Parking The Coach: Arrigo Sacchi

by | Nov 6, 2017

In the rarefied atmosphere of twenty-first century soccer, job applications from people with no previous managerial experience tend not to be welcome. In some quarters, they are actively discouraged or even specifically prohibited, as though all those tens of thousands of hours playing Football Manager were just a colossal waste of time. Fortunately, in the late 1980s there were no such restrictions to the way that the game thought about recruitment: The last manager to guide their team to the successful defence of the European Cup had never played a single minute of competitive football in his life. Four years later, he had taken his country to the World Cup final. So the next time your club sacks its gaffer and the small print in the job advertisment discourages you from fatuously submitting your own CV, be bold and send it anyway. Remember the example of Arrigo Sacchi.

Like the majority of Italians, Arrigo Sacchi was born in Italy, on April Fool’s Day of 1946 in Fusignano, a small town in the Emilia-Romagna region about fifteen kilometres to the west of Ravenna and forty kilometres east of Bologna. Growing up in Fusignano in the late 1940s was, by all accounts, likely to have been a peculiarly transient experience. The town had been almost completely destroyed during World War II: it spent a punishing four months on the front line during the spring of 1945 and subsequently needed to be extensively rebuilt.

Quite what effect this had on Sacchi’s imagination it would be unfair to speculate. In terms of his actions, however, we can see a practical and pragmatic nature developing alongside elaborate and far-reaching dreams. Young Arrigo loved football over everything else, but quickly established that he was hopeless at playing it. Pragmatist Sacchi realised that his chances of making the game his profession were nil and accepted a job as a shoe salesman, selling the wares produced by his father’s factory. Football remained his great passion, pastime and hobby and he fell into supporting his local amateur side, Baracca Lugo. Having tried (and failed) to become a player for Lugo, Dreamer Sacchi took the sideways step of offering to become their manager.

Sacchi’s education in how the game ought to be played came chiefly via the grainy televised games that he during his childhood and adolescence. He became entranced by the elegant Honved and dynamic Real Madrid sides of the 1950s and by the other-worldly skill and balletic organisation of Brazil through the 1960s and 1970s. But the team who really captured Sacchi’s attention were Rinus Michels’ Netherlands team from the 1974 World Cup. Sacchi loved the interchangeability of the players and their imaginative use of the ball. He was particularly impressed by the team’s work ethic, too: the unity and organisation of their defensive efforts matched the holistic approach of their attacks. Above all, Sacchi admired Dutch Total Football because it did precisely what football was created to do in the first place: entertain the spectators.

At that time, Italian soccer was still very much all about Catenaccio, of defensive sweepers and stringent man-to-man marking. Sacchi admired the skill of teams like Helenio Herrera’s Grande Inter but was significantly less impressed by their focus on winning at all costs. He was also notably sceptical of the Italian game’s over-reliance on specialists. Man marking systems created a rigid set of circumstances that required one player to be sacrificed as the team’s sweeper, whilst in attack, a side’s creative fortunes rested heavily upon the shoulders of the Trequartista, usually the side’s number 10. Before his career was done, Sacchi had more or less ended his native land’s dependence on such players.

For Sacchi, greatness in football could be measured according to three metrics: Possession, whereby the team dictates the play; Pressing, whereby a team who were not in control of the ball were nevertheless in total control of the space; and Pleasure. For Sacchi, there was no value in winning, or even in winning convincingly, unless your team had also been entertaining. Achievement in football could not and should not, in other words, be measured in trophies alone. Arrigo Sacchi had absorbed all of the lessons of the legendary Dutch side – even the one which they had not set out with the intention to teach – and had now taken the first step down the path of bringing this alien philosophy to the Italian game.

It was not going to be easy, but Sacchi nevertheless succeeded in making it look far more like a formality than he had any right to. He started to coach at Lugo in 1972 aged just 26, moving on from there to manage Bellaria until Serie B club Cesena appointed him as the coach of their youth team in 1980. From there he went to Rimini, almost securing them the Serie C1 title and then to Fiorentina, once again as a youth coach. At this stage, anyone with Arrigo Sacchi’s previous relevant experience would probably have felt that they had done very well for themselves, particularly as he had now been able to finally give up his job with the family firm. However, Sacchi was not ready yet to rest on his laurels. In 1985, he was appointed manager of Parma.

Parma were in the middle of one of their semi-regular slumps and found themselves languishing in Serie C1. Undeterred, Sacchi won the league title at the first attempt and almost followed it up with promotion back to Serie A in his second season in charge. Parma would miss out on a successive promotion by just three points, but Sacchi’s stock was rising precipitously thanks to their exploits in the Coppa Italia, where his side had knocked out AC Milan over the course of a two-legged tie.

Milan were, by their own standards, also enduring a fallow period. The Totonero scandal in Italy had seen them demoted to Serie B for the first time in 1980. The Rossoneri immediately won promotion back as champions in 1981, but the team were to be quickly disabused of any notion that their return to the top tier would see the restoration of normal service: Milan finished in sixteenth place in 1981/82 and were relegated straight back to Serie B. Milan would again bounce straight back, again as Serie B champions, but the whole saga had taken its toll: by 1986 the team were on the verge of bankruptcy. Only significant investment from the club’s new owner, Silvio Berlusconi, saved them from sliding into oblivion. Without a title since 1979 and with Berlusconi’s impatience growing by the hour, the cup defeat at the hands of Serie B Parma proved the final straw for club legend Nils Liedholm, who had begun his fourth spell as Milan manager in 1984. Berlusconi immediately reached out to Sacchi, the architect of Liedholm’s demise, as his replacement.

The shockwaves this appointment created were significant and would coin the phrase for which Sacchi will likely forever be remembered. With the Italian media either unwilling or unable to overlook the fact that Milan’s new manager had never played the game even semi-professionally, Sacchi hit back: “I never realised that to be a jockey you have to be a horse first”. Of more pressing concern was the question of whether Milan’s expensively assembled team of stars would accept their inexperienced new coach. Sacchi, again, took a bullish approach. I might be a nobody, he would tell his exotic charges at their first meeting, but what have you won? He had a point.

On the field, Milan were a side in transition. At the time, Italian clubs were allowed just two foreign-born players and AC Milan’s – Ray Wilkins and Mark Hateley – had both just left the club to join clubs in France. Their “like-for-like” replacements were Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten, for a combined outlay of £7m. This was, by any standards, a thoroughly exceptional piece of business and, while their arrival had been finalised before Sacchi’s appointment, he was still responsible for their integration. By the end of his first season, Van Basten and Gullit had finished first and second in the Ballon D’Or and Milan were Serie A champions for the first time in nine years.

Sacchi had been lucky with the Dutch arrivals, but the totality of his impact on Milan’s performance could not simply be dismissed as serendipity. Milan were, simply, reimagined. Sacchi’s chief innovation was the high offside line: he set his side the aim to never be more than twenty-five metres apart, from his newly-minted flat back four to the centre forward. The resulting team were so compact that they were virtually impossible to play through, while their meticulously choreographed pressing ensured that Milan were in full control of space their opponents had in which to operate. This relentless, suffocating style of play was already a proven quantity in Serie B with Parma, and allied to the world class players Sacchi now had at his disposal it made Milan irresistible. They arrived at the San Paolo, Naples in April 1988 for a showdown with league leaders and reigning champions Napoli and emerged 3-2 winners of a thrilling tactical tussle that the Neapolitans had only needed to draw to ensure they retained their crown.

Sacchi considered the role of football coach as being analagous with making a motion picture, with his role being that of both the screenwriter and director. “Football has a script,” Sacchi would argue. “The players are actors. If they are great actors they can interpret the script based on their individual creativity, but they still need to follow the script”. For Sacchi, convincing soccer was not about free expression but instead expressing oneself within the parameters set by the coach. It is the coach who makes the decisions: a good coach will have the imagination to forsee every eventuality and therefore be able to make better informed instructions.

Of course, at Milan, Sacchi had truly great “actors” at his disposal for the first time. The likes of Van Basten, Gullit, Franco Baresi, Roberto Donadoni and Carlo Ancelotti needed very little technical instruction, freeing Sacchi up to work his way through meticulous drills and exercises designed to make Milan more than just the sum of its parts. Above all else, Sacchi preached the values of universality – the ability of every player on the field to fulfill every conceivable role, a negation of the culture of specialist players in the Italian game – and of positioning. Understanding the importance of your place on the field was central to Sacchi’s system, in which players were expected to judge their every action based on a four-way axis: the current position of the ball; the location of their teammates; the location of the opponents; and the available space.

To this end, Sacchi would set his team up on a full size pitch without either opposition or a ball and then make his charges shadow box their way through a match based on where their manager said the play was. Such a drill had never been seen in top line football before and, when opposition scouts were sent to observe Milan in training they would return to their club with the news that Sacchi had lost his mind. But, of course, there was method in this madness. “Playing” without the ball gave Milan an understanding of their unity and responsibilities that was second to none. Each player learnt how to quickly make the correct decision in every conceivable scenario, exponentially multiplying the abilities of the players into a unified wall of red and black. Sacchi’s Milan were so well-drilled, in fact, that they were able to play a relentless high pressing style without expending as much energy as their more conventionally set up opponents. “Pressing is about controlling space, not running or working hard”, Sacchi would explain.

For the defence of their Scudetto in the 1988/89 season, Milan were able to reap the benefit of a rule change in Italian football which allowed a third foreign player in each squad. Mr. Nobody no longer, Sacchi was able to stand his ground and bring the versatile Frank Rijkaard into his roster, over the protests of Silvio Berlusconi. Rijkaard had spent much of his career playing as a centre back, but Sacchi would reinvent him as a defensive midfielder, the steel hub around which his team would revolve.

1988/89 would prove a season of two halves for Sacchi’s Milan. In Serie A, they saw their title taken away by their cross city rivals Internazionale, their trio of Germans (Jurgen Klinsmann, Andreas Brehme and Lothar Matthaus) proving every bit the equal of the Tulipiani, who could only manage third. However, in the European arena, Milan were starting to make their presence felt. Milan rode their luck in the early rounds: a floodlight failure while trailing 1-0 at Red Star Belgrade allowed the Rossoneri to squeak through a hastily convened replay the following day, winning on penalties after a 1-1 draw. Against Werder Bremen in the quarter final, they had a questionably disallowed goal to thank. But faced with Real Madrid in the semi final, they produced one of the finest displays ever seen in the European game. After an unlucky 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu, Sacchi’s team destroyed Real at the San Siro: Emerging 5-0 winners, they marked themselves out as the outstanding team in the football world, the high watermark to which other sides now had to aspire. They won the final, too, after a similarly comprehensive 4-0 defeat of Steaua Bucharest. It was, Sacchi later said, the apotheosis of his entire life’s work.

But football rarely provides happy endings, or at least when it does, they have a gossamer ephemerality. In 1989/90, the two main problems facing Sacchi were his unsettled marquee players and Berlusconi’s desire for another league title. Milan would again fall short in the Serie A table, finishing second to a Diego Maradona-inspired Napoli. Of greater concern yet was the growing discontentment of his trio of Dutchmen, who had again filled all the top spots in the Ballon D’Or rankings. Van Basten was particularly upset with Sacchi, whose gimlet-eyed pursuit of system and universality seemed to preclude singling out any individual performer as having star status or extra importance. Van Basten’s big ego was being fed both by his continued performances on the field, but also by Barcelona coach Johan Cruyff, who continued to make whispered entreaties in his countryman’s ear. Prior to the 1988/89 season he had even offered Milan Gary Lineker in exchange. Gullit, meanwhile, had taken the predictably Ruud Gullit decision to criticise Berlusconi to the press.

All of this discontentment could have easily derailed Sacchi’s project. Instead, he rode out the storm to win a second European Cup. Fittingly, it was to be his least aggravated Dutchman who would provide the winning goal in the final, a 1-0 win over Benfica. Rijkaard’s strike was typical Sacchi, cutting, swift and immaculately choreographed – Rijkaard later confirmed that they had practiced the exact move which led to the goal, with strikers Van Basten and Gullit dropping deep to confuse and disrupt Benfica’s man marking system before playing in a midfield runner, at least thirty times in training. Sacchi had retained the European Cup for Milan, a feat which has yet to be repeated since.

Italian football, however, will always be Italian football and Silvio Berlusconi is always unapologetically himself, so it should be no surprise that the following season, 1990/91, would prove to be Sacchi’s last at Milan. His Dutch stars continued to pout and in the Serie A table, Sampdoria won their first ever Scudetto, condemning Milan to another runners-up spot. Worst of all was the manner of their exit from the European Cup: trailing Marseille late in the game there was another floodlight failure. This time, however, there would be no redemption. The lights were quickly fixed, at which point the Milan team shamefully refused to return to the field to complete the tie. UEFA awarded Marseille a 3-0 win and banned the Rossoneri from all continental competition for a year.

1991 had proved to be a pretty bad year for Italian football all round. The national team, who had finished in third place at the 1990 World Cup, failed to qualify for Euro 92. This cost Azeglio Vicini his job and offered Arrigo Sacchi a way out of the increasingly tempestuous climate at Milan. It was a solution that worked out well for all the parties involved, particularly the Rossoneri. With Fabio Capello installed in the manager’s chair and able to build on the theory and style that Sacchi had implemented, Milan promptly won the 1991/92 Serie A title without a single defeat. They would go on to win another three Scudetti over the next four seasons as well as a third European Cup, disassembling Johan Cruyff’s much-admired Barcelona 4-0 at Athens in May 1994.

Arrigo Sacchi, meanwhile, was trying to adapt his coaching philosophy to the international arena. The problem he faced was that so much of his success and style had been built on the day-to-day contact with his players, the steady inculcation of the method and theory that would create a unified whole. His solution was typically pragmatic: where possible, he would build his Italy team from Milan players, a move that caused significant controversy and ill-feeling throughout the Italian game. Sacchi had no time for specialists or superstars, but Italy was still in their thrawl. His tenure at the national team saw the effective end of several major international careers, notable those of Roberto Mancini, Guiseppe Bergomi, Walter Zenga and Gianluca Vialli.

All of this would not have been nearly so divisive if Sacchi’s Italy been performing like Sacchi’s Milan, but of course, this was not the case. Although history records that they were the beaten finalist at the 1994 World Cup, those of us able to remember their performances will recall quite how loveless, shambolic and fortuitous their continued progress was that summer. They began with a famous 1-0 defeat to Ireland in New York, before scraping a 1-0 win with Norway despite the dismissal of goalkeeper Pagliuca early on. A 1-1 draw with Mexico in their final group game saw them squeak through to the knockout stages as the lowest ranked of the qualifying third-placed teams.

The grim irony of the situation was that, in spite of his ideals and the proven virtue of his philosophy, Sacchi was never able to turn the Italians into a blue machine. Rather, his fortunes – and those of his watching countrymen – came to rely almost solely on the talent of his side’s specialist, Roberto Baggio. It was Baggio’s creativity and goals that saw the Italians unjustly defeat an exciting Nigeria side 2-1 after extra time in the second round. Italy overcame 10-man Spain by the same scoreline in a bad-tempered quarter final in Boston, before another Baggio brace helped Italy beat Hristo Stoichkov and company in their 2-1 semi final defeat of Bulgaria. There was a growing feeling that Italy were the tournament’s pantomime villains, playing poorly while retaining just enough tactical nous and residual quality to grind out results against the teams who had enlivened the party.

There was no such luck in the final against Brazil at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. There were echoes of the classic 1970 World Cup final in this game: Italy and Brazil, both in search of a record-breaking fourth World Cup, playing against one another on a sun-baked American field. Unfortunately, these similarities stopped as the teams crossed the touchline. The 1994 World Cup final was a dead loss, the first World Cup final where neither team scored and the first to be settled on penalty kicks. Sacchi had done well to take a team that hadn’t even made it to Sweden two years earlier this far, but the real credit for their progress lay on the shoulders of Baggio, whose penalty kick in the shootout has yet to descend from orbit.

Indeed, there is a very real argument that Sacchi’s approach to coaching – as pioneering, as entertaining and as successful as it was – was of such high impact, of such intellectual and emotional rigour, that it caused him to burn out early; never again able to recover that crucial intensity. Italy meekly slid out of Euro 96 at the first stage. The benefit of hindsight reveals that they had been grouped with both of the subsequent finalists, but at the time it was a failure considered more than sufficient to see Sacchi shown the door. He returned to Milan for the 1996/97 season but could not recapture the same spark: the Rossoneri could only finish 11th in Serie A and humiliatingly lost 6-1 at home to the eventual champions, Juventus. Sacchi would go on to weather a similarly turbulent season with Atletico Madrid the following year. Eventually, he would return to Parma in 2001. This was where he had started his ascent and it would also prove to be his nadir: frustrated by the fundamental technical failings of his players Sacchi walked out after just twenty-three days, citing stress.

Arrigo Sacchi’s star burnt brightly but briefly, as the most brilliant stars are wont to do. He remains a controversial and compelling figure in football analysis to this day, but the style that he preached has been replaced by a more tactically cautious method. Modern tactical approaches to the game tend to be reactive, rather than proactive, Sacchi argues. As much as Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola preach high defensive lines and tireless pressing, both sacrifice players to act as specialised defensive midfielders in order to cover their bases. Sacchi’s Milan, a ceaselessly rotating, well-drilled unit of intelligent, interdependent players who were greater than even their most outstanding parts, offered a welcome tonic to such mundane concerns. But the emotional cost of creating such a machine is there to see also. On balance, Sacchi would not complain. As long as his Milan team are celebrated as having entertained the people, what higher goal was there to achieve?

Arrigo Sacchi by Dotmund