid of your translation tool of choice

Previously, we have covered how Italy would number their squads in positional blocks at major tournaments, a practice that was kept in use until the 1998 World Cup.

In ‘normal time’ back in the 1-11 days, Italy were unique among the major continental European countries in that, like England, number 5 tended to be partnered by 6 at the back whereas it was usually 4 and 5 in France, Germany and Spain.

Essentially, it stemmed from the move from the W-M formation (right) to the famous Catenaccio (‘chain’ or ‘door-bolt’) in the 1950s. The Catenaccio (left) was essentially a 1-3-3-3, with a sweeper (or libero) operating behind the three-man defence. As Matteo explains:

Catenaccio had a large influence on the numbering for future years. The two W-M half-backs moved centrally, one as the libero and the other as the defensive midfielder. Normally 6, was assigned to the first and 4 to the second (although it could be reversed). The midfielder (4) acted as a dam in front of the defence. The libero (6) instead was the joker and the key to the game. His function was to close the attackers, once they had skipped their direct marker but also bringing the ball out of defence and into midfield. Franco Baresi was a perfect example.

However, as tactics developed elsewhere in Europe, Italian clubs and the national team found themselves being overtaken and the Catenaccio evolved into the Zona Mista (‘mixed zone’), seen on the right. Again, Matteo outlines the shifting of the numbers.

Number 2 became the second marker, who dealt with the second attacker, while 5 is the stopper who took care of the centre-forward. The 4 instead took care of marking the 10 opponent, normally the most talented and source of the game. The 3 and 7 played accordingly. In the sense that with the centralization of the 2 marking, the 7 was forced to fall back on defence (in fact it is called il tornante or ‘hairpin’). Following the movement of the 7 opponent, the 3 had more space to attack, like Giacinto Facchetti of Inter.

In Italy, practically until the arrival of Sacchi, all the teams played like this. Italy at the 1990 World Cup had Bergomi and Ferri in the marking, Maldini pushing left, Donadoni making the right hairpin and De Napoli making the fourth (even if more moved to the right to better cover Donadoni). Berti-Giannini in the middle of the field and Carnivale-Vialli first, Baggio-Schillaci then on offence, with Carnivale-Baggio which often dropping towards the midfield.

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The History of Numbers: Italy