“I never realized that to be a jockey you had to be a horse first”. One of the most famous quotes in the history of soccer came from a man under intense pressure from the Italian media. Having never played football as a professional player, Arrigo Sacchi’s ability to manage a team trying to reach the pinnacle of European football was in scrutiny. Having beaten AC Milan twice with Parma, Sacchi had been handpicked by Silvio Berlusconi, who attempted to revolutionize Milan with new signings after buying the club.

Early results were far from promising, but once Milan got into form, they displayed why they are thought of as arguably the greatest side in soccer history, winning back-to-back European Cups. The players at Sacchi’s disposal were of fantastic quality, but Sacchi himself played a huge role in Milan’s success, showing new tactical innovations which have influenced managers even today.

Sacchi got his true breakthrough at Parma, after he performed well at Fiorentina as a youth coach. In his first season at Parma, he led the side to the Serie C1 title. More importantly, however, Sacchi faced Milan twice in the Coppa Italia in Sacchi’s second season. Parma faced Milan in the group stage, winning 1-0, before meeting Milan again in the first knockout round. Once again, Parma won 1-0. Berlusconi watched Sacchi’s progress, and eventually hired him as manager.

Early into his tenure, Milan suffered defeats away to Fiorentina in the league, in the UEFA Cup to Espanyol, and lost in the Coppa Italia. Despite the media pressure, Berlusconi backed Sacchi. Sacchi repaid the faith of Berlusconi, leading Milan to their first Serie A title in nine years in his first season at the club, overtaking Napoli late in the season.

During his time at Milan, Sacchi placed a large emphasis on the mental side of soccer. Sacchi demanded the utmost from all of his players, and in return, Sacchi gave all he possibly could for the team. By the time Sacchi left Milan in 1991, after four seasons with the club, both he and the players were completely exhausted. The players had given their all and had been rewarded with huge success.

Sacchi’s team was known for its organization and balance. Sacchi had brought in new ideas to the club, which the players had accepted. For example, one of the main training drills Sacchi imposed was “shadow football”. The goalkeeper would start with an invisible ball, and the players carried the responsibility of deciding the best option with the ball. The players had to judge whether they should pass or dribble the ball in different situations, determined by the voice and actions of Sacchi. Another key element of Sacchi’s training was the resemblance to actual games. The team worked so hard during the week that they enjoyed the soccer at the weekend due to their preparation. The team planned moves ahead of time, which they would use in games. Many of the goals the team scored came from the training ground.

Franco Baresi once said that the players felt satisfaction because the dedication in training paid off during matches. An example of this is the winner scored by Frank Rijkaard in the 1990 European Cup Final against Benfica. Both of Benfica’s center-backs did not cover space and instead stuck to their man. In response to this, Sacchi ordered Marco Van Basten to drop deeper and to push the ball forward into Rijkaard, as a center-back would follow Van Basten, leaving space in behind. Sacchi later said they practiced the move leading to the goal in training around 30 times.

However, Sacchi did not just have different methods of training but he also displayed new tactics not seen before. He played an attacking 4-4-2 formation with Milan at a time when Italian teams were known for their superb defensive play. Sacchi ordered his team to always be on the attack. He ensured that the distance between the defense and midfield was never greater than 25 meters. Sacchi also had his team press very effectively. In a 4-4-2, Sacchi was able to have three lines of pressing, the attack, the midfield, and the defense. The intense pressing tactics were deployed to disrupt the opposition’s possession. Often, Sacchi’s team would “partially press”, where his side would concentrate on jockeying instead of winning the ball. Other times, his side would “totally press”, where the team played as if they were on a mission to win the ball back. The team, when they needed to recuperate, would utilize “fake pressing”, where they made pressing movements, but at a lower intensity.

The idea of applying pressure on the player with the ball has been utilized effectively now by many successful managers of this generation, including Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola. Sacchi also applied zonal marking instead of man-marking. His team were able to switch effectively from one style to another, depending on the situation of a particular match. Rafa Benitez is one manager who has taken inspiration from Sacchi, and is one manager who uses zonal marking. Despite all this, the most interesting concept of the Milan team was the team’s offside trap. At this time, the offside rule was different. If any one player was in an offside position when a player received the ball, the flag was raised. Now, only the player receiving a ball is taken into account for offside, not other players who are not interfering with play. To counter this, when opposing teams tried playing balls through Milan’s defence, the team (defence and midfield) would simultaneously move forward at pace. Timing this tactic to perfection, at least one player would be found offside. This tactic was risky – just one player’s failure could result in an open route to goal. However, Milan played with a calculated risk and with Franco Baresi in the side, a master of playing offside, the team was successful. A great example of this was shown against Real Madrid, where Milan constantly frustrated the opposition with their offside trap.

Mauro Tassoti, Alessandro Costacurta, Paolo Maldini and Baresi. Those four names represent possibly the greatest back line of all-time and were the base of this side. The Italian back four contained major quality, with superb defenders, and two of which who will go down in history in the top 10 greatest defenders. The two I am talking about are of course, Baresi and Maldini. At this time, Baresi was the Milan captain. Already very experienced, Baresi also served as the Italian national team’s captain, leading the side to the 1990 World Cup semi-finals and the 1994 World Cup final. Maldini was rather young at the time, 19, and would later captain the Italian national team and Milan. The back line played as a sliding arc, rarely playing as a flat back four.

Further forward, Milan’s Dutch trio caused havoc for opposition defences. Van Basten was at his peak at this time, supported by Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit. Rijkaard served as the leader in midfield, sitting next to Carlo Ancelotti. Gullit played alongside Van Basten up top.

The greatest performance of the side came in the second leg of the semi-final in the 1989 European Cup, where they thrashed Real Madrid 5-0. The first leg had been away in Madrid, where Milan earned a 1-1 draw. At the San Siro, Milan were on the cusp of greatness. On that night, Ancelotti, Rijkaard, Gullit, Van Basten, and Donadoni all scored. And make no mistake, this was a Madrid side who had won five consecutive La Liga titles.

Despite all of his success at Milan, the club’s legendary manager Sacchi left in 1991, four seasons after joining the club. In his last season at the club, Milan failed to win a trophy. He is remembered as the last manager to win back-to-back European Cups, in 1989 and 1990. Sacchi brought in a plethora of new tactics, including playing an attacking 4-4-2 formation, using zonal marking, and pressing in different styles in different situations. It’s fair to say that Sacchi exceeded any expectations.

By the end of his tenure at Milan, Sacchi and his players were completely exhausted from the hard work in training and ultimate dedication during matches. Sacchi was succeeded by Fabio Capello, who continued to lead the side to success. Capello brought in new players, such as Gianluigi Lentini and Jean-Pierre Papin, but the core of the side remained the same.

Sadly for Sacchi, he never really saw much success after his tenure at Milan. Sacchi led Italy to the 1994 World Cup final, but after that he failed to achieve any success before his retirement in 2005. Although he failed to achieve win trophies elsewhere, he formed a Milan side which will be remembered forever.

Arrigo Sacchi’s time in the spotlight was short, but the legacy left by his tactical innovations make him known as one of the greatest managers in soccer history.

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