Arrigo Sacchi: The Conductor

Words by Callum Rice-Coates Illustration by Philippe Fenner
August 14, 2018
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Nobody at Milan knew who he was. When Arrigo Sacchi, a young, balding, bespectacled manager, took on one of Italy’s biggest jobs, there was scepticism.

As a player he had had no reputation, and as a coach he was still an unknown. But Silvio Berlusconi saw something. Sacchi had been with second division Parma for two years – and there his innovative tactical ideas had begun to take shape.

Parma, playing with a ferocious intensity, impressed Berlusconi. This was something different. In 1980s Italy, the prevailing approach was still one of conservatism, of cautiousness. The style of play was steeped in catenaccio: the influence of Nereo Rocco and Helenio Herrera was still evident.

Sacchi, though, wanted to change this. While other Italians had grown enamoured by the culture of defensive, risk-free football, Sacchi’s admiration had been reserved for the Total Football of the Netherlands. It was reflected in his style: zonal pressing, attacking, with a focus on position.

“It was a mystery to me,” Sacchi said of Rinus Michels’ team. “The television was too small; I felt like I needed to see the whole pitch to fully understand what they were doing and to fully appreciate it.”

Over time, his understanding of the game, of ideas and tactics, became his greatest strength. Still, when he arrived in Milan many were unconvinced. Sacchi was an unknown with revolutionary ideas. He had worked as a shoe salesman for his father and started coaching his local team at the age of 26. It was not a typical pathway to a European giant.

Quickly, though, he began to make his mark. He had dispelled the notion that only the best former players could make successful coaches. “I never realised that to be a jockey you had to be a horse first,” he said.

There was inevitable pressure at Milan but it appeared not to phase Sacchi. He had an unerring self-belief; he was impressively undeterred by the detractors who welcomed him upon his arrival at San Siro. He was aware, too, that true success had evaded Milan in the years before his appointment. They had won just one Scudetto in twenty years and a squad of talented players had, thus far, underwhelmed. “I may come from Fusignano, but what have you won?” Sacchi supposedly said during his first training session.

By the time Sacchi left the club, they had won a lot: an evasive Serie A title was secured in his first season, and that was followed by two European Cups. By the time he left, Italian football had changed.

For Sacchi, that was vindication. It was, for him, about more than proving his doubters wrong, more than winning trophies. He wanted to leave an indelible mark on the game, and at Milan he achieved that. “If you want to go down in history you don’t just need to win,” he said, “you have to entertain.”

Milan did. The trio of Dutchman – Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten – were fluid and often irresistible. And the defence, anchored by Franco Baresi, was a key foundation of Sacchi’s side. Though he preached the importance of offensive, aesthetic football, Sacchi was certainly not neglectful of the defensive side of the game.

“Many believe that football is about the players expressing themselves,” Sacchi said. “But that’s not the case. Or, rather, it’s not the case in and of itself. The player needs to express himself within the parameters laid out by the manager. And that’s why the manager has to fill his head with as many scenarios, tools, movements, with as much information as possible.”

Sacchi insisted that, regardless of the players at his disposal, system was key. He argued that Milan would have been equally as successful without van Basten, without Baresi or Rijkaard.

But Sacchi, despite his undoubted tactical intelligence, struggled to communicate his ideas in his later roles. He left Milan in 1991 to take charge of the Italian national team, but he appeared frustrated by the limitations of the international game. He often spoke of the importance of time, of patience, when instilling a new way of playing. With Italy he did not have that. “It’s impossible,” he said.

He did, though, guide his country to the final of the 1994 World Cup. They were beaten on penalties by Brazil, and that was enough to attract criticism. Italy, under Sacchi, failed to convince; they lacked any cohesion and the consensus was that they were too reliant on Roberto Baggio.

Euro 96 was a disaster – Italy were eliminated in the group stages – and Sacchi briefly returned to Milan before moving on to Atletico Madrid. It seemed he had exhausted his managerial energy. He did not again come close to matching his first four years with Milan.

Fabio Capello: The Ruler

Perhaps it was the intensity of his approach, the rigour with which he assessed the game. Perhaps the constant need to innovate had taken its toll. By 2001, following another short spell with Parma, Sacchi could not continue. A stress-related illness forced him to take on a position as director and his coaching career was over.

By the end, though, it was not the disappointment of Italy or Atletico Madrid that remained in the memory. Few coaches have made such a significant impact – as Sacchi did with Milan – over such a short period of time. The pressing game that is so omnipresent today – and utilised by a number of the most talented coaches – would not have taken the form it did without Sacchi.

“Michelangelo said he painted with his mind, not with his hands,” said Sacchi. “That was our philosophy at Milan. I didn’t want solo artists; I wanted an orchestra. The greatest compliment I received was when people said my football was like music.”

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