Currently, AC Milan are the second most decorated club in Europe, boasting a massive trophy cabinet stockpiled with European and domestic titles. However, Milan, and Italy in general, didn’t have much to offer before the entrance of Arrigo Sacchi, the man who reinvented Calcio. He singlehandedly took an Italian side which was plagued with lacklustre, dreary, dull, and dangerously cautious, defensive football, and, over the course of a few years, made Milan one of the best teams in the continent.
Brought into the San Siro by Berlusconi shortly after his side locked horns with Sacchi’s Parma, the ambitious, yet unknown Italian was hastily handed the reins to the team and Berlusconi’s riches. He was, essentially, an outsider, encompassing both the positive and negative connotations of the term.
Sacchi was an outsider due to his unique tactical ideas. Brought up while watching the beautiful football of Real Madrid, he quickly realized that Italy’s football style could be momentously elevated through the implementation of intense pressing, blinding counter-attack speeds, and strength at the back, both collectively and as a team. His tactical upbringing was catalysed by his grey playing career – at a very young age, he opted to prioritize his managerial career over it.
On the other hand, he was also an outsider due to his lack of credentials – he was an outlier, unproven and untested. The lack of his playing (and managerial) experience worried fans and caused scepticism in the media. Nobody believed that a man who spent his playing career in amateur leagues while juggling the duties of a shoe-seller would excel in such a demanding post.
When confronted with his lack of managerial experience, Sacchi coolly replied: “I didn’t know that you had to be a horse first to become a good jockey.”
Sacchi quickly introduced risk and flair into a distressingly defensive country with his revolutionary 4-4-2 and the tactics used in tandem with it.
After inheriting keystone Italian players in Franco Baresi and Mauro Tassoti and future legends in Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Castacurta, Sacchi established a defence which combined individual character and exuberance with teamwork to great effect. His back four played fluidly, only remaining flat when the opponent’s possession was central. They used astute positioning skills, moving instinctively as a unit, to ensure that they were a step ahead of their opponent. Intense pressing tactics, combined with the diligent organization and the individual grit of the defenders allowed Milan to win the ball back effectively during periods of opponent possession. Defending under Sacchi was remarkable, because he played using aggressive offside traps and ingenious zonal marking systems. For him, each part and player of the team was important. In the words of Maldini himself:
“Each player was as important defensively as he was in attack, it was a side in which players and not positions were key.”
His pressing tactic was carried over to the midfield and attacking areas, where the “Holy Trinity” of Gullit, Rijkaard and Van Basten wreaked havoc through their understanding of spacing and unbeatable skill.
Pressing in the opponent’s half payed was an integral part of Milan’s playing style. When they won the ball in advanced positions, it was easy for them to set up brilliant and deadly attacking moves in the matter of seconds, thanks to the favourable position that they players found themselves in and the availability of passing options (Sacchi ensured that five players were always open ahead of the ball, with two of them playing on opposite wings), that were available to them. Milan needed touch of a clinical finisher to put the chances to bed, which they found in the likes of Van Basten.
Sacchi’s radical pressing shook the world of football, and today, we can still find the echoes of his tactical genius in the “Counter Press” and “Gengenpress” playing styles employed by the likes of Guardiola and Klopp. The compactness of his side allowed his team to play in a naturally pressing formation. Pressing allowed his side to control the space available to their opponents, while influencing them to change their passing patterns and playing styles.
“Pressing is not about running and it’s not about working hard, it’s about controlling space” he said. “Pressing was always collective, I wanted all eleven players in an active position, effecting and influencing the opposition when we did not have the ball.”
Throughout the course of the game, players were instructed to collectively partake in its different variants:
- Partial Pressing – where players to focus more on jockeying rather than winning possession, cancelling out the options for the opponent while preserving stamina. Essentially, a minimalistic approach to the game.
- Total Pressing – heavy metal football at its finest. Regaining the ball becomes the primary priority.
- Fake Pressing – the team pretended to press the opponents, putting them on edge, when, in fact, the players were recuperating, restructuring and preparing themselves.
Sacchi placed great attention to the details of his team’s playing style, often devising tactics that were unheard of at that point of time. For example, while his team defended, the players had to look at four reference points to decide their movement – namely the ball, the space, the opponent, and their team mates. After looking at the individual quality of his defenders, Sacchi quickly concluded that a compact playing style would help his team to win the ball back without expending any energy. Therefore, he instructed his players to not leave more than 25 metres of space between the attackers and the defenders, making it extremely difficult for the opponents to play through the team.
Off the pitch, Sacchi used tactful man-management skills honed during his stint at Rimini to win over his squad of insanely talented players. The effort payed off, as Milan went down as one of the only sides to have ever won back-to-back European Cups, while revitalising their league campaign and dominating it for years to come. Furthermore, Sacchi laid down the foundations for the reigns of other great managers, inspiring many with his radical tactical ideas, including Carlo Ancelotti.