• Mohamed Salah celebrates a goal with his Liverpool teammates (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
It was once a detested playing system that drew universal howls of disapproval yet the counter-attack has once again become the most potent weapon in modern football.
Philip Micallef

1 Feb 2021 - 11:56 AM  UPDATED 1 Feb 2021 - 11:56 AM

More than half a century after Helenio Herrera’s Internazionale won two European Cups with a controversial catenaccio style that was based on a crowded defence and lightning-fast breaks, the counter-attack is back in favour with a vengeance.

Which of course means that possession and the traditional way of attacking are now less important than they were, say, 10 or even five years ago.

In the mid-1960s, Inter used to entice teams to attack them in away matches by putting eight or nine men behind the ball and wait for the right moment to strike.

Many of their opponents used to be sucked into all-out attack which often left their defence exposed to a 40-metre pass from playmaker Luis Suarez and a finish from Sandro Mazzola or Jair.

The purists of the game - particularly those from northern European countries - hated this system because it was deemed to be negative and cynical. It was destroying football, they claimed.

Yet many coaches around the world tried to emulate Herrera's tactics with little or no success.

Herrera, of course, could not care any less about his critics as long as he brought trophies to the co-tenants of the San Siro.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Herrera once told me. “Some people like to travel in planes, others in horse-drawn carriages.”

Catenaccio and the ‘counter’ gradually became outdated and were replaced by other forms of attack such as the total football game devised by Ajax and the Dutch, and later the tiki-taka system perfected by Barcelona and Spain.

The ‘counter’ never really disappeared - Manchester United and Juventus at their peak and more recently Manchester City used it incredibly well when they needed to - but today it seems to have become far more prevalent among the game’s thinkers.

This is not to suggest that catenaccio is back, far from it. Thank goodness for that.

But many teams will gladly sit back and concede possession for a period of time and wait for the right moment to pounce and catch the opposition’s defence unattended.

The idea of a counter-attack is to exploit spaces, making it easier for forwards to create scoring chances.

As the old saying goes, it’s what you do with the ball that counts and not how long you have it for.

Barcelona, for all their ability to hold on to the ball seemingly forever, have been caught out many times the last few years by teams that opted to absorb pressure then pick their moment to attack a depleted and wide open defence.

Liverpool’s second goal in a 3-1 victory at West Ham United on Monday perfectly illustrated the point.

Midway into the second half, the Reds jumped into a two-goal lead with a sumptuous strike… straight from a West Ham corner kick. 

The ball was headed out to Trent Alexander-Arnold who, from just outside his penalty area, hit a diagonal long pass into space for Xherdan Shaqiri on the left, who promptly transferred the ball across to Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian star took a touch before deftly steering the ball into the net.

It was the kind of goal that takes your breath away and rips the heart out of any team… and all this took place 14 seconds after the Hammers’ corner was taken. Amazing.

How can you stop such a move when it is played so effectively and with such surgical precision?

No wonder more and more teams are making the counter-attack the cornerstone of their game, whether they are playing at home or away.

This is an interesting development in the game’s evolution. 

Which goes to show that if it is unwise to be too conservative and dwell on past strategies in the pursuit of success, revisiting history and tweaking old patterns to the modern demands can be just as rewarding.