Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan: Revolutionary or Overrated? Part I: Background

It is clear from previous posts that yours truly is a fan(atic) of FC Barcelona, Spanish & Brazilian football. As I have mentioned before, I drunk the EPL kool-aid until the extended end of the fantastic 2002-03 La Liga, in my not so humble opinion, the most exciting title race of this century so far in Spain. In the brief period that I had followed EPL, Liverpool were my favourite team. A soft corner that still exists in my heart. It was the reason why I diligently followed the Luis Suarez inspired 1st loser position in the 2013-14 EPL season. Luisito being Luisito duly got banned for biting again and moved to Barcelona to be closer to his family and inspired the Catalans to a second treble in less than 7 years.

Losing an inspirational player can be tough but many teams in the past have coped well. Liverpool lost 30 goal Ian Rush in 1987 but won the league by 9 points in 1988. Juventus lost Zizou in 2001 and had a tough time in Europe but won the league thanks to a furious rally in the last month and a fantastic collapse by Inter in the final game at Lazio. With £75 million in the kitty & a fine young attacking core in Coutinho/Sturridge/Sterling Liverpool should have built on it and challenged for many titles. Alas, it was not to be. The red half of Liverpool struggled throughout the season and ultimately suffered their biggest defeat in half century in their final game of the season. Things went further south this year as Brendan Rodgers got the pink slip and in comes the charming giant (He’s 6’4″.) Jürgen Klopp to save the Kop. Liverpool’s quest for the national title still continues.

The 80s saw two famous clubs that had fallen on hard times try to revive their fortunes by what else: changing their managers. Manchester United, who last won the league in 1967, went for the tried and tested Alex Ferguson. Ferguson, famously, broke the old firm dominance of Scotland by winning 3 league titles with Aberdeen. He also won the Cup Winners cup in 1983 by beating European giants Real Madrid. The Red devils knew what they were getting in the fiery Scot.

The other side were the red half, well red & black half of the fashion capital Milan aka A.C. Milan. Milan went through a very difficult period since winning the European Cup by thrashing Ajax AFC, led by some 22 year old named Johan Cruijff, 4-1 in 1969. It would be more than 10 years between Milan’s 9th (1967-68) and 10th (1978-79) Serie A titles. Just a year after earning their 1st star for 10 league titles, Milan were rocked by the Totonero scandal. The match-fixing scandal, which also banned future world cup hero Paolo Rossi, would see the Rossoneri relegated to Serie B as punishment.

Thus, began a period where Milan would oscillate between Serie A & Serie B for 5 seasons. Milan also went through a tremendous financial strain being close to bankruptcy. Enter Italy’s Rupert Murdoch, TV Mogul, future honest & incorruptible Prime Minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi. He bought AC Milan in February 86. Under Milan legend, Nils Liedholm, the Rossoneri finished 7th that season. The following season Milan had a lacklustre campaign finishing 5th and were eliminated in the round of 16 of the Coppa Italia by 2nd division Parma. This defeat would prove the turning point for Milan, as Silvio was impressed by the manager of their conquerors, Arrigo Sacchi and subsequently hired him in the summer of 1987.

His appointment was met with widespread disapproval. Sacchi never played professional football and, according to many back then, you had to play football to coach football. Sacchi famously quipped “I never realized that in order to become a jockey you have to have been a horse first.” Sacchi was also different from other Italian managers in the sense that he didn’t believe in Catenaccio. He preferred zonal marking and dispensed with the Libero. His other core concepts were the high defensive line, offside trap and high pressing by the forwards. These were generally the antithesis of the typical Italian style of football. He wanted the distance between the forward and defensive lines to never exceed 30 yards.

AC Milan’s offside trap vs Real Madrid

Along with the former shoe salesman turned coach arrived Marco Van Basten from Ajax and Ruud Gullit from PSV. Future perm-wetter Frank Rijkaard would arrive a year later. Sacchi had trouble convincing Milanistas of his vision. So he showed his methods through a training game.

“took 5 players [playing per his rules]…. they [the non agreeing players] had 10 players … they had fifteen minutes to score against my five players, the only rule was that if we won possession or they lost the ball, they had to start over 10 meters inside their own half … they never scored. Not once.” – From Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson

Armed with their tall Dutch forwards and Sacchi’s methods the Rossoneri won their 1st Serie A in 9 years. The title was their ticket into the European Cup the following season. AC Milan would become champions of Europe for first time in 20 years in 1989. They subsequently became the first team in 10 years to defend the European Cup in 1990. A feat that is yet to be repeated 25 years later. Sacchi subsequently quit Milan in 1991 and became manager of La Squadra. Italy, riding on the divine ponytail, would reach the final in Pasadena. The Azzuri would lose on penalties. Sacchi would stay on as national team manager until a disappointing campaign at the Euro 96. His subsequent dalliances with Milan, Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid were underwhelming.

The question arises: If they won so much in such style, why in the hell are you calling them overrated? We’ll see in part due.


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