How Ruud Gullit's 'libero' role at Chelsea rocked the Premier League
In his new book, "The Mixer," Michael Cox looks at the tactical evolution of the Premier League and how the game has developed over the last quarter century. Here, he details Ruud Gullit's sensational arrival in English football.
English football was changed significantly in the mid-1990s, courtesy of the arrival of top-class foreign players who demonstrated the value of different roles, positions and styles, and encouraged managers to think outside the box -- and outside boxy 4-4-2 formations.
A classic example was Ruud Gullit, who was unquestionably one of the greatest players of his generation, having won the Ballon d'Or in 1987 and then captaining the Netherlands to European Championships glory the following year, playing as a No. 10 just behind Marco van Basten.
But in his early teenage years, Gullit was fielded in defence for DWS, a small club in the west of Amsterdam, and was renowned for charging forward on solo runs to turn defence into attack. He turned professional at Haarlem in 1979 and was initially played as a centre-back before being moved up front in his second season, then moved to Feyenoord in 1982, generally fielded on the right wing. Upon joining PSV in 1985, Gullit insisted upon playing his favoured role as a rampaging, attack-minded sweeper, with midfielder Willy van der Kerkhof dropping back to cover. PSV won the league in both of Gullit's seasons at the club and while he sometimes switched to a more attacking role, 46 league goals in two seasons is an extraordinary tally for a player generally deployed at the back.
MICHAEL COX, 'THE MIXER'
In his new book, Michael Cox delves deep into the tactical story of the Premier League and takes a long view of how the game has developed over the last quarter century.
Gullit spent his peak years, between 25 and 33, playing in Serie A, chiefly with Milan where he won three titles and two European Cups under Arrigo Sacchi, who created arguably the greatest four-man defence of all-time: Mauro Tassotti, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini. There was no place in defence for Gullit, who became a world-renowned attacking midfielder instead.
But Gullit always wanted to return to his old sweeper position and in 1995, Glenn Hoddle came calling. Hoddle had been Chelsea's player-manager for the past two seasons, often deploying himself as a sweeper, but realised his playing career was over and wanted to focus on management. Hoddle was a progressive manager who looked outside England for innovations, and, recalling Gullit's performances for PSV earlier in his career, he convinced the Dutchman to join Chelsea and reprise his old role.
"My skills come out better as a sweeper," Gullit announced at his unveiling. This stunned English journalists, who had witnessed Gullit dominating European football as an attacking midfielder, and were accustomed to centre-backs being limited, straightforward destroyers. In the official Premier League sticker album that season, every other Premier League player was listed as "goalkeeper," "defender," "midfielder" or "forward." Gullit, however, was a "libero." He was considered unique.
Gullit started his Chelsea career in that sweeper role but his technically and tactically limited teammates struggled to comprehend his attacking instincts. On his debut, a goalless draw with Everton, Gullit remembers challenging for an aerial ball inside his own box, bringing it down on his chest and then laying the ball sideways to Michael Duberry. He heard two noises: first a gasp of astonishment from the Chelsea fans, and then Duberry screaming "What the f--- are you doing?" after thumping the ball into the stands.
Among that mayhem, Gullit was a revelation -- head and shoulders above any other Premier League centre-back in possession, as one of the world's outstanding technicians playing in a role previously assumed to be purely for "cloggers." Gullit would receive the ball at the back, bring it forward, play a one-two with a midfielder and then find himself between the lines, acting as a number 10. "It was like watching an 18-year-old play among 12-year-olds," as Hoddle put it. Opponents weren't accustomed to the idea of treating opposition defenders as attacking threats, and Gullit always had such time on the ball, with one of Chelsea's midfielders (often Nigel Spackman) playing the "van der Kerkhof" role and dropping back.
Match reports from that 0-0 home draw with Everton demonstrate the extent to which he was revelation. "Gullit brought skills taken for granted in Holland and Italy to the Premiership, where the radar-controlled pass has yet to see off the longbow," read David Lacey's enthusiastic Guardian report. "There were moments when Gullit laid the ball off at angles his new teammates didn't realise existed... he has come to English football as a sweeper, but this is plainly not what he is about."
Frank McGhee's Observer report explored Gullit's position a little further. "He scotched forever the public's image of a sweeper's job," it read. "Too often in the English game, any seasoned defender who can tackle a bit and whack the ball hard gets the job. Gullit proved it demands the most accomplished player in a team."
Chelsea finished in the bottom half that season and Gullit was restricted to 21 appearances in all competitions because of injury. After three months he was usually operating in midfield, primarily because his teammates simply couldn't understand his approach.
"I would take a difficult ball, control it, make space and play a good ball in front of the right-back," Gullit later recalled. "Except that he didn't want that pass. Eventually, Glenn said to me, 'Ruud, it would be better if you do these things in midfield.'" Gullit was, in that sense, light years ahead of his time.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.