WALTER LUTZ is a former editor in chief of the Swiss newspaper Sport. He has been an observer at eleven World Cups and has been awarded the FIFA Order of Merit.
While the WM system can be regarded as the first really thought-out playing system which had its heyday in the 30s, another idea was developing quietly in its shadow. This one was based on quite different principles: a mixture of zone and man-marking was used, and the plan was to retreat into your own half and wait for the opponent, allowing him uncontested possession of midfield. This system was known as the "Bolt".
The "Bolt" developed a certain magical aura, and opinions were divided as to its value, but it soon began to command respect and attract critical attention. It was because the system was neither easy to explain nor to understand that it kept some of its air of mystery. Introduced by Karl Rappan, an Austrian, who was player-manager of Servette Geneva in 1932 and later went on to become Swiss national coach, it was for many, including a number of journalists, a rather sphinx-like creation, a symbol of the enigmatic.
Probably no other system has been accompanied by so many wrong interpretations and misunderstandings, ranging from those that were a bit misleading, to those that were half-correct right up to those that missed the idea completely. All of these would be accompanied by sketches and diagrams, again varying wildly in their degree of accuracy. Many people never understood its basic principles, its raison d'être, or how it functioned, although they were often convinced that they had got it all clearly in mind. There was no shortage of analytical answers to the question, "How do you open the Bolt?"
The original "Bolt"
In its early days the "Bolt" was based on zone-marking. The rearmost players moved into spaces towards the player in possession and "bolted" the door to his progress. Only the two flank players (no. 4 and no. 6) had their "own men" to mark, the opposing wingers. The two central defenders played almost level with each other. The one who was on the side from which an attack was coming would be slightly advanced. The team's offensive midfielder (no. 5) was a key figure who would do an enormous amount of running.
A later variation of the "Bolt"
An innovation was to employ one defender (no. 3) in an advanced position to mark the opposing centre forward with the other lying deeper as the libero (sweeper). The roles of the wing halves were the same. A similarity to the WM system was that now a second midfield runner was used.
A weapon against the professionals
Because Rappan himself was unwilling to talk about the system or to explain it, he consciously did nothing to dispel the mistiness that surrounded his idea. His players had other jobs besides football and could not train like the professionals did, so he looked for a system that was less rigid and less dependent on success in one-on-one encounters than was the WM system. His plan gave the amateurs a chance to compensate to some extent for their lack of athletic skill. The "Bolt" required some mental adaptability and intuition, and gave the players back some of the freedom and responsibility that the tighter, more structured WM system had partly taken away. Here it was team work, collective strength, and compactness, plus using the brain, that would make up for any deficiencies in technique, athleticism or stamina.
There were regional interpretations of the system; for example, there was one version in Brazil, another in Italy ("Catenaccio"), another in Germany. It underwent further development from the orthodox or three-back version which was a pre-cursor of the 4-2-4, or Brazilian system that was seen during the 1958 FIFA World Cup. This all led the sporting press to print a lot of material even after World War II, trying to pin-point the origins of the system and its inventor; many a "learned" article was published on the subject, but of course none of the coaches for whom the innovation was claimed had taken out a patent, so no proof for any claim was forthcoming. Even Helenio Herrera liked it to be thought that he was its originator.
The advocates of this system always had to defend themselves against those who decried it as a purely defensive system. The critics said that the name itself proved their case. A bolt is basically there to lock things up. Bolts are found on doors and doors are made to protect what is behind them - in this case the goal - and to prevent unwanted access. But the name "Bolt", in this sense of having to do with a solidly defensive operation did not quite capture the whole idea of this system.
Bolting the defence did not mean simply putting up a complete all-round barrier like a hedgehog. And the name was not given by its originator but only later, about 1938, by a journalist. His aim was to give a designation to this system to distinguish it from others, and the choice was rather accidental. And what an attacking team was presented with as it moved forward was less of a solid block that they would run into, but rather a refined network that was arranged so as to entrap or entangle them.
Teams that understood how to set up the "Bolt" effectively started to be successful against apparently superior British teams. Any system can be applied or interpreted in an offensive or a defensive manner.
Even in the case of the "Bolt", which depended on quick counter-attacks, there could be six or even seven players going forward at an opportune moment.
Zone and man-marking
Both the WM and the "Bolt" system were to be found in football until the 60s, so what were the significant differences between the two? These were to be seen in the grouping of players, in the manner in which the defence was organised, how the game developed and also in the demands made on the players. In contrast to the WM system, which was established first, and was based totally on man-marking in every area of the pitch (the French described it neatly as "marquage individuel", or if they wanted to poke fun when things were getting too serious "marquage à la culotte" - sticking to the opponent's shorts), the "Bolt" system employed a mixture of zone and man-marking. Another way in which the systems differed was that in the WM system each player would have a definite and limited area of responsibility, in the "Bolt" system a closer harmony with the rest of the team would be required. Or to put it more mathematically, the WM system would have ten individual duels going on one against one, while the "Bolt" would have one against ten - one interlinked defensive block against ten attackers.
The "Bolt" relied for its success on perfect teamwork. It demanded strict adherence to the plan and discipline, but also a degree of flexibility. The two outer-backs were now "runners" rather than defenders since they also took important parts in attacking moves, and they were among the key players in the system. They were also the only man-markers. Their task was to put pressure on the opposing wingers as soon as they got the ball, and not to let them get into the game. This would force an opponent to try to attack down the centre. The two defenders - rather like the two centre backs of today's 4-4-2 - would play almost level with each other in the middle of the defence.
A key player under the "Bolt" system - in fact often the decisive factor in a match - was the central runner, who according to the state of the game would have to act as a midfielder, a defender or an attacker. This was a role that demanded lots of running and consequently a great deal of stamina. Part of the job would be to cover space so that the central trio of the opposing team would be forced to try to pass the ball, to offer defensive resistance to them at all times and to keep an eye on them in general. He could not afford to be outplayed. On the attack he would also get his team moving forward from the back and go with them as they moved forward. The secret of the "Bolt" was for this player, since the opposing wingers were tightly marked, to force the opponent to play a close passing game across the pitch in midfield. The "Bolt" team would pull back into its own penalty area without wasting any energy on pressing tactics. But once there they would present a solid front to the opponent, by having their own midfielders and defenders into positions that would give them numerical superiority wherever it was needed, left or right. Thus it became very difficult to get in behind the defence.
No fighting for midfield supremacy
A major difference between the "Bolt" system and those practised today, where space is made tight in midfield by defenders coming forward, was that the "Bolt" team simply let the opponent take charge in midfield. This tended to upset an attacking team and made them play a series of square passes. While the possession of the ball gave the impression that the attackers were on top, they were often not going anywhere, rarely created a scoring opportunity and frequently even failed to capitalise when a gap did arise in the defence.
This apparent supremacy, which was not leading to success in terms of attempts on goal, was hard for some of the fans to take, since they were unable to discern the reasons why their team were no longer scoring goals. They began to get impatient and gave vent to their feelings by whistling, jeering, etc. But one thing that did become clear relatively quickly was that the widespread notion that midfield dominance was essential, based on the WM system's earlier success, was no longer valid.
A disadvantage of the "Bolt" was that the demands made on the individual players within a team were very different. While the midfield runner had to have the stamina of a marathon man in order to cover the ground that was expected, all the others had a much lighter load.
The libero and the two runners
This uneven balance led to variations and corrections in the course of time, the aim being to spread the work load more evenly and to stabilise the centre of the defence.
The first modification was that the midfield runner, who until then had been working himself to death in the middle trying to cover all three of the opponent's midfield players, got help. One of the inside forwards who had the skills for the job would drop back and now two players would be operating in this role, one left, one right.
Another innovation was that the two central defenders did not play flat any more for most of the game. One of them would play somewhat forward, like the stopper in the WM system, while the other would be clearly deeper and without a direct opponent. He became a sort of reserve or covering defender. To be successful in this position a player had to be quick off the mark, agile, athletic, and decisive, as well as having good overview.
He had to read the game quickly, direct his defence, and be ready to take action himself if the defensive line was penetrated. Various terms were coined to describe this position: e.g. "fireman" or "sweeper", but the one that was most appropriate was "libero".
Even within this role there were very widely different interpretations. After World War II and even for a long time afterwards there were liberos who hardly ever went outside their own half. There were others who restricted themselves more or less to their penalty area, guarding it like a watchdog, while a third version was for players who took the fact that they had no direct opponent to mark too far and in fact did very little - earning themselves the name of "armchair liberos". Almost no other position has seen so many different interpretations over the years, constructed either by the player himself or by the coach.
It was a long time before coaches recognised that with one player staying well back there would be a shortage of a man in midfield. Then the libero began, as in the early days of the "Bolt" and as became the norm in a 4-4-2 system, to play once again level with the other central defender. Later he began to appear in front of the defence. Franz Beckenbauer, with his eye for the game and his pin-point passing, which enabled him to spot an opportunity and take advantage of it with laser-beam accuracy, was the man who brought a new meaning to the role of the free defender. He would be found in midfield ready to take a pass, or even act as playmaker himself, winning his team numerical supremacy in midfield, or sometimes he would even turn up in attack.
After the breakthrough of the 4-4-2, it seemed during the 80s that the libero was dead. But during the 1990 World Cup, 17 of the 24 teams had a player in this role.