There is a legitimate argument to be made for Adolf Hitler being responsible for one of the greatest sides football has ever seen. Germany never impressed under Nazi rule and they didn’t even have a professional league until 1963 – Hitler paid more attention to the Olympics, using football to his advantage but not to the extent of someone like Benito Mussolini or Jorge Videla. Instead, it came much later.
The terror that Hitler inflicted upon Europe forced them to protect against the extreme nationalism that allowed him to thrive, by combining the states to create the European Union. The unification of Europe allowed its people to travel freely throughout a large chunk of the continent, and so the son of an Italian shoe salesman was able to soak up the football of the Germans, Swiss, French and Dutch among others.
Arrigo Sacchi was a very poor footballer – not even good enough to play for his local side – however the trips he would accompany his father on allowed him to develop coaching ideas. The attacking and fluid passing of the likes of Honved, Real Madrid and Ajax gave him a fresh outlook in a catenaccio-dominated Italy – teams he probably wouldn’t have been able to see without the ease of movement the EU provided. What did the Nazis ever do for us, eh?
His own feet may not have been able to put his ideas into practice but as a coach he proved this wasn’t an issue, famously saying “I never realised that in order to become a jockey you have to have been a horse first”. Despite the lack of credibility his youth and lack of playing ability posed, Sacchi was consistently successful, working his way up to his breakthrough role at Parma. Sacchi got them promoted to Serie B in his first season and missed out on a second promotion by three points the following season, nevertheless home and away victories over AC Milan in the Coppa Italia had done enough to earn him yet another step up.
Looking to impress the masses to help his prime ministerial campaign, Silvio Berlusconi bought Milan. Although one of Italy’s biggest clubs, the Rossoneri had been rather unsuccessful in recent years, even spending some time in Serie B. Due to his political ambitions, Berlusconi was happy to throw money around to improve the squad, viewing it as an investment in his own future. In came Dutch trio Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit and the likes of Roberto Donadoni and Carlo Ancelotti to join homegrown stars Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini.
Sacchi’s main influence was the Dutch Total Football, basing his side on the idea of universality. Like Valery Lobanovsky had done at Dynamo Kyiv, Sacchi set up his side so that, in theory, any player could replace another. Each player had equal responsibilities, both defensive and attacking – eleven playmakers and eleven water-carriers. The difference between Sacchi and Lonanovsky was that the Italian had far greater players at his disposal – this meant he had to combat their egos, but it also meant he could have a world-class team in which most of the players were genuinely quite equal.
One of the main influences from Total Football was the defensive tactic Milan employed. Italian football had been characterised by defensive play for the previous twenty years, man-marking players with a libero behind then hitting the opposition on the counter. Sacchi however made his players press the opposition.
“Pressing is not about running and it’s not about working hard,” Sacchi said. “It’s about controlling space. I wanted my players to feel strong and the opponents to feel weak. If we let our opponents play in a way they are accustomed to, they would grow in confidence. But if we stopped them, it would hurt their confidence. That was the key: our pressing was psychological as much as physical. Our pressing was always collective. I wanted all eleven players to be in an active position, effecting and influencing the opposition when we did not have the ball. Every movement had to be synergistic and had to fit into the collective goal. Everybody moved in unison. If a full-back went up, the entire eleven adjusted.”
Sacchi’s Milan were the first Italian team to embrace zonal marking, although Luis Vincio’s Napoli and Niels Liedholm’s Roma had experimented with forms of it. Milan were all about squeezing the opposition out of the game: they had a high offside line, shortening the playing space for the opposition, and each line in the 4-4-2 was kept close together, never giving the opposition gaps to exploit, while hassling them, forcing them to make decisions quickly.
When in possession, Milan’s players interchanged positions as the sides Sacchi had admired in his youth did. “I always demanded, when we had possession, five players ahead of the ball, and that there would always be a man wide right and a man wide left. But it could be anybody. It wasn’t always the same people.” They also played quite directly: not hitting long balls, but always looking to play the ball forward as quickly as possible, meaning they built attacks quickly yet didn’t get the resting time in possession someone like Barcelona do today.
What set this side apart was the intensity with which they played. They played the ball forward quickly, meaning they lost it pretty soon after getting it too, and then they pressed to win it back again. Rotation hadn’t been popularised yet and Sacchi needed his players to be so sharply drilled it wouldn’t have been considered anyway, meaning no one got a break. Their gameplan was exhausting, not just physically but also mentally, with the coach demanding effort and precision from his players at all times.
Milan won the scudetto in their first season under Sacchi, then won back-to-back European Cups, a feat that hasn’t been repeated since. They went on to yet more success under Fabio Capello, but it was Sacchi’s side that really played to the hearts of their fans. Although he had little success after his first stint at Milan, Sacchi’s methods inspired a generation of coaches, notably Rafa Benitez and Jurgen Klopp. Still, the era’s equivalent to bwin.com would have had them as favourites in Serie A every year, yet they won just one. With such a huge array of talent at his disposal, this must be seen as a major black mark on his record, suggesting Sacchi was perhaps a better theorist than he was a coach.