Helenio Herrera: The Innovator Who Single-Handedly Changed the Beautiful Game

Helenio Herrera is number eight in 90min’s Top 50 Great Managers of All Time series. Follow the rest of the series over the course of the next two weeks.

?It’s a strange idea now, but football managers rarely used to get the credit for the success of the teams they were in charge of.

Helenio Herrera changed that. The trailblazing Argentine revolutionised the art of coaching, implementing psychological techniques and professionalising his squads in an era that cared little for proper conditioning and preparation.

European Cup Final

The powerful words of wisdom he used to ready his troops for battle are now somewhat overused and rather cliché, but at the time they were unheard of. Stimulating slogans decorated the training grounds, drip-feeding confidence and self-belief into the players.

Evidently, Herrera’s idiosyncratic methods worked. During his distinguished managerial career, the former defender collected four ?La Liga titles – two apiece with ?Barcelona and ?Atletico Madrid – whilst also winning ?Serie A thrice with ?Inter. However, the crowning achievement of his reign at San Siro is undoubtedly the back-to-back European Cups he claimed in 1964 and 1965.

Career Honours

La Liga (1950, 1951, 1959, 1960)?
?Copa Eva Duarte (1950)
?Copa del Rey (1959, 1981)
?Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (1958, 1960)
?Serie A (1963, 1965, 1966)
?European Cup (1964, 1965)
?Coppa Italia (1969)
?Italian Football Hall of Fame (2015)

After beginning his life in the dugout with four trophyless years in France, the eccentric pioneer took charge of Spanish outfit Real Valladolid. He would stay in Pucela for a mere season, kick-starting the nomadic trend that characterised his time as a manager.

Herrera arrived at Valladolid in 1948, yet by 1953 he had already began his fifth job in Spain as he entered the fray at Sevilla. A triumphant hat-trick of campaigns at Atletico was followed by some quieter years at Malaga and Deportivo de La Coruña, before he made his move to Andalusia.

A brief tenure with Belenenses of Portugal preceded two glorious seasons with European giants Barcelona, where the divisive tactician delivered an incredible six trophies, including a pair of Copa del Rey and league triumphs, respectively.

Unfortunately, a disagreement with La Blaugrana superstar Ladislao Kubala saw Herrera depart Catalonia, eventually settling in Milan. In contrasting fashion to his time at other clubs, he remained with the Nerazzurri for a sustained period, earning the adoration and respect of supporters and players, alike.

“He was light years ahead. He used to train our brains before our legs. When he came to Italy, nobody really knew the names of the coaches – he turned things around.”

– Former Inter midfielder Sandro Mazzola (?UEFA.com)

It was here that he tinkered with, and finally perfected, the famous Catenaccio style of play, an approach that fuelled an eight-season-long era of dominance for the illustrious Italians. This system, featuring a heavy emphasis on defence, would change the face of football in the country forever.

Herrera’s standard formation at Inter was 5-3-2, with four man-marking defenders and a single sweeper combining to stifle opposition moves and restrict their freedom on the ball. However, the coach made a pivotal alteration to Catenaccio that separated him from his counterparts who were also utilising the tactic.

Herrera ensured there was greater flexibility for counter-attacks in his side, in the process creating a formidable team that was equally capable of suffocating opponents and putting them to the sword.

Intriguingly, he was also handed the reins for both the Spanish and Italian national sides and different points during his Milanese adventure, though he was unable to work the kind of wonders he produced with Inter.

‘Il Mago’ – as he was affectionately dubbed – is often described as the original Jose Mourinho, the man that the ex-?Manchester United boss stole his act off of; his comments in the build up to the 1967 European Cup final go some way to explaining why.

Herrera boastfully said of opponents Celtic: “I doubt whether they would beat us in the final in Lisbon. After all, we only need one goal.” The Scots won 2-1. Talk about hubris.

Though his psychological warfare failed against the Bhoys at the Estadio Nacional, the naturalised-Frenchman used it to brilliant effect throughout his career, propelling him into the public eye in a manner never before seen with other coaches. Journalists hailed him as one of the finest minds in football, whilst teams the world over sought his services.

It took a record-breaking contract offer from Roma to lure him away from San Siro, the Giallorossi making the 58-year-old the highest-paid manager in the history of football with a deal worth approximately £150,000 annually.

Teams Managed

Puteaux (1944-45)?
?Stade Francais (1945-48)
?Real Valladolid (1948-49)
?Atletico Madrid (1949-52)
?Malaga (1952)
?Deportivo de La Coruna (1953)
?Sevilla (1953-57)
?Belenenses (1957-58)
?Barcelona (1958-1960)
?Inter (1960-68)
?Italy (1966-67)
?Roma (1968-70)
?Inter (1973-74)
?Rimini (1978-79)
?Barcelona (1979-1981)

Despite delivering the Coppa Italia in his first campaign in the capital, relations with club president Albaro Marchini went south following the tragic death of striker Giuliano Taccola inside the team’s dressing room during an away match at Cagliari.

The next term, Marchini was merely waiting for an excuse to sack the man he had tried so desperately to bring to Rome, eventually using the side’s indifferent form during the 1969-70 season to justify Herrera’s dismissal.

A short-lived, somewhat forgettable year back at Inter came off the back of his Roma exit, though a heart attack forced a four-year hiatus from the game. He would soon return to another old flame, this time travelling back to Barça. That sojourn was similarly brief.

Herrera died in 1997 at the age of 87, later being inducted into the Italian Football Hall of Fame and receiving lofty praise from countless fans, clubs and news outlets.

We’ve been beaten before, but never defeated. Tonight we were defeated.

– Helenio Herrera

Thus, the sun set on a lifelong love affair with football, though the iconic manager’s influence is still felt today. For example, he popularised the notion of calling upon a ’12th Man’, though this indirectly led to the formation of groups of ‘Ultras’.

A colourful, unique, trend-setting character, Herrera revelled in the limelight, proved beyond doubt his immense talents and transformed the way the beautiful game is played.

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