Coaches Who Changed Football: Arigo Sacchi
In this series of articles, we look back at trailblazing coaches and their tactical styles that influenced generations of coaches after them, and forever changed the way the game is played.
Arigo Sacchi is considered one of the finest coaches to have ever been involved in the game. His revolutionary tactics, with the traditional 4-4-2 formation, and player management style won his team unprecedented success and admirers. He coached the legendary AC Milan side that still holds the record for being the last team to win back-to-back European Cups.
Sacchi was big into the game from an early age and started out watching the brilliant Budapest Honvéd sides of Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis, and József Bozsik. He noticed that 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. This made him believe that football could be transformed with high-pressing speed on the counter, and individual steel at the back.
Sacchi started his coaching career with the local Baracca Lugo at the age of 26. Being a fresh-faced coach saw him instructing players much older than him. This was the first challenge he overcame, which provided him with the experience of managing big egos in the dressing room during his reign with Milan.
Following that spell, he managed the youth team at A.C. Cesena, who were in the Serie B. He then moved on to Rimini, who were playing in the Serie C1, where he almost led them to the title. Post that, he moved to Fiorentina as a youth coach. It was at Fiorentina that his zonal marking ideas were recognized and his ability to galvanise and motivate young players noticed. This led to interest from Parma FC, who saw Sacchi as the perfect candidate to get them back to Serie A.
Parma represented the final step in the transformation of Sacchi from mediocre 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, equipping themselves with the skills to play almost anywhere on the pitch. He got his team to press in blocks with covering support. The counter-attacking had to be at five to six metres per second, and the possession used efficiently to penetrate the opposition at the earliest moment possible. This was a radical change in style from what was currently prevalent in Italian football at that time and was quite successful.
Parma romped their way to the Serie C1 title and then came within three points of Serie A the following season. Their intensity in the pressing phase was the talk of supporters all over Italy. Sacchi got his big break when he came up against the mighty AC Milan in the Coppa Italia. Two wins against Milan sent shockwaves through Italy and earned him a contract with Milan in 1987.
Sacchi faced countless challenges in Milan – the greatest perhaps the notion that he was still a nobody, with no playing experience and little chance of managing the big names at 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.”
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.
Sacchi’s Milan was renowned for its balance, organisation, and intense pressing tactics deployed to delay or disrupt opposition possession as well as regain the ball. At the base of the team, back four played in a sliding arc, only ever flat when the opposition’s possession was central. Sacchi drilled this into his defenders relentlessly. Paolo Malidini commented, “Each player was as important defensively as he was in attack, it was a side in which players and not positions were key.”
In possession, players such as Gullit, Van Basten, and Rijkaard were able to affect play due to their superb football intelligence in dangerous areas of the pitch. The creative freedom remained uncompromised by Sacchi’s organisation and structure.
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 cannot achieve anything on your own, and if you do, it does not last long.” This ability to forge a solid bond among 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 was a key ingredient in the team’s camaraderie, and resulting success.
Sacchi won the Serie A title in his 1987–88 debut season and then dominated European football by winning consecutive European Cups in 1989 and 1990. From 1991 to 1996, he was head coach of the Italian national team and led them to the 1994 FIFA World Cup final, only to lose to Brazil in a penalty shoot-out.
Sacchi’s work with AC Milan leading to four Scudettos in five seasons under Fabio Capello, and their toppling of Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona Dream Team in 1994, is widely considered his greatest accomplishment. His foundations allowed Capello to reap the successes.
Cruyff’s ‘Total Football’ hugely influenced Sacchi. His interpretation of that style later provided the inspiration to Pep Guardiola in Catalunya, and Frank de Boer at Ajax. His tactical and man management style continues to influence the modern band of Europe’s foremost coaches, like Carlo Ancelotti, Jürgen Klopp, José Mourinho, and Antonio Conte, furthering his legacy as one of the best innovators of the game.