updated 7:33 AM MST, Nov 17, 2017

11 versus 0 with Arrigo SACCH

  • Published in FOOTBALL

There is an anecdote dating from 1989 that neatly encapsulates the com
plex and revolutionary work of Arrigo Sacchi. Ahead of that year’s Eu
ropean Cup semi-final, Real Madrid sent an observer to AC Milan’s train
ing camp with the intent of spying on the Italians and learning more
about Sacchi’s successful tactics. The baffled delegate sparked great con

sternation on his return to Madrid, admitting that he had learned noth
ing from the coaching session and reporting that the former defender had set
his players up to train “11 versus 0”.
Born in 1946, Arrigo Sacchi was an amateur footballer of average ability
who plied his trade for home team Fusignano for many years before moving to
Bellaria on the Adriatic. But after hanging up his boots, he discovered that he
had a special flair for coaching. He learned quickly, and when Silvio Berlusco
ni brought him to giants AC Milan in 1987, it seemed as though he had come
from nowhere. “I was an unknown who knew hardly anyone in the football
business,” he later said. “The fact that I didn’t have a past helped me to make
my way in that world.”
Even today, Sacchi occasionally appears at AC Milan’s training ground. This
is usually a bad sign, as it means the outlook is sufficiently poor for the club to
seek the 68-year-old’s advice. One thing is certain: no coach has played a greater
role in shaping the destiny of
I Rossoneri
than Sacchi, so our reporter Massimo
Franchi travelled to the Italian province of Ravenna to meet him. Our exclusive
interview begins on page six. Å
Alan Schweingruber
11 versus 0 with Arrigo
4-2-4 formation
Arrigo Sacchi’s opinion is highly regarded.
Guido Clerici
Arrigo Sacchi, 68
“At my age you have to
do regular exercise.”
The creator
Arrigo Sacchi shaped an era in football and his coaching style is still
revered to this day. Here he talks about Italy’s outdated football,
geniuses and coaches who think too much of themselves.
Massimo Franchi, Fusignano
Guido Clerici

That’s indicative of the state of our football. When one of our
big stars goes overseas they quickly recognise how good they really
are and how they are valued. There’s a huge difference. Even as
little as ten years ago Italy was the best in Europe and always had
teams fighting for the Champions League title. Today we’re in
fourth place behind Spain, England and Germany and we need to
be careful not to fall even further behind. We can already feel the
closest pursuer hot on our heels.
What kind of a sport is football?
Football is an attacking sport, although you have to attack as a
unit. Nowadays there is a lot more emphasis on team unity. After
all, it is a team sport and not a game you play individually.
What do you mean by that?
A team with togetherness has synergy, but one without it does
not have much. In order for that to be possible, all 11 players have
to move as one, they have to keep the right distances between each
other and lose their markers at the right time. At the back they
also have to be well-positioned and mark their opponents. In short,
all 11 players have to be active at all times, both in possession of
the ball and without it. That’s the objective. That’s very difficult to
do today, and was even harder a quarter of a century ago.
That sounds like a lot of physical and mental effort is required...
The opposite is true in fact: at AC Milan we never invested more
energy than our opponents did. We always had greater stamina
because when you’re in possession you never really need to sprint
further than about 15 metres, but when you’re chasing the ball then
you could be sprinting 40 metres. It’s common knowledge that my
boys could play for a long time. Paolo Maldini only retired when he
was 41, as did Filippo Galli. [Alessandro] Costacurta was 39 when he
hung up his boots, while [Franco] Baresi and [Mauro] Tassotti were
both 37. The only one who had to stop earlier was Marco van Bas
ten, but that was because he had osteophytes.
So you are saying the whole team shared the burden equally?
That’s exactly right. I always put a lot of emphasis on a univer
sal kind of football. I always wanted to have a strong collective
rather just having good individual players. So I trained the team
with a view to making every single player better, instead of inte
grating individuals into the side.
rrigo Sacchi on 1 April you turn 69. What is an aver
age day for you like?
Arrigo Sacchi:
At my age you have to do regular
exercise in order to stay fit. I get up, have break
fast, read the paper and watch the television.
Then I do a bit of exercise, preferably riding my
mountain bike. After lunch I take care of some
personal matters, read a bit and then watch football on TV. Some
times, although not very often, I go to the stadium too. Occasional
ly, Mediaset [an Italian media company] invite me to be a pundit,
especially for Champions League games. If there’s no football on
TV then I go out with my wife for dinner or to the theatre. In
Fusignano there’s an auditorium dedicated to one of our town’s
famous sons, Arcangelo Corelli, who was one of the greatest com
posers and violinists in the Baroque period towards the end of the
17th century and the start of the 18th.
You have always been an admirer of art and culture...
Yes, because football is also a kind of art, a spectacle, just like
music, comedic poetry, dramaturgy and cinematics. But as the
great Bertolt Brecht once said, if there is no script there is only
improvisation and therefore only superficiality. Imagine a choir
made up of 11 people, just like a football team and ten of them sing
an aria from Aida perfectly while the 11th acts as he sees fit and
sings something completely different. You can imagine how that
would sound.
Has football changed since you were a coach?
It changes every day, just like life itself. You have to stay up-to-
date and keep developing so that you don’t get left behind. Stand
ing still is the same as going backwards. Football follows the devel
opment of society. Today we live in a global world and if you don’t
play a global kind of football then you’re quickly left on the outside
looking in. Modern football is fast – a lot faster than it used to be
not long ago. And if you’re not quick in today’s game then there’s
no room for you.
Italian football also appears to have been left behind...
That has a lot to do with our history. After the collapse of the
Roman Empire, which had spread culture to every corner of the
earth, and also after the Renaissance, Italians led lives that were
shaped by ruses and denunciation for centuries – the infamous art
of coming to arrangements. In a way, that spread to our football, as
can be seen from certain peculiarities in our downright outdated
game. We needed to reorganise to get back on track but when we
once again failed to adapt to the circumstances, we fell further
behind. The thing I personally dislike about our football is its
backwardness, its lack of innovation and the common conserva
tism that characterises certain teams. Instead of progressing they
take huge steps backwards and get left behind.
There are not many Italian players abroad: Mario Balotelli is usually a
substitute at Liverpool, Alessio Cerci has returned to Italy with Milan
after an unsuccessful spell in Madrid, and Ciro Immobile is struggling at
Borussia Dortmund.
“The thing I personally
dislike about Italian football
is its backwardness,
its lack of innovation and
its common conservatism.”
Guido Clerici
Team talk 1988
Arrigo Sacchi and his star-studded AC Milan side at a training camp.
chorus, instrumentalists and dancers. All of them move simultane
ously in perfect harmony. That is precisely how the ideal football
team should act too. You can’t confuse a player with a footballer.
What do you mean by that exactly?
Take Mario Balotelli for example. He’s a footballer but not a
player. A player is someone who moves in harmony with the team,
not as a voice separated from the chorus.
Yet great individual players such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi
are often decisive...
Even superstars are only able to win when they’re given the
right support from the whole team. Ask any of today’s world-class
players and you’ll see what their answer is. Ronaldo and Messi may
play the first fiddle but they’re still only part of a larger orchestra.
Even the best and most talented players have to follow the beat of
the collective. The word ’orchestra’ is a nice term and originates
from Greek theatre: it means a group of people comprised of the
What was Diego Maradona?
He was exceptionally talented. I must admit, I would have much
preferred to have coached him than to play against him, as was
often the case in matches between AC Milan and Napoli. Diego is a
kind of sword of Damocles: you never know when it’ll fall.
It is said that in a way you sacrificed great individual players in favour
of tactical discipline...
Some great players enjoyed their best spells under me, such as
[Ruud] Gullit and Van Basten at AC Milan, and [Roberto] Baggio in
the Italian national team..
What do you make of modern coaches?
Generally, I put coaches into one of three categories. There are
the geniuses, the innovators, but there aren’t many of those; then
there are the upstarts, the also-rans who have no idea but think
they’re very clever; and then there are the traditionalists, the
Bob Thomas
Getty Images
The Immortals
everal years ago, in 2007 to be precise,
Italian mass media company Mediaset
ran a survey asking AC Milan supporters
to name the best side in the club’s history.
The result was unanimous: Arrigo
Sacchi’s ’Squadra’, widely known as ’The
Immortals’, won the vote by an overwhelming
majority, leaving the team Carlo Ancelotti set
about building in 2001 and Fabio Capello’s side
from the early nineties in its wake.
Under Sacchi’s tutelage, Milan dominated
European football at the back end of the 1980s
and remain the most recent club to have won suc
cessive European Cups in 1989 and 1990. Playing
Naples 1988
Diego Maradona takes
on Marco van Basten.
a brand of attractive, innovative, spectacular yet
efficient football that is rarely seen on Italian
shores, Sacchi’s team holds a special place in the
memories of the “Tifosi Rossoneri” and football
fans around the globe.
Dutch influence
Like any great artist, Sacchi’s troops succeeded in
blending tradition with innovative ideas of their
own. His Milan team combined a defensive ap
proach typical of Italian clubs with the creativity
of the individual players at his disposal, not to men
tion a possession-based system which was first
adopted by a Netherlands side built around the
great Johan Cruyff. The result left nothing to be
desired: a complete team with a rock-solid de
fence, a patient approach to bringing the ball out
from the back and midfielders who didn’t give their
opponents a moment’s peace on the ball.
Sacchi’s Milan performed with a balance and
rhythm that captures fans’ imaginations to this
day. The goalkeeper, Galli, was unflappable and
reliable, Tassotti and Costacurta formed a formi
dable centre-back pairing and Baresi excelled at
bringing the ball out of defence in a calm and com
posed manner. Maldini not only provided extra
cover for the defence, but also possessed a good
eye for a ball into the feet of the attackers. Ance
lotti was responsible for pulling the strings in mid
field, while Donadoni and Colombo were just as
good at pressurising opponents as they were at
keeping possession.
Napoli showdown
However, Sacchi’s side is perhaps best known for
the Dutch trio in the final third of the pitch – Rij
kaard, Gullit and Van Basten. Rijkaard set the
rhythm in attack, Gullit wreaked havoc with a mix
ture of penetration, awareness and shooting abil
ity, and Van Basten was simply the icing on the
cake. Affectionately known as the ’Nijinsky of the
penalty box’ due to his sublime first touch and un
usually long strides, his goals were almost always
of the spectacular variety. They were the end prod
uct of a visionary and earned him successive Bal
lon d’Or awards in 1988 and 1989. Incidentally, his
colleagues Baresi, Gullit and Rijkaard joined van
Basten on the podium during that time.
Over the years, Sacchi’s Immortals made the
rest of the world forget that Italy was the birth
place of the catenaccio system. All legends are
based on certain historic events and in the case of
Sacchi’s Milan, three games in particular secured
them that legendary status. The first, a home
match against Diego Maradona’s Napoli side,
took place in January 1988, just after Gullit had
been awarded the Ballon d’Or for the first and only
time. Milan romped to a 4-1 victory at the San Siro,
a result that won Sacchi plenty of plaudits at the
time. The second game was the 5-0 humbling of
a Real Madrid side featuring Butragueno, Hugo
Sanchez and Michel in the semi-finals of the
European Cup in 1989, while the third of those
memorable matches was the final that year, which
ended in a comfortable 4-0 win for the Italians
over Steaua Bucharest, earning them their first
European title. The football world was waxing
lyrical about the Immortals that night – and they
still are to this day.
Jordi Punti
Guido Clerici

Pointing the way
Tactics were always one of Arrigo Sacchi’s strong points as coach and for this photo shoot the 68-year-old got back into character.
downright old-fashioned coaches who follow classical but now
obsolete schools of thought.
Which coaches do you hold in high regard?
My pupil [Carlo] Ancelotti is doing very well, especially last year
when he won both the Champions League and the Club World Cup.
He could ring in the start of a new era at Real Madrid. But I also
rate Jose Mourinho very highly. He’s a genius, albeit in a very
different way to Pep Guardiola. I like Jürgen Klopp too, even if he’s
had a lot of difficulties in the Bundesliga this season. In Italy
Antonio Conte and Zdenek Zeman are without doubt among the
very best. Both of them are conductors who know how to convey
the full score to their orchestras.
Speaking of Real Madrid: Florentino Perez appointed you sporting
director at the club ten years ago, but success remained elusive.
That team had so many champions in it: Zidane, Ronaldo, Figo,
Raul, Roberto Carlos, Beckham, Owen, Casillas, Guti, Morientes,
Solari and Samuel. But things didn’t work out well on the pitch.
What is your opinion of people for whom the end justifies the means as
long as they win?
Results are more important today than ever before but it would
be a mistake to believe that three points are the only things that
matter. Success only comes with a playing style, with a unified side
and the work of the whole team, and that starts in everyday train
ing. Otherwise, you may win but it’s a lifeless win. You don’t get far
with that philosophy.
Which teams do you think have had the greatest influence on the
development of football in different eras?
I think there have been three: the Netherlands and Ajax under
Rinus Michels, AC Milan under me and Barcelona under Pep
How do you put a team together that is able to write footballing history?
There are numerous factors that have to be considered and
brought together. First and foremost the club must be ambitious
and have revolutionary ideas. The coach is also important, as he has
to have the ability to put his ideas into practice and to motivate his
players. New signings have to fit in exactly with the tactical con
cept. You don’t buy a player just because of his name if he can’t play
in the position you need him in. There’s no point in creating unnec
essary rivalries. Young players who are brought into a new team
must be reliable, unselfish, passionate and intelligent. That’s anoth
er fundamental aspect that is essential when you’re planning in
meticulous detail. If you don’t work in depth then you’ve lost from
“Improvising can work well once,
but meticulous planning
is the only way.”
Guido Clerici

Did Ronaldo deserve to win the FIFA Ballon d’Or?
Absolutely! He had an outstanding season and set one new
record after the other. He may not have won the World Cup but that
tournament only lasts a month, whereas a year lasts 12 months. In
Brazil Messi was voted as the best player and [Manuel] Neuer as the
best goalkeeper. It’s no coincidence that both of those players were
nominated alongside Ronaldo for the Ballon d’Or. I’d like to single
out Neuer, the number one at Bayern Munich and in the German
national team, for special praise because he’s not only good with
his hands but he’s also a fantastic footballer. I watched the Round
of 16 match between Germany and surprise package Algeria in
Porto Alegre very closely. Neuer came out of his box at least three
times and cleared the ball as if he was a top-class defender. He
truly deserves the nickname “Sweeper keeper”.
“I rate Jose Mourinho very highly.
He’s a genius.”
What is the greatest compliment anyone has ever paid you?
There are a few examples. For instance, one was when the
French sports newspaper L’Equipe wrote that AC Milan would
never be the same again after our European Cup triumph. Another
was the celebrations at the end of the 1986/87 Serie B season with
Parma. We didn’t even earn promotion but finished three points off
the pace in seventh place, while Cesena, Lecce and Cremonese
entered the promotion play-offs. But our fans cheered us as if we’d
won the Serie A title. Unbelievable! A few days later I left Parma
alongside [Roberto] Mussi, [Walter] Bianchi and [Mario] Bortolazzi
to join AC Milan. And the next year we won the Rossoneri’s 11th
league title.