Universality May Not Be the Answer – Part Two

Universality May Not Be the Answer – Part Two

Something that’s always bothered me when discussing the glory days of Serie A is that Fabio Capello’s first stint at Milan (excluding his brief caretaker role in 1987) is so often attributed to Arrigo Sacchi. In a recent article comparing Sacchi’s Milan with Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, Jonathan Wilson claimed “a version of this fixture did occur in 1994, when [Johan] Cruyff’s Dream Team, the clear precursors of this Barca, met a Milan side remodeled by Fabio Capello in the Champions League final”. This isn’t a pop at Wilson – anyone who has read Inverting the Pyramid, with much more freedom with the detail he can explore, will know he gives proper credit to Capello, and the claim that it’s a “version of the fixture” is true – but for those who don’t know about Capello’s Milan, it does him a disservice to pose probably the finest achievements in his career as simply a continuation of Sacchi’s.

Gli Immortali and Gli Invincibili, although only a few years apart and having similar personnel, were different teams. It’s difficult to talk of Sacchi laying the foundations when the style and tactics of Capello’s side often contrasted his so much. Yes, to some extent the success that preceded Capello’s tenure would have an effect on Capello’s side, and he did borrow some of the elements of Sacchi’s philosophy, but, if he was going to alter Sacchi’s set-up, didn’t Silvio Berlusconi’s cheque book have just as big an effect?

Sacchi built his side intensely around his universal philosophy, while Capello was pragmatic, working with what he had. The 4-4-2 shape remained, as did the pressing, but Capello was more defensive and ridid, yet notably more successful – winning four league titles, a European Cup and going 58 league games unbeaten. Where better to continue on from part one of how a team could overcome today’s Barcelona by looking at “the clear precursors of this Barca” be demolished on the grandest stage by a team that were improved by ditching their universal tactics for a more pragmatic style? In reality, it wasn’t really. Milan played a far more fluid and attacking game than they usually did under Capello, but there’s still enough clear differences to

Barcelona headed into the game understandably full of confidence. Milan’s top defenders Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta were suspended for the game, leaving the best attacking partnership in the world, Romario and Hristo Stoichkov, against Filippo Galli and Paolo Maldini, who shuttled across from left-back to make way for the still green Christian Panucci. Cruyff spent the week leading up to the final criticising Capello for his dulling of Sacchi’s side – when it came to game time though, he was much quieter, barely moving from his place on the bench.

Capello’s side in the 1993/94 season could easily be compared to some of the great catenaccio sides. Generally, they went out and got the first goal then sat back and defended their lead. Milan won the scudetto after scoring just 36 goals, but the back four of Mauro Tassotti, Baresi, Costacurta and Maldini only conceded 15. However, with half of his dependable back four missing, Capello decided to spring a few surprises for the final.

The major one of which his reintroduction of full pitch pressing to Milan, which partly renders this examination useless as a way of disproving universality. His team still pressed when they were looking for that first goal during the season, but not nearly to the extent that Sacchi’s had, which was closer to how they did in the final. Barcelona seemed unprepared for the pressure Milan put them under and struggled to build any attacks.

In the success of Milan’s pressing, we can see the value of universality: the willingness of attackers to defend meant Barcelona struggled to create. There was an exception to this though, and he was the other surprise by Capello. Dejan Savicevic and Capello didn’t get on – the coach didn’t appreciate the player’s laziness, and the player didn’t appreciate the coach’s rotation policy for his attackers (Capello was a bit of a trendsetter in this regard). Were it not for Savicevic being one of Berlusconi’s favourites, he wouldn’t have stayed at Milan, yet Capello decided to field him in the final. There was no way Savicevic would have taken to the field under Sacchi – even during this game when all his teammates were pressing, Savicevic would wander around languidly – but, despite his lack of defensive effort, he was undoubtably a brilliant player. It was he who set up the opening goal for Daniele Massaro, effortly leaving Miguel Angel Nadal on his behind and evading Guardiola to flick the ball across for Massaro to finish; it was he who killed off any hopes of a Barcelona comeback with a beautiful lob over Andoni Zubizarreta shortly after half-time, and he played a part in the intricate passing move for Milan and Massaro’s second.

Savicevic refused to defend, but Milan clearly didn’t need him to. What’s more, Savicevic’s refusal to track back meant he could trot around finding space, meaning he was in a dangerous place to receive the ball once Milan regained possession. In the game against Napoli a few years before, Milan had often struggled to create because their centre midfielders were too busy dealing with Maradona. Fast forward to the 1994 final and Savicevic is doing the bulk of the creative work for them, because, unconcerned with defensive matters, he’s free to do so. When Milan’s midfield left Maradona in 1989, he punished them with the extra space he was given; in 1994, this space was filled by Marcel Desailly, arguably the best player on the pitch that day. Like Savicevic, there was no way he would play in this role under Sacchi. While certainly not awful on the ball – his goal to make it four was excellently taken, after all – he was primarily a defender, he wasn’t good enough creatively to have played a midfield role under Sacchi, who expected all his players to be able to play as registi. The two players who couldn’t have played in Sacchi’s system were two of the most influential players against Barca.

With their lead secure, Milan sat back more, showing their defensive discipline and leaving the majority of attacking to Massaro and Savicevic. Capello had masterminded one of the greatest performances in European Cup history. His success showed universality isn’t a neccessity, the team just must be balanced to be successful. Get five defenders better than Barcelona’s and five attackers better than Barcelona’s and we may have a solution to their dominance. Shame they have most of the world’s best players then.

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