• Arrigo Sacchi turns 75 on April 1, 2021
  • He transformed the face of football during his time at AC Milan
  • 1994 World Cup finalist with Italy

Arrigo Sacchi, a former shoe salesman who became the coach of AC Milan in 1987, had some crazy ideas. On his arrival, for example, he undertook to dispense with the libero and abolish individual marking. Its players are initially struggling to hide their doubts. “Five well-organized players can always beat ten players without organization,” said the young coach with aplomb.

To prove it, he sets out to explain to a goalkeeper and four defenders, including Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini, how to practice alternate cover. He then asks the other players to attack his defense, without giving them any instructions. The attackers are first four, then five, then six … Finally, ten players attack the goal. The training match ended with a goalless draw. Remained silent, the Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and others Carlo Ancelotti are this time convinced.

On the occasion of Sacchi’s birthday, who turns 75 on April 1, 2021, a look back at some highlights of his career and his philosophy

“We were training to synchronize the movements of the 11 players. The general idea was to create an awareness of the context of this game. The 11 players should always be in active position, with or without the ball.”


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A modest footballer, Sacchi will never evolve beyond the amateur level. This discreet career forced him to start his coaching profession at the bottom of the pyramid. At the same time, he works in his father’s shoe factory. However, the 1986/87 Italian Cup gave him the opportunity to make a name for himself. With Parma, which he led from Serie C1 to Serie B, he beats AC Milan twice. The following year, Silvio Berlusconi decided to give him the keys to his team.

To journalists who criticize him for his lack of experience as a player, Sacchi answers without being dismantled: “I did not know that you had to have been a horse before being a jockey”. From his first season in Milan, he won the Scudetto. The following year, he added a European Cup of Champions Clubs and the Intercontinental Cup to his list of achievements.

AC Milan after winning the 1989 European Cup
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His ideas were radical for the time, but they did not take long to gain traction. Even today, they form the basis of modern football: no more individual marking and alternate coverage depending on the position of the ball; aggressive pressing with innovative elements such as play without the ball and blocking the opponent’s preferential circuits; the reduction of spaces and a clearly established game plan.

To apply his philosophy, Sacchi opts for a 4-4-2 in which forwards and defenders should never be separated by more than 25 meters. This reduction in space is the norm today, but it was revolutionary then. In addition, offside quickly established itself as a central element of its strategy. As a reminder, in the 1980s, an attacker on the same line as the penultimate opposing defender was systematically penalized.

“There has only been one true tactical revolution, when football has moved from being an individual game to a team game. The idea of ​​teaching 11 players to play as one man still gives me flesh. of chicken.”


“The Italian teams have always focused on defense. We chose to defend by attacking and putting pressure on the opponent. Sacchi had captured the essence of modern football. In my opinion, his 4-4- 2 was the only way to enter into this modernity, ”explains Ancelotti, who would later become a renowned trainer himself.

“Sacchi is at the origin of a real revolution in Italian football, both mentally and tactically. We had our own way of playing and we faced all the opponents, from amateurs to training during the week at Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu, “confirms Donadoni.

In training, Sacchi likes to line up his team in their basic roster, before indicating where an imaginary ball is. The players move around the field according to the information they receive, until they acquire automatisms. In attack, the method is similar: this time there is a ball in play, but no opponents. Players develop offensive moves in an 11v0 formula. Nowadays, many trainers adopted this practice, but back then there was no shortage of detractors.

When I coached Bellaria in the Fourth Division I once walked into the dressing room when a player said: ‘This coach does things with us that I didn’t have to do in Serie A or Serie B. C ‘is either a genius or a madman.’ I said to him: ‘I hope this is the first possibility.’ “


“He made us repeat the same things, all the time. Especially to us, the defenders. Every day! But when we find ourselves with Baresi, Costacurta and Tassotti, we are still able to play like back then. things that we do not forget. It was one of the ingredients of our success “, remembers Paolo Maldini.

Sacchi’s philosophy is often reduced to this four-man defense and the defensive aspect of his Milanese formation. Yet he also loved the show, which led him to turn away from it catenaccio. “I send my players out onto the pitch to give the spectators pleasure for 90 minutes. When my team has the ball, I want to see five men in front. I always want to have one solution on the left wing and another. on the right wing, but it doesn’t always have to be the same players, ”says Sacchi.

Logically, the Italian Federation appointed him coach in 1991. Three years later, he led the National in the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA ™ final before losing to Brazil on penalties. “The Brazilians were better than us, they deserve their victory. Anyway, I did not want a title taken on the snatch. It is very important to me,” he said later.

Two years later, at UEFA EURO, his side absolutely had to win against Germany to make it through the group stage. Italy put on a show, but they missed the penalty which would have allowed them to continue the adventure beyond the first round.

Despite these two failures, which could have enriched his record, Sacchi remains considered a key coach in the history of football, thanks to his ideas which, even today, continue to influence many coaches.

“Now that I am working as a coach, I completely understand your job!”

Van Basten, for the attention of Sacchi

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

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