Arrigo Sacchi is more than just a manager; he is a larger than life character, innovator and genius. A shoe salesman turned AC Milan king, Sacchi is a Milan legend, whose side is the last to retain the European Cup. Not many managers can claim to have such a legacy as the Italian.
Sacchi grew up in Fusignano, a commune in the province of Ravenna, Italy. Sacchi was fortunate enough to grow up watching the great Ferenc Puskás and József Bozsik, during their time at Budapest Honvéd FC as well as Real Madrid, Brazil and the Netherlands. The attacking sides he enjoyed watching were in contrast to the norm in Italy, where the very early signs of Catenaccio were starting to appear.
Sacchi’s first coaching role was at his local club, Baracca Lugo, at just 26 years of age. As well as coaching, Sacchi had to work as a shoe salesman to keep food on the table. Sacchi’s early football education of watching sides outside of Italy, led him to imagine a different style of Italian football. Before that though, he had to win over the players of Baracca.
“I was twenty-six, my goalkeeper was thirty-nine and my centre-forward was thirty-two. I had to win them over.”
After spells at Bellaria, Cesena and Rimini, Sacchi got a chance at one of the ‘Seven Sisters’ of Italian football, as youth team coach of Fiorentina. His success led to interest from Parma, at the time in Serie C1. In his first season at Parma, they won promotion, an incredible achievement for a still relatively unknown manager. The following season Parma came within three points of a successive promotion.
His time at Parma will be remembered not just for their league progress, but also for two famous ties with AC Milan in the Coppa Italia. The Milan giants lost to Sacchi’s men 1-0 in the group stages and were then knocked out 1-0 on aggregate in the knockout stages by the Serie B side. Sacchi had suddenly caught the eye of everyone in Italy, most importantly Silvio Berlusconi, who made his move at the end of the 1987 season.
Without any Serie A management experience, Sacchi was at the helm of a European giant, and again faced credibility issues. Sacchi responded in typical manner, leading to one of his most famous quotes.
“I never realised that in order to become a jockey you have to have been a horse first.”
Within one season Sacchi had silenced his doubters, leading AC Milan to their first Serie A triumph in nine long years. Sacchi would continue to strengthen, bringing in Frank Rijkaard to join his Netherlands teammates, Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit. Sacchi believed that defence should begin with the attack. Pressing from the front forced mistakes from opposition defences, allowing the genius, van Basten to pounce.
Sacchi’s fluid 4-4-2 formation was what he had imagined as a young coach watching the attacking Real Madrid and Brazil sides. From 1998-1990, AC Milan ruled Europe, becoming the last team to date, to retain the European Cup. Sacchi had some wonderful players at his disposal, including the legendary Baresi at centre-back with a young Maldini at left full-back. A central midfield partnership of Rijkaard and Ancelotti provided energy, steel and efficiency. The crown jewell of the side was the attacking force of van Basten and Gullit supported by Donadoni and Colombo on the wings.
“He remains the best striker of all time in my opinion, no other forward has worked as hard for the team as Marco did at Milan. Above all, however, I remember him for his elegance, his grace and his incredible ability.”
Arrigo Sacchi on Marco van Basten
Sacchi’s success at Milan wasn’t without hard work, especially for his players. His training sessions were strict and rigorous and his players were expected to memorise tactics and patterns of play. He also believed that every player in his side was equal and that success was dependant on team chemistry and harmony.
In 1991 Sacchi left his post at Milan to manage the Italian national team. Deploying Baresi and Maldini within the back four, the 1993 Ballon d’Or winner, Roberto Baggio, was the talisman of the side. In the build up to the 1994 World Cup, Italy weren’t among the favourites but managed to reach the final and if it wasn’t for a missed Baggio penalty, Sacchi would have been a world champion with his nation.
After another brief spell with Milan, Sacchi also tried his hand in Spain with Atlético Madrid, before returning to Parma in 2001. Sacchi’s last role in football was as Real Madrid’s Director of Football for the 2004-05 season.
Sacchi’s legacy in football is undisputed despite being outspoken, even borderline racist at one point, and controversial. He set the blueprint that led to Fabio Capello winning four Scudetti in five years, as well as the 1994 Champions League. His tactical approach can still be seen in the modern day, from José Mourinho’s Porto side to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team, as well as Jürgen Klopp’s high-pressing Liverpool.
Arrigo Sacchi is undisputedly one of the greatest managers; controversial, creative, innovative, successful and probably a bit crazy but absolutely brilliant.