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  • Arrigo Sacchi is celebrating his 75th birthday today
  • As AC Milan coach, he shaped the development of modern football
  • He also led Italy to second place in the United States in 1994

He is a former shoe salesman who became a household name after getting the AC Milan reins in 1987. Pronounced and no stranger to unconventional ideas, he argued, among other things, against the need for marking people or a sweeper.

His players, including some of the biggest names in the game, were understandably questionable. “Five well-organized players can beat ten disorganized,” he told them. To prove it, he instructed his goalkeeper and a four-man back guard led by Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini to keep their goal intact with just zone marking. He then asked his other players to bomb the defense – but without specific instructions.

First he fielded four strikers, then five and six until there were ten outfielders against a block of four defenders and a goalkeeper. Incredibly, the training match ended 0-0. The players, including world-class talent like Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Carlo Ancelotti, were convinced. The coach’s name was Arrigo Sacchi. Today, as he celebrates his 75th birthday, we look back at the legacy of a coach who helped shape the modern game.

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We trained to synchronize the movements of all eleven players. The general idea was to create an awareness of the connection with this game. All eleven players must always be in an active position with or without the ball.


Arrigo Sacchi in the training area with AC Milan, 1989-90
© imago pictures

Sacchi’s playing career was modest in the extreme and limited to the amateur scene. Even after turning his attention to coaching, he was initially limited to small local clubs, forcing him to work for his father’s shoe business as well. In the 1986/87 Coppa Italia, he made headlines with Parma, who he had just brought up for Serie B by beating AC Milan twice. The club’s owner Silvio Berlusconi had seen enough and made Sacchi Rossoneri coaches the following season.

“I never realized that to be a jockey you had to have been a horse first,” Sacchi said famously as critics questioned his qualifications for the job. In addition to being quick-witted, he was also innovative, as he proved by winning the Scudetto in his first season and the European Cup and Intercontinental Cup in each of the next two seasons.

AC Milan after winning the European Cup in 1989
© imago pictures

His ideas were radical at the time, but they would later define his style of play and become part of modern football. These included a movement away from man marking to the zone equivalent. An aggressive and highly pressing game was also important, somewhat refined in training through playing shadow football without a ball, as well as the need to block the usual passing channels. His team was also known for staying compact with narrow spaces between the lines and following a clear game plan in any position.

Sacchi long preferred the 4-4-2 system, with the distance between defenders and forward no more than 25 meters. This compact space was revolutionary at the time, although it is standard today. To be able to play like that, the offside trap was a central element of his game plan. At the time, if a striker was on par with the last defender, he was considered offside.

There was only one real tactical revolution when football turned from an individual into a collective game. The thought of teaching eleven people to move as a single person still gives me goosebumps.


“Italian teams have always focused on defense, but we defended by attacking and putting opponents under pressure,” said Ancelotti. “Sacchi had the recipe for a new type of football. His 4-4-2 was, in my opinion, the only way to play modern football.”

Roberto Donadoni, another faithful man from Milan, also talked a lot about his former boss: “Sacchi started a revolution in Italian football, both in terms of thinking and tactics. We had our way of playing and used it against our opponents from amateurs. in training during the week for Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. “

Lothar Matthäus explains to rivals AC Milan's tactics in 1990
© imago pictures

During training, the team often lined up in their basic formation, where Sacchi then indicated where the imaginary ball was. His players move around the field accordingly until their positioning became automatic. He had a similarly unconventional method of practicing forward, this time with a ball in play, but without defenders. His side would review their attacking moves in what was effectively an 11-on-zero game. And while the technique is popular with many educators today, it had its opponents at the time.

When I was coaching Bellaria in the fourth division, I once came into the locker room and a player said, ‘This coach is doing things with us that I did not have to do in Serie A or Serie B. He is either a genius or a crazy person . ‘I said to him,’ I hope this is the first. ‘


“He made you repeat the same things over and over again day after day, especially us defenders,” Maldini explained. “But if Baresi, Costacurta, Tassotti and I met today, we could still play together like we did back then. It gets ingrained. It was one of our recipes for success.”

All too often, Sacchi’s football philosophy is reduced to his four – man back guard and defensive ideas, but above all, he would have played entertaining and was far from the old. Catenaccio style.

“I send my players out to give people 90 minutes of joy,” he said. “I will always have five men in front of the ball when we have possession. And there must always be a player who occupies the left and right wing. But it can be anyone and does not always have to be the same person.”

It was no big surprise when he was named Italian coach in 1991. At the FIFA World Cup USA ™ 1994, Ravenna natives led Squadra Azzurra to the final, where they lost to Brazil on penalties. “Brazil played better and deserved the victory,” said Sacchi. “I’ve always wanted to win on profits. That’s what matters to me.”

Two years later at UEFA EURO 1996, his team needed a win in the last group game against Germany to advance. Despite playing brilliantly in phases, a host of rejected chances, including an unanswered penalty, resulted in a fruitless draw and Azzurri bends out. Who knows, maybe with more time to train his players on his methods, Sacchi could have led Italy to a bigger title.

“Only now that I’m a coach do I fully understand your work!”

Van Basten to Sacchi

But what secures Sacchi’s enduring football heritage is not the big titles he has won, but his influence on the development of the game and the many coaches who are still shaped by his ideas today.

Arrigo Sacchi participates in the Kick Off seminar of the Italian Football Federation on June 20, 2015 in Cesena, Italy.
© Getty Images


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