One of the age-old stereotypes of Italian football has always been the label of being too “defensive” due to the catenaccio approach to football. However, in 1987, a former shoe-salesman brought with him an entire new philosophy of playing, unknown to previous Italian teams.
Arrigo Sacchi is not in management anymore, and probably never will be again, but the mark he has left on the game will last forever. That mark, is his pressing-game which has brought success not only to his AC Milan side of the 90s, but it has also revolutionised the way every team defends without the ball. This article looks at how he implemented such an approach and how it has been used in recent years.
In the modern day, coaches educate players on such tactical elements further down their development. Once players have grasped the basics (usually around the age of 18-21), coaches begin to introduce more complex tactical situations into training to help develop the footballing brain. Sacchi is one who still perceives this as the best way to develop a footballer. He believes that young players should be given coaching in all aspects of the game, rather than only learning skills attributed to one position. This simple notion was the basis of making his pressing-game work.
One of the highlights of the great Dutch team of the 70s and Barcelona of the modern era was the ability of the players to be comfortable on the ball, where ever they were on the pitch; as well as filling in any gaps around the pitch. These gaps were frequently positions which were not that specific player’s natural position. Yet, because the players had developed enough technical prowess during their formative years, they were all able to understand the demand of each position. This type of coaching is a much more fluid and enjoyable way to educate young players from 16-21 years of age.
If we compare this to the more rigid British style of coaching, where players are given their position and then expected to learn every manoeuvre in that position, you can already begin to realise how difficult it can be to implement such coaching philosophies, or even change footballing philosophies which are set into stone due to historical significance. The British style often puts a ceiling on a professional footballer’s development, never allowing them to really branch out and try different technical or tactical skills. However, Sacchi managed to merge to the two types of coaching styles, but more importantly, added a new dimension on to the already successful catenaccio game. This dimension was a more aggressive, attacking one.
When Arrigo Sacchi arrived at AC Milan, he had two real fundamental issues to deal with. Even though he had Silvio Berlusconi’s support, he was still perceived as a nobody who was taking on a massive job at a massive club. Could he win over the players and fans? His second issue was how he would try to win over the players and the fans. Would the players really take to his quite unique training methods? Would the fans give him enough time and have patience in what he was trying to achieve?
One of the peculiar methods Sacchi bought to the fore was ‘shadow football’. Sacchi believed this was one of the best ways to get a team working in unison; playing for each other and developing the positional sense which would make his own philosophy work. The strange thing about ‘shadow football’? There is no football involved…
One of my favourite stories about this is about a scout who went to spy on AC Milan before an upcoming fixture. He hid in the bushes and watched Milan move about the pitch, gracefully and like clockwork. He was impressed. But then suddenly, something dawned upon him. He realised the session involved no football. When he went back to report to his manager, he explained what had happened and began to sound like a man possessed. He was confused yet shocked at how someone can train without a football. Duly, the following week, Milan won the fixture and even kept a clean sheet.
The way this works is quite simple. Sacchi liked his teams to fundamentally use a zonal-marking system. Setting up in a simple 4-4-2 formation (see right), he made sure that the defence and midfield were never 25 metres apart. This meant that the opposition would struggle to penetrate the team through the middle, and almost always be forced to go out wide. This also meant, when the ball was in the oppositions area, the defensive line would be very high, sometimes near the half-way line.
This caused the midfield and strikers to shift further up the field. This almost, always caused high pressure on the opposition, as space to pass the ball was often closed down. This would either lead to the ball being kicked up the field, or the player hesitating and being dispossessed. The ‘shadow football’ enabled the AC Milan team to gain an understanding of how to set-up without the ball. Sacchi knew he had enough talent on the ball to cause damage, but he also strived for the ball to be won back as soon as possible. To coach this, all Sacchi needed was willing learners. Although some players did question why they were training without a ball, the rewards they reaped later justified such a far-fetched method of training.
One of Arrigo Sacchi’s greatest accomplishments was the 1989 European Cup win against Steaua Bucharest in Barcelona. In that game, AC Milan thrashed Steaua 4-0, playing a real high octane game. The Steaua team had won the European Cup themselves three years previously; therefore this achievement was a highlight for Sacchi and Milan. Throughout the game, they frequently forced the Steaua full-backs into mistakes, whilst also closing down the space and any avenues for a pass. Below, is a screenshot of the average positions the AC Milan players took up when the Steaua Bucherest full-backs were on the ball.
It can be seen that AC Milan setup in a way to suffocate any space, whilst also being wise enough to close down potential angles for a pass. Even though Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta both were not the fastest defenders, they were able to keep a high-line due to the confidence they had in their teams efforts in winning the ball back and providing quality protection. This was the foundation of such a resounding result.
Jose Mourinho used a similar pressing game at Porto, which led to league titles, Portuguese Cups, a UEFA Cup and a Champions League win, which set him aside as a potentially world-class coach. The success of such a strange yet powerful tactical method has also led other coaches educated at Coverciano to implement this but with different aims in mind. Roberto Mancini was one who used the approach with his Manchester City team in his first year, to get them working more as a unit and pressing the ball higher up the pitch. This foundation led to the success last season in winning the Premier League title. However, probably more apparent, is Barcelona’s success using a similar pattern.
Their famed ‘seven second rule’ in winning possession back was built on the ideologies of Sacchi. The ways Barcelona do close the ball down as a unit is also reminiscent of Sacchi’s Milan. Barcelona set-up with a three in central midfield, which allows for them to control the tempo of the game, as well as keeping hold of the ball more easier than with a two man midfield. A three-man central midfield also allows for them to press the ball more efficiently without losing the team shape. Couple this with their short-passing, high pace game; they become extremely difficult to play against.
Arrigo Sacchi is currently helping the FIGC in re-shaping the youth sector of Italian football. With his quirky ideas and first-hand experience, he certainly could help in developing a new breed of Italian footballer. “When you build a skyscraper, you make really strong foundations – if you don’t make the foundations you will never see the skyscraper”, says Sacchi. The Italian innovator is most certainly correct.
Follow Aran Sohal on Twitter: @AranSohal