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Aug 7, 2013

Greatest Managers, No. 6: Arrigo Sacchi

Some coaches achieve greatness through longevity, others reach it through a short burst of success that revolutionises the game. Arrigo Sacchi embodies the latter category.

Arrigo Sacchi celebrates lifting the European Cup with AC Milan in 1990.
Arrigo Sacchi celebrates lifting the European Cup with AC Milan in 1990.

The pressing game continues to be a winning approach among the sport's best teams. It was Sacchi who fashioned it into the strategy that brought success to his AC Milan, but also those that followed, like Pep Guardiola's Barcelona and Jupp Heynckes' Bayern Munich.

Professorial but abrasive, Sacchi was an alchemist who won the club game's greatest honours and was within a penalty kick of international football's greatest prize. His AC Milan team were the last to win two successive European Cups in 1989 and 1990. His Italy team at USA '94 lost the World Cup final when Roberto Baggio unthinkably missed a penalty in a shoot-out.

He was also a trendsetter for many of the current game's leading coaches. Like Jose Mourinho and Andre Villas-Boas, he never played the game professionally. "A jockey doesn't have to have been born a horse," he believed.

Sacchi had been a shoe salesman when becoming manager of local club Baracca Lugo because, at 26, he was not good enough to play for them. After various spells as a youth team coach, the big break came at Parma, then in Serie C1. 

 

In the Coppa Italia of 1986-87, twin defeats of Milan had Silvio Berlusconi seeing Sacchi as the man to revive the San Siro's fallen giant. Sacchi was gifted Italian greats in Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini, and Berlusconi imported three Dutch masters in Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco Van Basten, but it was Sacchi's methods that made Milan the best European club team since Ajax and Bayern of the 1970s.

A high defensive line in a 4-4-2 was employed, and opponents were hunted in packs deep into their own half. At the Milanello training ground, a walled gymnasium was where the physically demanding pressing game was honed. Now unused, it still stands as a monument to Sacchi. Italian football was cautiously defensive until Sacchi got hold of it. 

When Sacchi took the Italy job in 1991 after one too many quarrels with his star players, his blueprint was followed as successor Fabio Capello's team dominated Serie A and won another European crown playing the Sacchi way. 

Italy battled to the 1994 World Cup final, relying on Baggio, but also fired by Sacchi's brave calls and idiosyncratic selections. When down to ten men in the group stage against Norway, after 'keeper Gianluca Pagliuca had been dismissed, he subbed Baggio and came away with a victory. A brave defensive performance in Pasadena's final was denied by penalty misses from Baresi and Baggio.

Thereafter, the magic deserted Sacchi. Italy crashed out of Euro '96 in the group stage. A nomadic existence followed. A return to Milan disappointed, as did a spell at Atletico Madrid and a period as director of football at Real Madrid.

Sacchi's successes lasted under a decade, but his legacy endures.

ESPN FC’s Top 20 Greatest Managers was determined by a polling process of over 20 regular columnists, contributors and editors at ESPN FC.

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