If someone asks you who has been the greatest club side in the world, what would be your answer?
Perhaps the recency bias would make you point towards the Barcelona side of Guardiola or the Madrid side that won three consecutive Champions League titles.
But if you roll back the years and take a broad view of footballing history, one name sure to come up has to be the AC Milan side of the late 80s.
And the man at the core of the success of that side was Arrigo Sacchi.
His football was attractive, his tactics were revolutionary, and he changed Italian football for the better.
So let us try and explore what made him so special and so successful at the helm of one of the greatest sides ever assembled in club football.
Unlike many other managers of that time, Sacchi was not the best player. In fact, he did not even play professional football.
While he did play for amateur clubs throughout his career while also working at his father’s shoe business, he rightly figured it out that playing was not for him. But management was.
He was an avid viewer of the game and someone who loved analyzing successful teams.
His first real managerial gig came at the age of 26 at amateur club Baracca Lugo, where he was managing players way above his age.
The transition to professional management came with being a youth team coach at Cesena in Serie B, following which a spell at Rimini came in Serie C1 almost clinching the division title for the club.
After impressing with the youth team at Fiorentina, he moved to Parma in Serie C1. And this is where his path crossed with Milan.
He won promotion to the second division in his first year with the club and in the subsequent season came close to getting consecutive promotions.
In the Coppa Italia, his Parma side beat Milan 1-0 twice and knocked them out of the competition.
And that is where Berlusconi saw the charismatic Sacchi and later decided to bring him to San Siro.
The Role of Silvio Berlusconi
In 1986, AC Milan were in quite a distressful condition. After the 1980 fixing scandal, they had to suffer relegation twice and were now mid-table fodder for a few years.
They needed invention. They needed a rescuer. And that came in Silvio Berlusconi.
The media tycoon came to Milan to bring some silverware to the club. And hailing from a broadcasting background, a triumph for him meant entertainment and viewership. Milan had to become a marketable brand for success.
So when he wanted to hire a new coach, he could not just hire someone that played the prevalent Catenaccio.
And there weren’t many offensive managers around in Italy. Except Arrigo Sacchi.
And this is how a relatively unknown manager who had made his name in the lower leagues made it to the hot seat at Milan.
Of course, it was not approved by the media. They questioned how such an inadequate player could become a good coach.
To which Sacchi fired back with perhaps his most iconic quote:
“I never realised that in order to become a jockey you have to have been a horse first.”
Upon hiring Sacchi, Berlusconi gave him three years to implement his ideas. To which Sacchi said three years were too much!
And he sure was true. He won the Serie A title in just his debut season for Milan and won the European crown the following season.
His four years in charge of Milan was a huge time back then as coaches did not survive too long in Italy.
Perhaps the USP of the Milan side under Sacchi was their flamboyant attack.
See to win titles, you need to win games. And for that you need goalscorers. And in Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit, Milan had two legends of the game playing for them upfront.
Van Basten was the pure centre forward. The best of the lot. In Sacchi’s words, van Basten was the icing on the cake, and not necessarily the cake. That is saying something because he was the main goalscorer of that side.
In Sacchi’s opinion, the leader of the pack was Ruud Gullit. The world record signing was the strongest character on the pitch.
With Milan, he won his first Ballon d’Or in 1987. He also scored two crucial goals in the 1989 European Cup final showing his affinity to score on the big occasions.
And so the pair were deadly in front of the net. When one striker received the ball, the other one would already be on his bike to combine with him.
Donadoni on the left was also a creative outlet who often cut inside which allowed space to open up for Maldini to run in the wings.
But mostly, the wingers of Sacchi would stay near the touchline to widen the playing area. This was particularly valid when Milan had possession.
One great tactic he used in training to get the attacking unit in sync was playing without the ball!
The drill would start with the keeper and everyone would react to an imaginary ball simulating how they would move on the pitch.
Central to the whole exercise were the attacking players who had to move in tandem and understand each other’s movement patterns to succeed on the pitch.
The one big change Sacchi made from Catenaccio is the fact that Milan were now the protagonists.
They did not just press in front of their goal and defend till death.
Instead, they would go right into the opposition half to squeeze the pitch for them.
So like most modern teams, the defending started from the forward line for Sacchi and players like Gullit and van Basten truly obliged.
This was an idea having its roots in the Total Football playing sides of Rinus Michels who tried to make the pitch big when they were playing and small when the opposition was.
This led to them making mistakes and enabled Milan to have the ball back as soon as they lost it, that too in a favourable position.
The formidable pair of Frank Rijkaard and Carlo Ancelotti protected the defence. And they used to share the defensive and attacking burden, often starting moves with their delightful passing.
Use of The Offside Trap
A huge highlight of the defensive work done by Sacchi was his use of the offside trap.
It was not just a way to stop the last attacker from a traditional run, rather a way to aggressively win back the ball.
The triggers were pre-decided and the on-pitch leader Franco Baresi was in charge of informing his defenders when to go.
And when they did, the whole defensive line would start running in tandem and the man on the ball was pressed rigorously.
This forced him to make a rushed pass towards the obvious passing target who in the time being was in an offside position.
This was a means for Milan to win the ball back and start their attacks. Sacchi described it as a way of attacking the opposition’s attack.
If the opponent was able to get a ball through, the keeper was usually able to sweep the ball and clear his lines- a sweeper keeper. This idea alone showed how modern and refreshing the ideas of Sacchi were.
Such an arrangement also ensured that the opponent was never able to play their game and express themselves.
Sacchi famously described his intent of never having the defenders and attackers more than 25 meters apart while playing the high line, essentially shrinking the pitch to a 25 meter area and making full use of the offside trap.
Naturally, this needed exceptional timing. Too early and the attackers could adjust and time their run. Too late and the attacker remains onside and you look foolish.
So the leadership of Baresi and the talents of Maldini, Costacurta, and Tassotti were also vital for this tactic of Sacchi to work.
In fact, he found it much more difficult to make the offside trap work with the Italian national side where the defenders were much more used to the libero who would rescue them and they would defend closer to their goal.
Like Rinus Michels before him, Arrigo Sacchi has influenced a whole generation of coaches after him.
One of the most well-known representations of Sacchi’s ideas has to be the Barca team of Pep Guardiola. They employed a similar system of pressing and often forced the opponents into making false decisions on the ball.
Asked about what advantage the Catalan side had over their opponents he said that like his Milan side, they didn’t run more than the opponent, they just did their running better.
Another manager who openly declared his love for the tactics of Arrigo Sacchi was Rafa Benitez. The Champions League-winning coach said that Sacchi was his inspiration due to the spectacular Mian side he assembled.
Nothing justified his legacy as much as Milan teams after him did.
After his reign, young Fabio Capello took over Milan and guided them to a famous Champions League win in 93/94 and winning four Serie A titles with the Rossoneri.
Many years after Capello, a manager by the name of Carlo Ancelotti joined Milan who was also the defensive midfielder in the Sacchi era.
And like his manager, Ancelotti also favoured an attacking-minded philosophy giving us the entertaining Milan side of the 2000s that won two Champions League titles.
While he did reach the World Cup final with Italy, the period of Arrigo Sacchi’s career after his first Milan spell left much to be desired.
But this was kind of how he spent his whole career. In an unconventional way.
And so even if his time at the top was brief, it was not uneventful. He once said that he used to train his players with such dedication that often he did not have much more to give. That was the greatness of the man.