Tactical Tale | Tactical Tale of Arrigo Sacchi


Football is born in the brain, not in the body. Michaelangelo said he painted with his mind, not with his hands. So, obviously, I need intelligent players. That was our philosophy at Milan. I didn’t want solo artists; I wanted an orchestra. The greatest compliment I received was when people said my football was like music.”

It is safe to say that Arrigo Sacchi has had one of the most profound impacts on football and tactics, if not the greatest in the last few decades. Milan rose to new heights under him and football as a whole benefited from his sheer genius. Sacchi was not a great footballer with a noteworthy career, let alone a stellar one. Born in Fusignano, a small community township in Ravenna, Italy, Arrigo as a young lad was a salesman in his father’s shoe factory. He showed a particular flair for football from his early days but could not translate that passion in the playing pitch for his local club Baracco Luco. So he took into his hands the responsibility of coaching them.

I was twenty-six, my goalkeeper was thirty-nine and my center forward was thirty two. I had to win over them”.

Sacchi was a revolutionary. His thinking coming from somewhat a reserved background is exemplary. He had very clear ideas and was staunch in following them. This trait of his did not change over the years and was definitely a reason for his success over the years. He was heavily influenced by watching great passing teams like Honved, the Brazilian national team of the 1970s and Real Madrid who won the first five European trophies. Johan Cryuff’s Netherlands of the 1970s took his breath away, in his very own words.

Even then, rather than being just dazed by their sheer brilliance Sacchi’s thinking comes to the fore when he said, It was a mystery to me. The television was too small; I felt like I need to see the whole pitch fully to understand what they were doing and fully to appreciate it.” This clearly shows how his thinking was shaped by the fact that he believed it was equally, if not more important how the team behaved when they were out of possession than when with it. Sacchi’s sides were based on pro-activity and reactions to how the ball was positioned, both in and out of possession.

Sacchi had many ideas as to how football should be played but it was all underlined by the fact that he believed it was the duty of his team to entertain and not just to win. He surely had his sights on becoming great and going down in the history books. Ambitions certainly do not hurt and his goals were achieved with a combination of determination and a great passion for what he believed in. I was just a guy with ideas and I loved to teach. I did it (to win and be convincing at it) because I wanted to give ninety minutes of joy to people. And I wanted that joy to come out from winning but from being entertained, from witnessing something special. I did this out of passion, not because I wanted to manage Milan or win the European Cup.”

From Baracco Luco, Sacchi had spells at Cesena, Rimini whom he almost led to the Serie C1 title, Fiorentina and then finally his greatest breakthrough before Milan – Parma. It was with Parma Sachhi begun to get noticed as he led them to the Serie C1 title and within three points of Serie A in the following season. But it was the wins over Milan in the cup during that season that made Silvio Berlusconi take notice of him and offer him the Milan job that summer. Before he knew it, Sacchi was at the helm of Milan having no previous credibility in the Serie A. Expectedly, he was met with scepticism and doubts initially. Sacchi’s personality played a big role during this testing time as he never believed that he was not deserving of the job or it was too big for him.

Sacchi demanded that his players be well equipped in playing all positions. He was a firm believer in his doctrine of Universality that his players be tactically and technically proficient. He did not believe in one dimensionality and looked to add all facets to his players’ game play. This thinking was definitely based upon the influence he had because of those great teams he had watched while growing up.

Thus began Sacchi’s tenure at Milan as he recruited Gullit and van Basten from Ajax in his very first season. Though the expectations were not a lot at that time, Sacchi had to win the title for a vindication of self as it would mean he was right all along in what he believed in. “ A jockey doesn’t have to have been a horse” is what he quipped when questioned about how only a good player can make a coach. Sacchi came in with an aura himself as his training methods were largely new and had a certain mystique about them. He focused heavily on shadow play where the team position themselves without the ball. Sacchi would tell them where the imaginary ball was and the team had to adjust themselves according to the position of the ball. This helped in Milan coordinating themselves in accordance with the ball and also another key reference in Sacchi’s game plan: the team mate.

Arrigo Saachi poster
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It was not until the arrival of Sacchi in the footballing scenario did zonal marking come to the fore. Nils Liedholm had a system similar to zonal marking introduced but it was Sacchi who totally eliminated man-marking in Italy who were obsessed with the system and the libero. The key to everything was the short team.” This was in reference to how he instructed his team to remain compact and squeeze the gap between the lines from the back to up front. Another key element in all his teams was the fact the intensity with which they pressed.

Pressing was a key element in Sacchi’s tactics and all his sides were noted for their gusto in pressing and the ordered way they went about with it. In order to press actively throughout the match and also week in and week out, Sacchi had his team remain very compact making sure they did not have more than 25 metres in between the defensive line and the forwards. Staying compact was a must both vertically and horizontally.

In his first season at Milan, Sacchi bought a 28 year old Carlo Ancelotti into the team. He was a key part of the Milan side as his tactical intelligence in the collective was vital in the way they operated in both attacking and defensive phases. Ancelotti was the initiator of the build-up play in the side as Milan showed signs of fluidity in their play. There were small tweaks and adjustments based on Ancelotti as the team lined up in Sacchi’s customary 4-4-2. The dynamics were not very complex as of yet as the whole team were fluid in the view that one took the position vacated by the other.

This applied to even defenders as Franco Baresi often found himself in the midfield nipping attacks in the bud when Ancelotti had to adjust in accordance with Donadoni and Colombo. The central occupancy remained an issue at times especially in the European Cup where they were knocked out by RCD Espanyol in the second round. Into a more tactical perspective, the wingers faced a huge workload under Sacchi as Donadoni virtually became a great player under Sacchi due to his work ethic and work rate. In order to create overloads and occupy space in a 4-4-2 in a fanatical way Sacchi demands, the wingers must exhibit high work rates to make sure the team remain compact in all phases of the game.

The zonal marking though was almost at its fullest furore though in the first season as Milan focused heavily in cutting out the passing options and the lanes. The use of cover shadows in the pressing scheme was almost executed to perfection and all this was revolutionary in the way which Milan defended. The backwards pressing from the strikers and also the coverage of wings by the full backs was also with the use of cover shadows so that the progression could be halted past the player who covered the zone. Ruud Gullit was extremely important in attack as his dropping off movements were unique with a specific nous to occupy the space in between the lines, however non-existent they were. This was achieved with movements that were nomadic and he was found anywhere in a diagonal build-up to goal.

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This was the general movement scheme showed by the Milan side under Sacchi in their first season. Ancelotti was crucial in this set up while Baresi was frequently seen stepping out of defense to support Ancelotti’s lateral movements. This was also crucial in the way that they had more central occupancy in the midfield region.

In the second season, Milan reached their zenith. Facilitated by the ultra-important signing of Frank Rijkaard, Sacchi finally had all the pieces to his jigsaw to achieve the greatness Milan were destined for. The biggest improvement in this season in comparison to the prior season was the fact that the players became more aware of their spatial occupancy. Not everything was a pre-planned structure or move as the players improvised greatly on the pitch. All the eleven players understood how they had to remain in active positions all the time and be proactive in their reactions.

To understand the complexity of their off the ball movements, it is important to understand how the Ancelotti-Rijkaard pivot worked. Rijkaard was more of a physical presence in the midfield and could act as a defensive shield and even drop into the backline when necessary. This freed Ancelotti of his defensive burden and he could carry out orchestrating the play. The dynamics were thus: Donadoni would shuttle in field and out; Maldini was more active going forward and offering himself as a passing option; Baresi did not need to step into midfield more as Rijkaard absolutely slaughtered anything that came through the midfield; Ancelotti moved to the side often in the left and carried play.

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Gullit and van Basten, who was more injury free this season and was in the form of his life, were extremely prolific in front of goal due to the overall efficiency around them. With this structure in place and the overall fluidity in the team, Milan were able to pick apart opponents at will. Their pressing structure was unplayable at times with extremely well timed and co-ordinated movements.

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An interesting change in their pressing pattern was how they reacted to wide play from the opposition. The presence of Rijkaard once again is the reason for this as this means Ancelotti could step out of midfield to react to a wide man while the two strikers use their directional running and cover shadows to direct the play outwards. Donadoni covers the passing option while Rijkaard moves laterally to cover for Ancelotti with Colombo shifting and effectively creating a staggered 4-3-3 or a 4-3-1-2.

The highlight of their season was the 5-0 demolition of Real Madrid. Steaua Bucharest offered little resistance in the finals as they were brushed off 4-0 with respective braces from Gullit and van Basten. The morning after we beat Steaua Bucharest I woke up with a feeling I had never experienced before. It was the one which I have never experienced since. I had this unusual, sweet taste in my mouth. I realised it was the apotheosis of my life’s work”, said the Italian.

The next season, Milan achieved the very rare feat of retaining their title as they brushed off Benfica 1-0 in the final courtesy of Frank Rijkaard beauty. However the euphoria and the excitement seen in the previous season was not to be present in this season as the team looked to be wilting at times. The heavy demands of his philosophy made sure that the marriage could not continue behind the next season as there was a bad taste with which Sacchi left Milan with the National team calling. Fabio Capello took over Milan and continued the success while Sacchi took charge of the national team.

Consisting of a core of his successful Milan side, Sacchi took over as the manager of the National side. The Italian National team was in disarray and the success of 1982 World Cup seemed a long time back with the 1990 World Cup a disaster. The backline was the core of Maldini, Baresi, Costacurta and Tassotti from his Milan side. Donadoni was the only other player from his Milan side as Sacchi persisted with his 4-4-2. The ability of Sacchi to adapt and make his players excel was relevant in the way the fortunes changed after he took over the National side.

The squad selection for the 94’ World Cup meant that Sacchi had to face controversy as he overlooked Guiseppe Bergomi, Gianluca Vialli and Walter Zenga among other notable names which led to the argument that he favoured Milan. Also his ego was questioned as he had fall-outs with each of these players personally. He was somewhat vindicated by the team’s performance in the World Cup but even then he was not on the best of terms with Roberto Baggio. Sacchi could never deal with egos who thought they were bigger than the team and this did not change in the National side too.

The Italian National side could not quite replicate the same intensity and the levels as that of the Milan side. Sacchi could never spend the same amount of time with the National team and as a man who spent every minute breathing football he could just not comprehend with this. The Italian National side however underwent a cultural revolution after Sacchi was appointed as the shackles were broken.

He completely made them overcome man marking and his blueprint was established in the National side too. Italy huffed and puffed their way to the final with Sacchi’s best win with the National team coming in a 2-0 win against Hristo Stoichkov’s Bulagria in the semis. The final is much more famous for the penalty miss from star man Baggio as they lost to Brazil. It was significant progress from the Italian side as they overcame almost a decade of underachievement.

One striking feature in the Italian side was that Sacchi looked to make them defensively more stable, a stark contrast to how he liked his Milan side to attack. They advocated a deep 4-3 block which usually exempted Baggio off his defensive duties. The backline of the Milan defenders were the only constants in his managerial career as Maldini became a superstar under his guidance while Baresi reached new heights. Costacurta owed Sacchi his career too, as this core was instrumental in almost everything that went well with both Milan and the National side.

It stands to his testament that it was his Milan side that are still remembered despite Capello’s Milan and touted as the best side in Italy after Herrera’s Internazionale, winning a hat trick of Scudetti and also the Champions League final in 1994 against Cruyff’s Barcelona 4-0. His innovations- the offside trap, the zonal marking system and the short distance between the defence and attack (25 metres) were always evident in his sides.

He came in as a virtually unknown person and left a legacy that would be remembered down the years to come. Despite his relative inexperience as player, his coaching methods were exemplary and the way he instilled such mental focus was impressive. His sides were extremely well drilled and this happened to be a huge factor in his teams’ success. Few managers happen to be such visionaries and Sacchi’s legacy is one to be cherished and remembered fondly and respected forever.