“A jockey doesn’t have to have been born a horse.” (Arrigo Sacchi)
His time coaching at the very highest level may have been, in comparison with a number of the other managers in this series, relatively short, but Arrigo Sacchi’s impact on the modern European game was absolutely phenomenal.
A man with virtually no formal experience as a player, Sacchi broke down barriers of snobbery and crashed through countless glass ceilings in the late eighties and early nineties to become arguably the most influential coach of his generation.
Never a professional footballer, Sacchi famously held a job as a shoe salesman before embarking on his managerial career. Frustrated at his inability with the ball at his feet, Sacchi became fixated with the notion of becoming a coach and, in 1972, took charge of Baracco Luco, his local club, at the age of just twenty-six.
Despite encountering initial problems of acceptance amongst players that were both older and far more skilled than himself, Sacchi eventually won his charges over and, even at that formative stage, was clear about the attractive, attacking passing game he wished to impress on his team.
Like the great Ukrainian coach Valeriy Lobanovskyi, Sacchi viewed the game as a dynamic system rather than a collection of individuals, seeing every member of the team unit – whether with or without the ball – as equally significant at any given moment.
After leaving his home town club, Sacchi spent some time as a youth coach at Serie B outfit Cesena before taking on his first professional job as a first team manager at Serie C1′s Rimini in 1982.
After guiding his new club to a respectable fourth-place finish in his first season in charge, Sacchi attracted to attentions of top-flight Fiorentina who offered him a role as the head of their academy. This was to prove an invaluable springboard on his journey to the very top of the European game.
His exemplary work at the Florentine Primavera between 1983 and 1985 led to the former shoe salesman being offered his second job as a head coach, this time at Parma, which, at that time, was languishing in Serie C1.
Sacchi’s first major managerial triumph came during the 1985/86 season, his first at Il Tardini, when he inspired i Ducali to the third tier title, pipping Modena to top spot on goal difference and gaining promotion to the dizzying heights of Serie B.
With Parma playing a stylish brand of football to finish seventh in their first season back in the second tier, Sacchi had built himself a growing reputation as one of the most talented young coaches in Italy.
His meteoric rise was confirmed in the 1986/87 Coppa Italia as Parma overcame the mighty AC Milan in the group phase of the competition, winning 1-0 at San Siro before knocking the Rossoneri out in the Second Round with a goal from Mario Bortolazzi.
Parma’s achievements were enough to attract interest from Silvio Berlusconi, the Milan President, who, seeing his club gradually slide into decline, offered Sacchi the San Siro hot-seat after Fabio Capello had stepped aside in a desperate attempt to revive his club’s fading fortunes. Sacchi accepted, and it was in Milan that he would make his name as one of the greatest coaches the game has ever seen.
“Great clubs have had one thing in common throughout history, regardless of era or tactics. They owned the pitch and they owned the ball. That means when you have the ball, you dictate play and when you are defending, you control the space.” (Arrigo Sacchi)
After facing a barrage of media criticism regarding his lack of pedigree upon his arrival at Milan, Sacchi let his coaching do the talking and quickly constructed one of the best club sides to have ever graced Italian football, his personal pursuit of perfection driving his team on to exceptional levels of performance.
Sacchi’s Milan were built around the trio of Dutch players – Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard – that he brought in between the summer of 1987 and the conclusion of the 87/88 campaign.
That season had seen the San Siro outfit march to their first Scudetto since 1979, beating Diego Maradona’s Napoli to the title by three points and deploying a 4-4-2 system which combined pace and dynamism with a rare grace and intelligence.
According to Sacchi himself, the key to Milan’s success was the abandonment of man-marking and its replacement with a focus on pressing and a refined system of zonal marking. In the manager’s own words, “My zone was different. Marking was passed from player to player as the attacking player moved through different zones”. Both defensive and attacking movement of the precision Milan achieved under Sacchi had never been seen before – that generation of Rossoneri were tactical revolutionaries.
As Jonathan Wilson has pointed out, despite many of the innovations that Sacchi’s team have come to be associated with being of a defensive nature (staunch pressing and an aggressive offside trap to name just two), the team itself were far from being negative. “I always demanded, when we had possession, five ahead of the ball and that there would always be a man wide right and wide left”, Sacchi has said about his methods.
Everything Milan did was as a unit, movement was a collective exercise. On the training ground Sacchi was famed for putting the players into position without the ball and drilling them endlessly in the science of exactly where they should be on the field in any given situation. The team moved as one, and they did it better than everybody else.
Milan's 4-4-2 in their 1989 semi-final against Real Madrid
Despite not winning the title again during his time at San Siro, Sacchi enjoyed his greatest successes in Europe. Milan brushed aside all who stood in their way during their march to the 1989 European Cup, Real Madrid being annihilated 6-1 on aggregate in the last four before Steaua Bucharest were demolished 4-0 in the Final with a brace each from van Basten and Gullit.
According to Sacchi, it was the closest he ever got to perfection and, along with Barcelona’s triumph in 2008/09, Sacchi’s Milan stand as one of the most inexorable continental forces there have ever been.
The following season, 1989/90, saw Milan retain their title in impressive fashion; Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Benfica being overcome on the way to a second domination of Europe. It was to be Sacchi’s last title with Milan, the man from Fusignano leaving the club in 1991 to take charge of the Italian national side.
Sacchi never quite attained the heights he had with Milan again in his career, but his time with Italy was fruitful enough. Failure to qualify for Euro 1992 was, seeing as he came in half-way through the campaign, not entirely Sacchi’s fault, and the way in which he resurrected the country’s fortunes was spectacular.
Two years later, having qualified for the tournament with relative ease, the Azzurri reached the 1994 World Cup Final having kicked into gear in the quarter-finals after a sluggish start to the competition. Indeed, had it not been for some erratic penalty taking against Brazil in the Pasadena Rose Bowl, Sacchi could have added the greatest title of them all to his collection but, as it was, Italy were consigned to a painful defeat at the hands of Carlos Alberto Parreira’s side.
Having quit his post after a disappointing group stage exit from Euro ’96, Sacchi returned to Milan for a single season in 1996/97 but, shorn of the majority of the players who he had worked with previously, was unable to recreate the success he had enjoyed during the late eighties.
Brief spells at Atletico Madrid and Parma followed, Los Colchoneros claiming the 1999 Copa del Rey under his stewardship, but, by the end of the century, Sacchi’s time in management had reached a natural conclusion.
The latter part of his career may have been marked by a failure to return to the near-impossibly high standards he had set for himself at San Siro, but Arrigo Sacchi will be remembered, quite rightly, as one of the finest tacticians of the age and the man who re-invented pressing and zonal marking for the modern game.