Game Changers: Arrigo Sacchi & AC Milan
Arrigo Sacchi led AC Milan to successive European Cups in 1989 and 1990. "I didn't do it because I wanted to write history," he later recalled. "I did it because I wanted to give 90 minutes of joy to people."
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
"The only way you can build a side is by getting players who speak the same language and can play a team game," Arrigo Sacchi once said. "You can't achieve anything on your own, and if you do, it doesn't last long. I often quote what Michelangelo said: 'The spirit guides the hand.'"
It's difficult to imagine any Premier League manager using the greatest artist of the High Renaissance as an inspiration, but blowing away the conventional wisdoms of Italian football was never going to be achieved through pussy-footing around. Sacchi did not just rip up the rulebook – he had the good grace to write an updated version.
Sacchi was a visionary. His methods weren't just seen as unusual, but erring on the side of madness. One of his unorthodox training methods was 'shadow play', where his squad would play an entire training match without a ball. The goalkeeper would start with an imaginary ball, and the team play out different scenarios according to the manager's instructions.
There is a wonderful anecdote about a scout who went to spy on Milan training before an important match early in Sacchi's reign, and observed this game played without a ball. When he explained it to his manager, they both laughed at such a bizarre approach. Milan duly won the fixture and kept a clean sheet. The opposition laughed no more.
Most of all, Sacchi was an obsessive. "An Italian poet wrote: 'Without obsession, there is no art.' With a little, you get a little," as Sacchi himself put it. His last full managerial job – at Parma in 2001 – lasted just 23 days, after which he was forced to resign and retire with a stress-related illness. 'Suona un campanello d'allarme' – The alarm bells are ringing.
It is hard to imagine a more influential coach in the history of the game (save perhaps Rinus Michels). Sacchi remained stoic in the face of disbelief and distrust from high-profile players and peers. Only by remaining loyal to his own vision could he help Milan achieve football enlightenment. By May 1990, any footballer in the world would have eaten out of Sacchi's hand.
"Our president had a dream," Sacchi says. "He wanted to build the best team in the world. When I arrived, I found a group of great professionals who were eager to win, but only by playing the most spectacular football."
From selling shoes in Fusignano just to feed his family to the very zenith of football coaching in 15 years, Sacchi became one of the icons of football management. If Silvio Berlusconi – Milan's larger-than-life owner – had the dream, as Sacchi says, he found the perfect manager to make it reality.
In 1987, Milan were in a rut. The Totonero match-fixing scandal of 1980 had relegated them to Serie B, the club's own ineptitude repeating that relegation in 1982 after re-promotion. They had failed to finish in Serie A's top five in any of the past six seasons.
Four years later, they had won consecutive European Cups. A club had been reborn, a legacy established. Retaining the European Cup has now become the unreachable dream. Since 1980, only one manager and one club has achieved the feat: Arrigo Sacchi and Milan.
Berlusconi's name may now be synonymous with controversy, scandal and bunga bunga parties, but the media tycoon's takeover of Milan in 1986 was a vital moment in the club's success. Sacchi was the perfect protagonist, while Berlusconi – and his wealth – provided the ideal stage on which to perform the production.
Berlusconi's decision to sack Niels Liedholm and recruit Sacchi was a masterstroke, but also a significant gamble. Although he had achieved success in Serie C1 and Serie B with Parma, Sacchi had never before managed in the top flight. Beating Milan twice in the Coppa Italia had proved to be the ideal interview; it soon became clear that he was the perfect candidate.
When with the ball, Milan were hugely exciting. Sacchi preferred to build with short, quick passes, creating space which was then exploited to the maximum. In Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten, the Rossoneri had a strikeforce capable of scoring every type of goal. Frank Rijkaard pulled the strings behind them, the third member of the magnificent Dutch trio arriving after the 1988 Scudetto. Carlo Ancelotti and Roberto Donadoni played supporting roles.
There is a strange dichotomy to Milan's reputation under Sacchi. They were renowned as an exciting, entertaining team, yet it was their work without the ball that is most famous. As soon as they lost possession, Sacchi demanded that his players press as a unit, operating with an extremely high defensive line. In contrast to other Italian teams, Milan defended using a zonal marking system and aimed to regularly play an offside trap.
There is a misconception that a pressing style, particularly in the present day, demands huge physical fitness. That was rejected by Sacchi: "Pressing is not about running and it's not about working hard, it's about controlling space." Force the opposition to pass where you want them to. Control was the key to success.
It was spectacularly effective. In Sacchi's first season, Milan scored more top-flight goals than they had for eight seasons. The next year, they scored 61 times, a 15-year high. A backline of Mauro Tassotti, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini formed perhaps the greatest defence in club football history, each comfortable on the ball and capable of astoundingly consistent positional discipline. Milan conceded 14 times in the 1987/88 league season to clinch their first Scudetto in almost a decade. In 10 knockout European Cup matches from the quarter-finals onwards in 1989 and 1990, they allowed only three goals.
It's important to note just how difficult Serie A was to win during Sacchi's time in Milan, arguably the toughest domestic competition in the history of the game. Diego Maradona and Careca at Napoli, Zbigniew Boniek and Rudi Voller at Roma, Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli at Sampdoria, Enzo Scifo and Giuseppe Bergomi at Internazionale, Roberto Baggio at Fiorentina, Michael Laudrup at Juventus. After Milan won the league, city rivals Inter signed both Andreas Brehme and Lothar Matthaus to try and bridge the gap.
It was the first of Milan's European Cup victories, in May 1989, that best stands the test of time. Following 11 consecutive finals won by a single-goal margin at most, Sacchi's team swept aside Steaua Bucharest at Barcelona's Camp Nou stadium with style, winning 4-0. Steaua had not lost a domestic game for three years, and the final was expected to be tight. No team has ever won the European Cup by a greater margin. Sacchi and his team were kings.
In fact, Milan's semi-final victory over Real Madrid was their iconic performance. Madrid were about to secure the fourth of five straight La Liga titles, and had gone 27 league games without defeat. Having been unfortunate to only draw the away leg in Spain 1-1, the Rossoneri crushed Real 5-0 in the home leg, with five different goalscorers. It was a defining night not just for Milan, but for Italian football.
While the European Cup could be viewed as easier to win than in the current Champions League format, Milan were not the beneficiaries of fortunate draws. In gaining and regaining the competition, they eliminated Real Madrid (twice), Bayern Munich, Werder Bremen, Red Star Belgrade and Steaua Bucharest. In the second final, against Sven-Goran Eriksson's Benfica, a Rijkaard goal was enough to secure triumph.
Sacchi was never likely to be a long-term manager at Milan. He lacked the ambition to build a dynasty and the the desire to rebuild the team. He was outspoken and stubborn, a strict disciplinarian and brutally hard taskmaster. His personality, eternally divisive, eventually cost him his job; he fell out with Van Basten and lost out in the game of 'him vs me'. The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.
Yet his Milan side exists not just in the past, but in the present. Hallmarks of Sacchi's work can be found in Pep Guardiola's Bayern and Barcelona, Jurgen Klopp's Dortmund, Jose Mourinho's Porto. Speaking in 2012, Xavi paid homage: "We are incredibly proud when they compare us with Sacchi's Milan. That was a side which made history in football."
More immediately, Sacchi left his imprint on that great Milan side. Keeping the same formation, successor Fabio Capello won three consecutive league titles and another European Cup. Capello's first Scudetto was secured without defeat, only the second team in Serie A history to achieve that record.
Sacchi's great Milan team may only have spanned four years, but its legacy is undoubted. They will be remembered not just as winners, but as revolutionaries and entertainers. Their manager would not have had it any other way.
"I didn't do it because I wanted to write history," Sacchi recalls. "I did it because I wanted to give 90 minutes of joy to people. I wanted that joy to come not from winning, but from being entertained, from witnessing something special."
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