Europe’s Greatest Teams – Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan

There have been some teams that have revolutionised football over the years and changed the course of the game. We look at Arrigo Sacchi's great Milan team that won the European Cup two years in a row and the kind of impact it had on Italian Football.

In the late 80’s to the country where the Colosseum field was a gladiator’s abode. Football was no less to The Napoli of Diego Maradona and Careca, Inter of Matthaus, Klinsmann and Brehme, and the Sampdoria of Vialli and Mancini ensured that the Scudetto race was always a red-hot battle – probably the toughest domestic league in history.

The team with typically uncompromising Italian defenders, more than a flavour of Dutch flair – and an English name! This side – with the outstanding Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit struck fear into the opposition – looked damn good in those Rossoneri stripes, too.

 

Silvio Berlusconi
AC Milan were in the doldrums until Silvio Berlusconi (L) took over as president in 1986

Without a trophy since winning the tenth Scudetto in 1979, Milan were in the doldrums until Silvio Berlusconi took over as president in 1986. The relatively-unknown Arrigo Sacchi joined as coach in summer 1987, along with Dutchmen Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit. Sacchi's squad won the Italian title in their first season, then the European Cup – and indeed the corresponding UEFA Super Cups and European/South American Cups – in the following two campaigns.

The team contained the most impressive defence probably ever assembled, a hard-working midfield and flair players up front.

Twenty years ago, anyone situated between the goalkeeper and last defender when the ball was played was deemed offside – regardless of whether he was active or passive. This was very important to Milan's defensive system, which centred on a high defensive line and Franco Baresi pushing up his backline on-call as he anticipated a through ball. Such was Baresi's genius that he would regularly catch an attacker offside, but were he to utilise the same strategy today then he would be severely handicapped by the rule change. This is a reason why the most fertile breeding ground for defensive talent, Italy, has seen its conveyor belt grind to a halt in the last decade. Italians were the most adept defenders because they were the smartest tactically, a trait they can no longer fully exploit.

 

Carlo ANcelotti
AC Milan contained the most impressive defence probably ever assembled, a hard-working midfield and flair players up front

Sacchi challenged his teams to always set the tempo and take the game to their opponents, rather than playing reactively. When they had the ball, his players should always be looking to bring it forward, using short, quick passes to drag defenders out of position. When Sacchi's team lost possession, the whole team was expected to press high up the pitch, denying the opposition time to think and regroup. Those concepts might sound mundane today, but in the context of Italian football in the late 1980s, they were positively revolutionary.

Sacchi's sides played in a 4-4-2 system with zonal marking, the distance between the defence and midfield lines never greater than 25 to 30 metres. That high defensive line – and an efficient offside trap – maintained pressure on opponents not used to being hurried.

"I never realised that to be a jockey you had to be a horse first," snapped Sacchi after critics questioned the unremarkable defender's ability to lead a top club like Milan. He had worked his way up the ranks as a coach, joining Milan after a successful spell at Parma FC, and was determined to change the traditional Italian style. "Most Italian teams focus on defence," he explained. "Every team played with a libero and man-markers. In attack, everything hinged on the individual skills and creativity of the No10."

Even after Milan's 1987 titlewin many Italians remained sceptical of Sacchi's methods. Before the final against Steaua, he brought an article by Brera with him into the changing rooms, telling his players: "The most famous Italian journalist says that the Romanians are masters on the ball, and that we need to wait for them to come at us before we try to strike them on the counter-attack. What do you guys reckon?" According to Sacchi's account, Gullit stood up and replied: "We will attack them from the first second".

And yet that was not even the most impressive victory of the season for Milan, whose 5-0 obliteration of Real Madrid in the semi-final second leg remains one of the most iconic games in the club's history. Madrid were themselves en route to the fourth of five consecutive La Liga titles, and had gone 27 league games without defeat in the run-up to their humiliation at San Siro.

Milan's triumph over Madrid seemed all the more impressive for the fact that the goals had been spread between five different players – Carlo Ancelotti, Frank Rijkaard and Roberto Donadoni joining Gullit and Van Basten on the scoresheet. The team, rather than any individual player, had been the headline of the hour. That is how Sacchi would always have wanted it.

Arrigo Sacchi
Sacchi challenged his teams to always set the tempo and take the game to their opponents, rather than playing reactively.

It was Sacchi's refusal to kowtow to his stars that ultimately proved his downfall at Milan, Silvio Berlusconi cutting the manager loose in 1991 amid reports of a falling out with Van Basten and various others. By that point, though, Sacchi and his squad had already secured their place in history, becoming the first team in more than a decade to retain the European Cup when they beat Benfica in the 1990 final. Nobody has repeated that achievement since.

But even before their run of events began there was a bolt from the blue for the Rossoneri.

The 1988-89 season saw the emergence of a football dominance. But very few are aware of the providential night in Belgrade. In the second round of the European Cup Sacchi’s star men were playing at the Red Star Stadium against Red Star Belgrade, a minnow from Serbia. With half an hour of the second leg remaining, Sacchi's men were 2-1 down on aggregate and adding to their despair they were reduced to 10 men after striker Pietro Paolo Virdis was sent off. Their bequest could have ended in the second round and everything they achieved later would have been lost at that very night.

Their improbable saviour that night was a thick fog that enveloped the stadium forcing referee Dieter Pauly to call the game off, would be continued 24 hours later.

"But then everything happened very quickly. After 10 minutes of the second half the fog came in and, in one moment, suddenly it was invisible. The referee wanted to let us play but he had no choice, it was impossible.

"At half-time the visibility was fine, but minute by minute it got worse, First, I couldn't see the stand. Then I couldn't see the goal. Then I couldn't see the penalty area. Then I couldn't see the ball!"

"Milan were on their knees" said skipper Dragan Stojkovic.

Stojkovic knew that the delay would give the Rossoneri invaluable time to regroup their game and score that vital goal.

“They were monsters physically, with many good players on the bench who could help them. They had Gullit back for the second game! I felt like I was playing alone."

With the fog fully cleared and the stadium again packed, Van Basten got the better of a static defence to head Milan into penalties where they won the tie 4-2. And the rest is History.

"That Milan team was not one of the best, it was the best from my point of view. The best ever, when we lost on penalties, after the game as captain I said to my team-mates be happy, don't cry, " an emotional Stojkovic lamented.

"Rijkaard came to me and told me to be proud, he said 'you are a really big player.' That was a big compliment for me to receive from a big star. He told me Milan were very lucky.

"Everything was even in the three games. We played very good football so who knows what the limit of that Red Star team was. Maybe we could have reached the final if we beat Milan? Blame the fog for that."

"But Milan will never forget those two games in Belgrade. They were born in the Belgrade fog."

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