This feature is part of The Masterminds
He came as a former shoe salesman, left as a legend, and rewrote calcio’s tactical rulebook along the way. He coined some of the greatest quotes in managerial history, brought a number of the game’s most coveted winners’ medals back to his tiny hometown of Fusignano and inspired a generation of coaches to realise their inventive dreams and calculate their way to success.
There are few managers with a legacy as imposing and far-reaching as that of Italian maestro Arrigo Sacchi. Through all his media furores, borderline racist comments and run-ins with authorities, Sacchi took an ailing AC Milan side and helped it become arguably the greatest in modern football history.
It’s staggering, then, to think that Sacchi had never managed in Serie A when he shook hands with Silvio Berlusconi and accepted the challenge at the San Siro.
It all started in Fusignano as a teenager watching the brilliant Budapest Honvéd sides of Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis and József Bozsik. The energy deployed by the Hungarians was in complete contrast to the laboured, meticulous phases of play in the Italian game at the time. Their mental strength and character spoke to Sacchi far more than their outstanding results.
Indeed, although Catenaccio was still a decade or so away from acclaimed success under Helenio Herrera at Inter – despite Nereo Rocco’s Padova succeeding with the system – the domestic game was a sluggish affair, despite the outstanding number of flair players dominating the scene. Italy was producing talent; they just couldn’t blend that talent with a style that inspired the fans.
A student of the game – like so many great managers over the era – Sacchi was instantly won over by the brilliance of Real Madrid in the late 1950s and believed that Italian football could be transformed with high pressing, speed on the counter and steel at the back. Later, his dream would become a reality.
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For now, plying his trade at local club Fusignano and selling shoes to keep food on the table was enough. Fifteen years in northern Italy yielded little in the advancement of his playing career. It was during this period, in the late 1970s, that Sacchi began to look towards coaching as a full-time option.
His ideas were radical at the time. Sacchi believed that pressing in a 4-4-2 was possible, that shape could be retained and that overloading in key areas of the pitch through his full-backs would yield possession and control of the game. It was too much, too complicated even, for a small club like Bellaria, with whom Sacchi was enjoying a two-year stint.
Eventually, Sacchi hung up his boots – and his shoes – to pursue a managerial career at provincial side Baracca Lugo. Having already worked with the youth teams, where his zonal marking, inventive and high tempo methods had proved to be a success, the club decided to hire Sacchi in the hope that he would guide them out of the lower leagues.
It was a period in his career that Sacchi defines as a “learning experience”. Like most young managers early on in their career – Sacchi was only 26 when he took the Baracca role – the pressure of dealing with players older than himself was tough. “My goalkeeper was 29 and my centre-forward was 32. I had to win them over.”
Man-management skills learned at Baracca would return to the fore and help Sacchi gel his Milan side in later years. For now, however, he was a nobody; a man with great dreams and great ideas but precious little experience.
At the time in Italy, few managers had such little playing experience. The overwhelming perception was that they knew less about the game; one that was prevalent across Europe. This would prove to be a challenge for Sacchi early on until Parma came calling in 1985.
Having spent time as a youth team coach at Fiorentina, where his zonal marking ideas were considered risk free in a domestic game dominated by tight man-marking and his ability to galvanise and motivate young players a bonus, Parma, in Serie C1 at the time, believed the 36-year-old was the inspiration needed to return to the professional leagues. It was a challenge that Sacchi faced head-on.
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Parma represented the final step in the progression of Sacchi from underwhelming player to visionary manager. It also gave him the chance to refine his coaching philosophy on the training pitch with players of relative quality.
Sacchi immediately instilled his philosophy of ‘Universality’ – that players should be comfortable operating in a number of positions and equipping themselves with the skills to play almost anywhere on the pitch. He had already enjoyed success with these methods with youth team players at Fiorentina and as manager of Rimini, who he regularly rotated during games and asked to become “complete footballers”.
It was one thing coaching young players with so much to learn; it was another convincing senior players to adapt their game to suit this wildly different style. The pressing had to be done in blocks with covering support, the counter-attacking had to be at five to six metres per second, and the possession needed to be efficiently used to penetrate the opposition at the earliest moment possible.
At Parma it was largely a success. The Gialloblu romped their way to the Serie C1 title and then came within three points of Serie A the following season. Their gusto in the pressing phase was the talk of supporters up and down Serie B.
For Sacchi, his big break would come in the Coppa Italia against Milan. Twin defeats of Berlusconi’s Rossoneri would send shockwaves through the San Siro and see the media mogul approach Sacchi with a view to appointing him as manager in 1987. He duly accepted and, facing a tidal wave of challenges in Milan, he set about refining his philosophy to make AC Milan the greatest club side in the world.
Of the countless challenges facing Sacchi in Lombardy, the greatest was perhaps the notion that he was still a nobody, with no playing experience and little chance of managing the big names at the San Siro. Later, dismissing the idea that only former players make good coaches, Sacchi famously said: “I never realised that to be a jockey you had to be a horse first.”
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He inherited Italian greats in Franco Baresi and Mauro Tassotti, future ones in Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Costacurta, and two Dutch masters in Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten. The challenge was to manage his stars, to bring them on board – just like it had been at Baracca Lugo 12 years earlier.
To compound matters, he was following in the footsteps of Fabio Capello and the great Nils Liedholm, managers that had failed to win a trophy during their stint in red and black. Success would only be tangible in the form of silverware.
Sacchi’s initial work at Milan on the training pitch focused on a coaching style now popular across the game, one he termed ‘shadow play’. It involved players working as a unit, often without the ball, keeping their shape and changing their role according to what the opposition was predicted to do.
A great story from the time emerged later. It was said that a scout from an opponent had hidden in the bushes at the Milanello training ground and spied on Sacchi’s early sessions. Upon reporting back to his club’s manager, he explained that Sacchi had the players working on shape … but without a ball. Sensing his staff member had gone crazy, the manager asked him to leave and continued his preparations for the game. They lost, and Milan kept a clean sheet.
Despite being a self-professed disciplinarian, Sacchi also believed in the power of harbouring a tight-knit squad. The Italian once said: “The only way you can build a side is by getting players who speak the same language and can play a team game. 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.’”
This ability to bond his squad of stars from around Europe is often overlooked when Sacchi’s impact at Milan is considered. While many focus on his coaching philosophy, it was his work in the changing room that ultimately gelled the various backgrounds and inspired Berlusconi to keep him in charge despite a notably inauspicious start to life in Serie A.
It was a smart decision: during Sacchi’s four years at the helm he won eight titles, including a Scudetto, back-to-back European Cups and two Intercontinental Cups. His high pressing game was probably better equipped to face the challenges of Europe than the deep-lined, cautious Serie A.
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However, his ability to transform opinion saw Milan become the envy of fans across Italy, with many going on to bemoan their side’s lack of enterprise in attack. Slowly, in large thanks to Sacchi, the defensive legacies of Helenio Herrera and Nils Liedholm were beginning to crumble.
Baresi famously stated that Sacchi’s training methods and attention to details were justified when Frank Rijkaard scored in the 1990 European Cup final against Benfica. Benfica’s centre-backs were drawn into man-marking Marco van Basten and, as a result, offered space in behind. Sacchi ordered Van Basten to drop deeper and take the defender with him, and Rijkaard to make a late dart into that space. It was textbook stuff. Sacchi later said they had practised the move around 30 times in training prior to the game.
As John Brewin states for ESPN: “A high defensive line in a 4-4-2 was employed, and opponents were hunted in packs deep into their own half. At the Milanello training ground, a walled gymnasium was where the physically demanding pressing game was honed. Now unused, it still stands as a monument to Sacchi. Italian football was cautiously defensive until Sacchi got hold of it.”
When Sacchi left in 1991, it was hardly a surprise. Quarrels with some of his big names began to form rifts in the squad and his inability to win another Scudetto had a small minority questioning his managerial style in Milan. It was probably the best time for Sacchi to leave. He had exhausted his players with his meticulous attention to detail, focus on mental strength, and an in-your-face style. He was everywhere, from the training ground to the television set, and he was now being linked to the biggest job in Italy – that of the Azzurri.
Much like Pep Guardiola had to leave Barcelona after his demands became too much for a squad that had lived off his every word, Sacchi had encountered the same issues 21 years earlier. With Van Basten perennially struggling with injury, he also missed the influence of a clinical goalscorer in his starting line-up. It was a huge loss for Sacchi, who relied heavily on the ability of a proven marksman to take the chances that his high press would create.
Steve Amoia of World Football Commentaries sums up Sacchi’s time in Milan best in his review of Sacchi’s autobiography: “Much as Sir Bobby Robson and Louis van Gaal were to a young, and mostly unknown, José Mourinho, Berlusconi was Sacchi’s mentor to a much larger world of international football. He recognised his talent and took a chance on a ‘Mr Nobody’ to quote Sacchi himself. The results were eight trophies in a spectacular four years with a Milan side that etched itself into the pantheon of world football. Sacchi remains the last manager to win back-to-back European Cups.”
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Sacchi’s latest chapter was with the Azzurri and he was tasked with replacing Azeglio Vicini, who had led Italy to a third-place finish at their home World Cup a year earlier. Relying on a core squad made up of his successful Milan side – which was entirely Italian except for their famous Dutch trio – Sacchi set about building a side that could replicate the success of Paolo Rossi and Spain 82. Blending the experience of Baresi and the youthful brilliance of Maldini, his first test was to strengthen the back line.
It showed Sacchi’s outstanding ability to adapt and motivate his players in a short period of time that he was able to succeed as an international manager. Going from daily shadow play drills and high-intensity exercises at Milanello to sporadic training camps with the national team, Sacchi’s methods had to be altered to get as much as he could out of his players in the short time they had together. It’s this adaptability that ultimately made him a success as Italy manager.
Unsurprisingly, his period in charge of the national team was littered with yet more controversy. He failed to select Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Mancini, Giuseppe Bergomi and Walter Zenga for his World Cup squad of ’94 after falling out with each of them. People questioned his wisdom, citing that he favoured Milan over Italy’s other major clubs and left out their stars as a result.
The truth is, Sacchi needed to feel comfortable with his squad. He needed to believe that they could and would live by his word. In the case of the aforementioned quartet, despite their undoubted talent, Sacchi wasn’t sold.
Having failed to negotiate their way through a tricky group at Euro 92, with a loss against Norway their undoing, Sacchi set about changing the ethos behind his philosophy and focusing more on defensive stability and giving greater freedom to the finest match-winner in world football, Roberto Baggio.
Baggio was often exempt from Sacchi’s pressing game, allowed to drift into space and create for the team. He was the focal point of all attacks – like Van Basten was at Milan. But whereas the Dutchman was required to finish moves that had been started high in the opposition half, Baggio was required to create and score. The burden on Il Divin Codino’s shoulders was immense.
Sacchi’s intensity and ability to galvanise his squad after their opening game defeat to Ireland stood testament to his fundamental quality as a man-manager. He led Italy to the World Cup final, justifying not only his controversial team selections but also his unwavering faith in Baggio as the Azzurri fell just short.
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He stayed with Italy until their failed assault on Euro 96 and went on to have a quieter time in a rapidly evolving game. Even to the end, however, his views were thought-provoking. On not being given enough time in later roles, Sacchi said: “The accent today is on results, not on how well you work. You can’t build a skyscraper in a day, but you can build a shack.”
It stands as Sacchi’s greatest success that his work with AC Milan would later lead to four Scudettos in five seasons under Fabio Capello and their toppling of Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona Dream Team in 1994. Sacchi laid the foundations as the hard-working foreman for Capello to come in with designer glasses and achieve the greatest success of all.
It’s perhaps the greatest irony that while Sacchi was hugely influenced by the work of Rinus Michels and Holland’s Total Football – the basis behind Barcelona’s Cantera and first-team success – he later provided the inspiration to Guardiola in Catalunya and Frank de Boer at Ajax. It further reinforces the notion that Sacchi’s greatest strength is his legacy, one that continues to influence the modern band of Europe’s foremost coaches, like Jürgen Klopp, José Mourinho and Rafa Benítez.
Through a unique ability to bring his players on side, challenge the status quo and rely on his quality as a coach on the training pitch – a dying trait in the modern game amongst many managers – the former shoe seller turned himself into both a role model and a proven winner. It’s all the more remarkable that such success was achieved in just a decade at the highest level of the game.
His role as an innovator in bringing high pressing, the offside trap and mental focus to his teams is unquestionable. His determination and belief that the defence and attack should be no more than 25 metres away from each other in an ideal scenario is evident in so many Milan and Italy games. It’s testament to his quality as a coach that they were so well drilled.
So what, after all his years in the game, does Sacchi think makes a good coach? “He’s a maestro who has his own style. He needs to aim for quality, not the superficial and what comes easy. I don’t go to the bakery because of the baker but because of the bread. A maestro is someone who demands the best, who demands rigour.”
Despite being an outspoken, controversial figure for much of his late career, in just a decade he transformed the landscape of Italian football and took Milan from perennial underachievers to Europe’s most powerful club side. And in doing so, he became the greatest ‘Mr Nobody’ in managerial history.
By Omar Saleem @omar_saleem