The evolution of a ‘libero’ in modern football

The world's adoration of defenders hasn't matched up to that for strikers. Times are changing though, as is the place for a libero in contemporary football.

A German international, Klaus Augenthaler was the most successful player at one point in Bundesliga history, with seven championship titles to his name.   -  Getty Images

For decades, strikers and midfielders have enjoyed much of the attention and fame in football — be it for their skillful and acrobatic strikes or jaw-dropping and well-orchestrated moves on the field. There is no denying that the world’s finest attackers deserve the praise. However, the adoration of defenders hasn’t been the same.

When FIFA came up with the Player of the Century award in 2000, legends Pele and Diego Maradona were adjudged winners. Maradona won based on Internet votes, while Pele was the pick of journalists, coaches and FIFA officials.

A look at the 20 shortlisted candidates shows that only two out of the 20 names were defenders — Franz Beckenbauer and Lothar Matthaus, who played as a sweeper in the latter part of his career. Beckenbauer received 1.50 percent of the votes online and Matthaus had 0.37 percent. Maradona had a huge 53.60 percent to his name.

Things, though, have improved since.

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Defenders often don't get the adoration strikers do. However, times are changing, as is the defender's role in the field. The accolades and stature coming Virgil Van Dijk's way point to this very shift in perception.   -  Getty Images

 

In 2019, mighty centre-back Virgil van Dijk from the Netherlands, beat Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to be named the UEFA Player of the Year, becoming the first defender to win the award. The Dutchman is also a leading contender for this year's Ballon D'or, which has not been given to a defender since Italy's Fabio Cannavaro triumphed in 2006.

Clubs no longer hesitate to break the bank for defenders — be it Manchester United spending a world-record €87 million to rope in Harry Maguire at the heart of defence, or van Dijk moving to Anfield for a hefty price tag of €84.65 million, becoming the most expensive defender in 2018.

The role of a defender has thus become crucial much like the 1970s when Franz Beckenbauer led both Germany and Bayern Munich forward from his position as a libero. Centre-backs today are again expected to lead from the back — as explained by Klaus Augenthaler, a well-known German defender of the 1980s.

“We don’t have a position of a libero anymore but nowadays the defenders in the middle, they are the leaders of the defence. Even though the position is not called a libero [today], the role is kind of similar — you need to be the leader of defence,” said Augenthaler, who was in Mumbai on an invite from Hafele India.

“When I played as a libero, I was the last man in defence but today with two centre-backs, the role sometimes switches. Basically, now we have two centre-backs filling that role, depending on the [nature] of the match and where the opponent is coming from — which would demand the defenders to be flexible and switch [roles] with the one who is the last man in defence,” he added.

A German international, Augenthaler was the most successful player at one point in Bundesliga history, with seven championship titles to his name.

But he is fondly remembered for his defensive duties — more for his role of a classic ‘libero’.

What does a libero do?

A libero is a versatile centre-back who sweeps up the ball if the opponent manages to break the defensive line. He sits behind the defence, adding extra security and improving the passing out of the backline.


‘Auge’, as he was also known, played as the last man in defence as a classic libero.

According to him, the role of a libero in modern football has changed a lot. With increasing pace of the game and the defenders no longer focusing on marking one player (the striker in this case), the libero’s role has evolved.

“The role of libero’s evolution is related to the changes in football. The game has become quicker. Earlier, there was one player in front of the centre-back who would follow the striker all the time. His duty was to be with the striker but now as the game has changed, the focus is on protecting the space. The defence no longer focuses on marking a single-player [striker], their priority is to protect the space,” he explained.

Augenthaler, 62, spent close to 22 years at Bayern Munich, first as a player and later in the roles of a youth team coach, a caretaker-manager,  and an assistant coach. Having dedicated his entire playing career to the Bavarians, Auge shares a close bond with the German giant.

Things aren't favourable for Bayern at present, which is third in the Bundesliga standings. Niko Kovac’s men were handed their first league defeat of the season by Hoffenheim in their last match, at home.

Despite Bayern's rough start to the season, Auge backs the side to win the league. “The start of the Bundesliga was quite okay apart from the last home defeat. I am quite sure Dortmund and Bayern will fight for the championship as both have high chances, though I’m confident Bayern will win it in the end,” he said.

Augenthaler, who mentored 18 girls, shortlisted by Premier India Football Academy (PIFA) in a ‘Masterclass’ last week, said he followed women’s football in Germany and praised the level of the women’s game.

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Augenthaler mentored 18 girls, shortlisted by Premier India Football Academy (PIFA) in a ‘Masterclass’ last week. The German legend says he enjoys following women's football in Germany.   -  Special Arrangement

“I followed the Women’s World Cup (2019) and have watched a few matches in full length. For example, the [round of 16] match between France and Brazil — I thought it was at a very high level.

"The game was different from men’s football but the level was very high. We do have professional leagues for women footballers in Germany, and the level of women’s football there is very high.”

As for men’s football in Germany, the national team under Joachim Low has been fighting for a place in the EUROs next year. It is second in Group C behind Netherlands, and is not a favourite to win the European championship, according to Augenthaler.

“Germany is not one of the favourite teams for EURO 2020 because of the changes made in the team, as several young players were brought in. I see this as an advantage for Germany,” he said. When asked about Germany’s odds for the 2022 World Cup, he added, “There’s quite some time for the youngsters in the team to develop, so we shall see what happens in Qatar!”

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