All eras had their great teams throughout the ages, the 1950s had the Mighty Magyars and later the Real Madrid of Di Stefano and Puskas, the 1960s had the Grande Inter of Helenio Herrera and the Brazilian National team of Pele, the 1970s had the Total Football of Ajax and the Dutch National team.
One such iconic team of the 1980s was Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan, the amateur footballer and salesmen turned into a world-class coach and created one of the greatest teams of all times, more importantly he left behind a legacy that influences the Beautiful Game even today.
An unlikely path to the top
Though it might be hard to believe now, the success story of Sacchi and Milan was quite an unlikely one at the time. Sacchi never coached a top league team before he got his job at Milan, there was probably as much chance of him getting the job as anything else.
He caught the eye of Milan President Silvio Berlusconi when his Parma side played Milan and impressed Berlusconi with the intensity of their play. Milan also was going through a lean period before his appointment with only 1 league title in the previous decades.
When Sacchi was appointed many doubted his qualifications for the job, citing his lack of experience and lack of success as a professional player, to which Sacchi calmly replied:” I never realised that in order to become a jockey you have to have been a horse first.”
His success came also by swimming very much against the tide of the time, Italian football at the time was still characterised by the Catenaccio legacy of the 1950s and 1960s, most famously Helenio Herrera’s Inter.
This system of play put a strong emphasis on an impregnable defence, usually, a back five with 4 man-marking defenders and a sweeper operating behind these 4 defenders, possession of the ball and dominating the games weren’t important aspects, such defensive sides when built up well had quick players who once possession was won back hit their opponents with lightning counter-attacks.
The best example for one such team was Hererra’s Inter who often were the top scorers of the league. However, as Herrera stated many copied his system badly and this led to a lack of goals and dull games that many came to associate with Italian football.
Despite being an Italian, Sacchi was never a fan of defensive football, his inspirations were attacking sides like Budapest Honved, Real Madrid, Brazil or the Dutch Total Football of the 70s. Once he got the job he started to build his Milan side as an attacking team.
He got rid of the sweeper, maintained the zonal marking system started by his predecessor and used a highly fluid 4-4-2 formation.
He also preferred his defence to adopt a high defensive line and use the offside traps whenever possible. Ideally for him whenever his team was out of possession there were no more than 25 meters between his defenders and forwards.
He also wanted his team to press their opponents, often in the opposition half and win back the ball on the opposition half, one perfect example of this was the European Cup final in 1989 when Milan players constantly harassed their opposition and in the end, Milan smashed Steaua by four goals.
Once he successfully implemented his tactics Milan became a phenomenal team that was capable of dominating their games in unheard fashion, in 1990 when they met their direct title rivals Napoli in the San Siro they won by 3-0 and had many more great chances, while the Milan goalkeeper was little more than a spectator.
Defense using the offside trap
A team that not only wins but entertains too
Before his first season at Milan the team transferred Marco van Baste, Ruud Gullit and Carlo Ancelotti, Milan had a relatively slow start to the season as the team got used to Sacchi’s tactics and trailed Napoli for most of the season. Their form improved as the season progressed and they went on a 19 match unbeaten run to overhaul Napoli and win the title.
Before his second season, Milan bought another talented Dutchman Frank Rijkaard, however, another very slow start to the season left Milan a long way behind their rivals Inter and without any chance to the title. The second half of the season was once again much better and Milan won the European Cup as a result. In their European run, they defeated Real Madrid 5-0 in the Semi-finals and smashed Steaua Bucuresti 4-0 in the final.
Milan had another slow start during the 1989/90 season, however an impressive run of form saw them catch and overtake their rivals Napoli, only to lose the title by 2 points after hitting another bad run in March and April. Milan crucially for them played 8 extra matches in comparison with their rivals Napoli and had a very congested final two months to their seasons, key player Ruud Gullit also missed the season with injuries.
Milan won the European Cup once again after a 1-0 victory over Benfica in the final. Sacchi’s final season at Milan was less successful as his demanding nature led to arguments with key players, most importantly Marco van Basten, in the end Milan failed to win the league or the European Cup and Sacchi was out of Milan at the end of the season.
During his four year stint at Milan Sacchi won 1 league title, 2 European Cups, 2 European Super Cups, 2 Intercontinental Cups and 1 Italian Super Cup, more important than his successes was the he legacy left behind that influenced many modern coaches who adopted and improved on his tactics.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Andrew Szekler