The high press has become a seemingly immovable pillar of the modern game. All across the world, the best teams are those that have mastered this tactic. It has been intellectualised by the likes of Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Marcelo Bielsa, but in its essence, it is an incredibly simple doctrine, one which not so long ago might have been brought about by a shout of “get into ’em” from the stands.
Closing down the man on the ball and the passing lanes around him high up the pitch, might not seem like a revolutionary idea, but in reality, it is a relatively new phenomenon. And for that, the footballing world has one man to thank in particular — Arrigo Sacchi.
Sacchi is an Italian whose football was as far removed from the Italian stereotype as imaginable. There was none of the paranoia or introversion in the play of his great AC Milan or Italy teams that the world had come to associate with Italian football. In fact, what lucky spectators in Italy throughout the 80s and 90s were treated to was a live-action highlight reel of sophisticated, cavalier offensive play that popularised many of the most evocative facets of the modern tactical game.
This is the story behind the strategy…
The Early Years
A veritable gold mine of quotes, Arrigo Sacchi was as good an orator as he was a football man. Famously, when questions were raised concerning his lack of playing experience being detrimental to his abilities as a coach, the Ravenna born Sacchi answered: “I never realised that in order to become a jockey you have to be a horse first”. It was an aphorism typical of his dry humour and quick wit.
Sacchi did have some experience of playing the game, albeit at a relatively low standard. He played for his local amateur side Fusignano for many years before spending two years playing in the fourth tier of the Italian pyramid with Bellaria. But that was as far as he ever got. In truth, Sacchi was more invested in his life as a shoe salesman — evidently, his ethos is pedi-centric.
Aged just 26, Sacchi got his first managerial gig. The catalyst for this, as it turned out, was Sacchi’s relatively poor skillset as a player. Those involved with the club recognised his deep commitment to the game but, understandably, didn’t want him out there on the field.
Sacchi had spent his youth admiring the blistering attacking forces of Johan Cruyff’s Netherlands team, the great Real Madrid sides and Gusztav Sebes’s iconic Hungarian national team side (also known as the Mighty Magyars). The Sacchi philosophy, which would come to be recognised worldwide, had its foundations built upon the bedrock of these generational sides.
His espousal of the brand of football these teams played was understandably confusing to a team who played in the dungeons of Italian football. Nevertheless, they rolled with it, and it brought the amateur side a degree of success. In turn, this saw Sacchi approached by Bellaria regarding the vacant managerial position at the club. Still only 26, Sacchi had the unenviable task of trying to bring under his spell players who were, in some cases, ten years his senior. His unorthodox ideas were what won the day for Sacchi — even if he was a junior, the players were impressed.
They were at Rimini, Sacchi’s next club, too. When he nearly won a title with them in the early 80s, the Italian’s talents were recognised by more prestigious suitors. Fiorentina employed Sacchi as a youth coach before he would land his first senior role in the game.
Parma was his destination. Here he would forge a reputation for himself as not only a forward-thinking coach but one who gets results too. Parma were far from the juggernaut of the mid-1990s when Sacchi first arrived at the club. In fact, they were plying their trade in Serie C1 at the time, the third tier of the Italian league system.
Under his direction, Parma rose out of the division as champions, almost repeating the feat during the next campaign. Even more impressive was the club’s success in the Coppa Italia. On route to reaching the quarter-finals of the cup competition, Parma were triumphant over AC Milan twice — once in the group stages and once in the first round. This, it transpired, would be an era-defining moment for both Sacchi and for football at large.
The Milan Years
The momentous victories over AC Milan, who at that time were the best team in Italy and one of the best in Europe, were enough to prompt their powerful owner and soon-to-be Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi to promote Sacchi to one of the highest jobs in the land. It was soon after his appointment as manager of the Rossoneri that the press began to question his credentials, leading to his now-famous horse-jockey quip.
He would become a legend in Milan over a four-year stretch in which they would win nine trophies in all. This was aided by a quite frankly ludicrous squad which boasted the likes of Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta, Paolo Maldini and Mauro Tassoti at the back as well as Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco Van Basten leading the forward line. With such mercurial talent at his disposal, it was no surprise when Sacchi was successful. What was surprising, however, was the manner in which he achieved this success.
Playing football previously unseen on Italian shores, Sacchi’s Milan stormed to the Serie A title in his first season in charge. One year later and Sacchi’s men had a Supercoppa Italiana under their belts. But that season was remembered best for their European Cup triumph.
Milan sailed to the final with consummate ease, putting seven past Dundalk in the first round before dismissing two of the best teams in Europe in Red Star Belgrade and Werder Bremen. The standout moment, however, was the 5-0 second-leg victory over Real Madrid in the semi-final. This was the arguably the peak moment in Sacchi’s career and one that truly stuck the middle finger to those that had doubted him when he arrived at the San Siro from Parma. They were similarly impressive in the final though, thumping Steaua Bucuresti 4-0 at Camp Nou in Barcelona.
The following season, Sacchi did what so few managers had done before and retained the European crown. It is widely held that his AC Milan side were not the same blood and thunder outfit they had been the previous campaign. All the same, winning back-to-back continental competitions is a feat which can only be achieved with a combination of an exceptional manager and extraordinarily talented players.
They again beat Real Madrid, triumphing this time by only a one-goal margin in the second round of the competition. Breezing past KV Mechelen, they then faced a superb Bayern Munich side in the penultimate stage, drawing 2-2 on aggregate but progressing on away goals.
AC Milan won the final 1-0 against Portuguese giants Benfica, courtesy of a Frank Rijkaard strike and the result showcased how Sacchi’s football had gradually become more measured and less gung-ho.
His final season in Milan — in his first stint at least — was by far the least successful. The Rossoneri went without a trophy after finishing as runners-up in Serie A. They were also knocked out before reaching the finals of the Coppa Italia and the European Cup. For Sacchi, it was time for a new challenge.
The Italy Years
As the 90s began, so did a new era for this magnetic manager. After winning the World Cup in 1982 under the management of Enzo Bearzot, the Italians reached the semi-finals on home soil in 1990. They also got to the same stage in the European Championships in 1980 and 1988 and were enjoying an era of supremacy. Who better to carry on the legacy of this brilliant international team than the man who had transformed the landscape of the Italian and European club game?
Sacchi was appointed in 1991 and immediately set about stamping his mark on the team. Despite their recent successes and superb squad, Italy had failed to qualify for Euro 1992 and, therefore, Sacchi decided wholesale changes were needed. Several players from his successful Milan side formed the backbone of his team, at the expense of big names like Walter Zenga and Roberto Mancini. It proved to be a winning formula for the most part.
The next challenge after restructuring the squad was an against the odds assault on the 1994 World Cup in the United States. Italy qualified at a canter but struggled in the group stage. They finished in third place but qualified as one of the best performing third-placed teams.
Sacchi’s attacking play meant they were entertaining to watch if not entirely reliable in defence. They struggled past Nigeria in the round-of-16 before a very creditable victory over Spain saw them advance to the semi-final. There they beat an impressive Bulgarian team that had beaten the holders Germany in the previous round.
In the final, Italy laboured to a 0-0 draw before Roberto Baggio’s missed penalty in the shootout made history for all the wrong reasons. To Sacchi’s bitter disappointment, Italy would have to wait to lift their fourth World Cup.
Sacchi left Italy after a poor showing at the 1996 European Championships in which they were eliminated within the first three games.
The Twilight Years
Arrigo Sacchi’s career fizzled out in an ill-fitting manner and one that did not reflect his significance to the game. After a brief hiatus from football, Sacchi returned to AC Milan. A legend in the flesh, it is needless to say that the expectations for his second spell were very high. Perhaps the Italian would have been better off not running the risk of tarnishing his legacy with the club. But the almost pathological tendency of Italian clubs to return to former managers for a second spell prevailed.
He stayed at the club for a single, measly season in which they finished in the bottom half of the table. Performances in the cup competitions were similarly disappointing with Milan failing to make it to the latter stages in Europe or the Coppa Italia. Though he is still thought of as an icon, Sacchi left the club a slightly less upstanding figure than he had done in 1991.
Sacchi decided to have one final crack of the whip by coaching for the first time outside of Italy. He joined Atletico Madrid in 1998, again after a brief period away from football. However, he was equally — if not more — unsuccessful in the Spanish capital. Again, a team under Sacchi’s command finished in the bottom half of the table. Although they fared much better in the Copa del Rey where they lost in the final to Valencia.
He left Spain having been unable to cement a place for himself in the country’s football psyche as he had done in Italy. Arrigo Sacchi returned to his homeland for one last hurrah, joining Parma in 2001 — his career had gone full circle. It was not the fairy tale ending he had anticipated though, and he was ousted from the managerial hot-seat after less than a year in the job.
Honours and Achievements
Serie C1 (1985-86)
Serie A (1987-88)
Supercoppa Italiana (1988)
European Cup (1988-89, 1989-90)
European Super Cup (1989, 1990)
Intercontinental Cup (1989, 1990)
Coppa Italia Runners-up (1989-90)
World Cup Runners-up (1994)