"What do you mean you've hurt 'your' knee, it's Liverpool's knee" - Bill Shankly.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Tribute to a Master: Don Arrigo Sacchi

This article is composed of extracts from a very long article intitled: From Sacchi to Zeman, Capello and Lippi to arrive at Descartes and Kant. 

It seems interesting to me that the extracts regarding Arrigo Sacchi that I personally consider as a coach whom has marked, through AC Milan, a turning point in the history of European and Italian tactical aspects of football. I believe that Arrigo Sacchi is undisputable, or at least in the same manner as Kant and Sigmund Freud. They may have said some true things and other less verifiable ones, but the important thing is that it is not questionable that they have influenced so profoundly their own discipline to the point of becoming a constant point of reference. Sacchi has obtained exceptional results. We all know what he has won with Milan. 

However, not many know that he has won right away during his first season as a coach the amateur league title with Fusignano. He won the Primavera league with Cesena with a record of 26 wins out of 32 and 5 ties, scoring 82 goals and conceding only 10. Then why is he so much questioned? I believe there are various reasons. First of all because he has been an innovator. On paper, we are all for progress, but in reality, Man is naturally conservator. Changes are risky and everything that’s not part of our habits is a danger. We only like what we are comfortable with and what we already know. From football, we demand even more so certitudes. Being one of our points of reference as we attribute an important part of our daily lives, we expect and demand from it certitudes. Sacchi has reversed our manner of living and seeing football. It has not been easy to follow him. He is posing a problem which is very practical and almost always underestimated. Playing the prophets in the era of instant global information is very difficult. 

The History of Sacchi 

Sacchi is a romagnolo from Fusignano, a city close to Ravenna. He has studied accounting and he plays football. His father is wealthy as he has a small shoe factory. Arrigo grows up in the middle of the perfumes of the province. He is natural and dry, he wants right away his Porsche, he is torn between the demands of changing the world and to enjoy the easy life thanks to the wealth of his father. He chooses the latter and works for his father in his factory. He stops playing football without football noticing it. He falls in love with the Dutch ways. 

Then one day, he decides to leave and and goes around Europe meticulously and carefully studying the football of the others. He is particularly interested in the teaching of football to the youth. Sacchi believes that football starts from there. At the age of fourteen, a boy learns everything. He would know how to play in zone, the offside rule, pressing, diagonal, everything as he has a free spirit. At the age of 25 the boy becomes what he has learned. When he comes back from his Europe tour, he knows what is duty in life is. Sacchi remains profoundly convinced that the international experiences contribute a lot in forming a young footballer. When he trains the Cesena Primavera, he wants the club to send as much as possible the team to play tournaments abroad. And this team grows as a small chef d’oeuvre, balanced and mature. These boys win the league and they would all end up playing in Serie B and A.

His idea is that the man is more important and counts more than the player. In the sense that if a footballer is not a serious man, he would never be a good footballer. Serious means being humble, being always ready to learn, to make sacrifices, to respect the fatigue to the point of understanding its necessity and key role in his system; to play for the others rather for oneself; to understand that if a partner doesn’t help, he won’t be helped and if he doesn’t help the team won’t exist. There’s finally an entire evangil of Sacchi which is at the base of his working methods. Translated onto the field, his thought means two training sessions a day, sometimes three, in a world where one doesn’t go beyond 3 training sessions per week plus the friendly match on Thursdays. 

That means a strict regime, a continuous study of one’s and the opponents’ movements; it means continuous discussion about one’s own limits, about being dust and about the infinite predisposition to become it. It means to totally immerse oneself into the philosophy of football and finally, to dive into the tunnel of excessive and unknown professionalism. When he arrives at Milan, he is a young technician of 41 years old who has never set foot in Serie A. Silvio Berlusconi welcomes him royally at Milan and surrounds him of grandeur. Sacchi defends himself with his hunger of glory, his evangil of work ethics of his region. He has spiritual eyes and a fixed smile. As Brera (great Italian journalis/writer of the 70s to 1990, Interista) writes, he often seems in direct conjonction and contact with God. His players are not listening to him. To Franco Baresi, he shows footage of Signorini, the Parma libero in Serie B. 

He is not understood, he is underestimated, then when the team loses a few games, a certain incredulity and scepticism comes as well. He feels faced with a duty bigger than him. After all, who is he? That’s the question most people are wondering in Milano, and worst of all, inside the dressing rooms. Thus, one day, he takes all the players apart, closes the doors of Milanello and yells that he is ready to go back to Fusignano but that they (the players) have not won anything and that they will not win anything. No one really knows whether it was his frank and direct way of talking or his charisma, but the fact is that all the Milan players come out of this meeting extremely pumped up. Berlusconi respects him and starts to believe in him again. And when the team goes to play a crucial game away to Verona, also crucial for Sacchi, the president stands at the doors of the dressing rooms and repeats convincingly to each and everyone of the players the same thing: “Between Sacchi and the team, I choose Sacchi”. The message is clear and goes well. Milan wins. And would not stop for a very long time. And this says it all on the fact that to have a great team, it is indispensable to have a great club. 

Discussion on the methods of Sacchi 

Sacchi doesn’t invent a new football but a new manner to play football. He plays zonal on the natural basis of the 4-4-2. He presses the opponents in their own half by holding his defence at the level of the half line. Attacking this Milan during that time was difficult. Rare were the teams which succeeded. The team is very compact, tight and close with only one forward (Virdis) and a lot of versatile players (Donadoni, Evani, Gullit and Ancelotti. 

On the right wing, Tassotti and Colombo take care of the marking and help each other and take turns in crossing; on the left wing, the young Maldini and Evani do the same. Baresi plays in line with the defenders and orchestrate the off-side. However what is spectacular in the Sacchi method is the capacity of playing in a collective manner. In general, the collective play doesn’t distinguish itself on the fact that the ball circulated and moves around between all the players of the team but rather of their total movement. In order to have a good coherent play, the players of the team have to move all together and in the same direction that the ball is going. It is not easy to do that. You will often see 5 or 6 players moving but not all. This means that there is no harmony, that that there’s a technical or physical difficulty. 

Sacchi’s Milan, when it was moving, looked like the migration of a people. The players move up and down not only together but by staying at the same distance of each other, a metre away from each other. It is quite difficult to play against such a machine, so developed and well oiled. Numerous were the games were Galli, the goal keeper did not touch the ball. Milan win all their matches at home and without losing away and conceding only 14 goals in the whole season. The team is lacking a great deep playmaker, like a Rijkaard whom would join the following year. Ancelotti does not have the calibre to fill that role, he does his job well and can do the playmaking job well when needed but it is not his best position. Berlusconi says that Milan does have a chef d’orchestre, but he doesn’t know the music and tune.

He is right. But Ancelotti would soon find the right rhythms. It was I believe the best Milan of Sacchi, the most obvious example of a different football, also because, it was the least perfect Milan of the 10 years in which it would dominate the world. Sacchi is not only worth mentioning for his tactical or technical solutions. His diversity and originality remain in his method of working, his greatest contribution to football lays on his culture of engagement that he has introduced. He has always had a discreet fanatism for his theories and the need to challenge and to provocate. His entire history and legacy in football is a provocation. And he is he first Italian technician to have succeeded in Serie A, without having a background of a player. Liehdolm innovated using the methods inside his head due to his memories as a player, Sacchi had to invent.

The Man or the Scheme?

As all the fundamentalists, Sacchi has few doubts and he is very rigid. Whatever change that is proposed or suggested to him, he sees it as an attempt to work less. He would get rid of any player who would not be enthusiastic with his methods. Van Basten, one of the all time greatest forwards often asks him: “Mister, why are you treating me like the rest?” And Sacchi answers him: “Because you are intelligent and you would not ant a different treatment.” Indeed, Van Basten is one of the most worried under the weight of the pressure. He finds himself often substituted. He then asks: “Mister, why?”. “Because you were playing bad.” .”Yes, but the others were also playing bad.” “Yes, but the others were trying with application.” Generally, Sacchi is very demanding with his players, probably too much. Paolo Maldini writes in his book, Il Calcio (Sperling and Kupfer edition, 1996), “that the Sacchi tactic was very tiring and exhausting. After a few years, we could not continue at these rhythms”. Sacchi wanted to take the pressure all the way to the penalty box of the opposition.  We would feel an enormous fatigue as a result of this tactic. A lot of players of great quality would suffer from it and dread it, others would have to adapt to the tactical demands of the Sacchiano scheme. This would create a legend and an equivoque. The legend being that Sacchi always adapts his men to his scheme and never the scheme to his men at his disposal. The equivoque being this very same legend. 

In reality, his football and the zone that he generates give a big importance in a general manner to each player and to their imagination, but always with the scheme in mind. In a few words, a left wing back, on his zone, can do everything that he wishes. He cannot do it in another part of the field. It is not a principle which limits the imagination. It’s a principle which limits anarchy. A player has to follow his own instinct, but the instinct cannot be an ideology or a tactic. The truth lies somewhere in between. It is the men who make the success of a scheme, but a scheme must be for everyone. Football is not a game that we can follow only with our instinct because it is played with 11 individuals, that is with 11 instincts. One cannot progress without the triumph of the imagination; one progresses without the auto-limitating confusion. It is clear that if you have Maradona on your team, you let him decide to whom he should give the ball in the last 20 metres. There is no scheme where you limit such a player. And should there be one, it would simply be an incorrect scheme. To be there, at such a moment, even Maradona would need to be in movement (therefore fit and well trained), in the middle of the team in movement. It is important fantasy in football is put in the service of who has less of it…If we following the imagination, we would need to go alone for the goal and it’s never easy. This is taking the highest risk with a little profit. Which would be a mistake. 

The integrism of Zeman

I believe that the schematism of Sacchi has been at least equal to the schematism of those who have wanted to judge him. There is no doubt that in today’s football, some technicians have ended up being really more advanced because they are extremely schematical Zdenek Zeman is the master of the second big fundamentalist wave. Zeman is the most integrist. For ever, he faces the same values and limitations, but he doesn’t change…It is certain that Zeman, even more than Sacchi doesn’t distinguish between player and player. As much as Sacchi was talkative, as much Zeman is silent and mysterious. Daniele Adani, a defender from Correggio, a starter for Brescia who was for when he was 20, for 4 months at Lazio under Zeman tells that he has never heard a word from his coach towards his person in 4 months. When he found the courage to inform him of an offer from another club, Zeman told him that being young and talented, that he should accept the offer. Generally, Zeman opts for a total integrism. He believes in a logical football which can only be one. In order to apply it, the players need to be very very fit and well trained. Not making any difference between the players. They all must do the same things both as far as the preparation than the execution are concerned. Whether they are tall or short, heavy or thin. I don’t know whether this is an advantage, but I have my doubts. Up until today, this type of football taken to the extreme had had excellent results as far as the construction phase of a project is concerned, without however, winning anything. It is often a spectacular method, and there is no doubt that Zeman is an excellent producer of football…

The limits of the “Sacchism”.

The limits of the “Sacchism” are that every coach is not Sacchi.  Being Sacchi means to be a coach who coaches a lot, who studies a lot, who demands a lot. A 360 degrees engagement and commitment that no other coach has ever demonstrated. Sven Goran Eriksson, for example, who’s one of the oldest and most respected in Europe (despite being 50 years old, he has won titles in Sweden, in Italy and in Portugal), doesn’t do the work of Sacchi. Eriksson is more coach than technician. Same for Fabio Capello. I don’t believe that this means one is better or worst, it simply means something else. Eriksson lives with his players, he is rigorous technically speaking; he doesn’t pretend to be teaching and lecturing from an existential point of view. To live and let live. And he authorizes discussion. When he arrived in Italy, 15 years ago, Eriksson played exclusively with an integral 4-4-2 elaborated in Sweden from an obvious English inspiration. Then, he moved onto a 3-5-2 with Sampdoria, then 4-3-3 in the first part of his reign at Lazio to come back to a 4-4-2. A “Sacchista” would have never done it. 

You would never see Zeman put a defender instead of a midfielder or vice-versa. A wing player replaces another wing player; a central midfielder with a central midfielder and so forth. They can change players, but not their scheme. This is for some, a limitation. For Zeman, it is a force. It is clear that a certain rigidity brings with it, its fair share of clash with players with strong personalities. Players that believe not to be nor too right nor to appropriate to give their best during trainings; players who need lots of motivation before and during a match. Finally, it is clear that football just like life is made of individuals, each with their own particularities and traits. Managing men means knowing them and keeping in mind what we know about each of them. Being tough, demanding with this type of player, is it always just? Above all, is he always in agreement with the interests of the club? Alen Boksic, when he was playing with Zeman at Lazio, was always injured and unhappy. The same Zeman was not hiding his desire to get rid of him. Same thing for Van Basten, Baggio and Panucci with Sacchi. Or for Romario and Ortega with Ranieri. And there are countless other similar examples…

Differences between zonal tactics since Sacchi

Playing the zone is now very little indication of the behaviour of a team. A lot of teams now play with the zone. The problem and difference is how and what kind of zone. Capello’s zone is not Sacchi’s and even less Zeman’s. But it is not Malesani’s either, which in itself is different than all the others. Lippi has his own manner to play the zone, with a lot of aggressivity and attention, almost an Italian way of the zone system, with fixed and focused marking and the capacity to change system during a match. What differentiates one type of zone from another one? From a general point of view, it has to do with the manner to press and to apply the offside trap. One can apply pressing at about the half way line, at about ¾ of the field or close to the opposition’s penalty box. Pressings are defined “high”, “median” or “low” based on how far it is applied from the penalty box of the opposition. 

The more it is applied inside the opposition’s half, the more the pressing is “high”. Of course, this type of pressing is a lot more demanding and tiring and requires more energy as it means that the whole team is required to apply it regularly. Every player does their best not to concede a goal by preventing the opposition from entering into their own half. On the other hand, if the defence is positioned on the half way line, going beyond that line without ending up offside is very difficult for the opposition. What this boils down to is to completely asphyxiate the opponents physically inside their own half by pressing them as soon as they have the ball. This type of zone is highly suggestive and almost impossible. This was the zone of the first years of Sacchi.  But it is nowadays only a romantic expression and souvenir. Impossible to achieve that type of a zone but only for a few minutes in a match. 

A more human and realizable zone is Fabio Capello’s zone. The “we must absolutely do it” of Capello took place of the exhaustion of Sacchi. The team was no longer able to stand nor manage the physical demands and workload of this Sacchiano system. Capello made a lower pressing and transformed it into a type of forcing. What’s the difference between the two types of zone? Simple. The simultaneous pressing and attacking of 2 or 3 players on the carrier of the ball. If you attack the opponent who has the ball with one man, it is called forcing. The difference is considerable and it implies a game plan and model almost entirely different. Pressing man by another man is normal. The forcing is when everyone presses with aggressivity their designated opponent. Pressing the opponent who has the ball with 2 or 3 players means being in numerical inferiority somewhere else on the field, meaning that if 3 men are on this zone of the field, these men will not be on at least 2 other zones. And the numerical superiority is at the base of the goal.

If you analyse carefully each goal, you would find that the direct or indirect cause of it to be a moment of numerical superiority. This means that if the pressing is successful, you get the ball back and start a collective counter attack. If the opponent manages to pass the ball to a partner, this means that the pressing must move towards the zone where the ball is now, but because of that, the equilibrium of the game is not respected anymore. And if the opponent manages to free from the pressing, the team is immediately in great difficulty since in an obvious numerical inferiority. This necessity of not being in danger makes it imperative to use to foul, each time that a team is collectively in danger and the pressing is eliminated. This is the famous tactical foul that we see at least 30 times per game. 

Football by Descartes and Kant.

Football is in everything, an inexact science, but more and more true and profound. If today, we had a Descartes who was looking for a mathematical certitude, not on the existence of football, but on its correct application, he would maybe find it in the defence of spaces, true problem with which whatever scheme must be compared with. “I play, therefore, I cover” (”Je joue, donc je couvre”, letting others to chose the manner to cover. But while trying to answer at the question of the scientific character of football, I believe that at this point, Kant would also give an affirmative answer. Based on his criterias, football is science since it can be based on synthetic judgements a priori like mathematics and physics. If I say “this football is based on the exact covering of spaces”, I am indeed giving a synthetic judgement because I am adding something to the sentence (“this football”), and a judgement which is a priori based upon the pure intuition of space.

Football is a finally science on all accounts. Science of the rest is not truth but a continuous research of truth. And as all the sciences, football also often gives inexact results. (…). The greatness of football remains in its imperfection, as it is also ours. Football is like us, it answers at our demands. It is not by luck that these schemes have always followed our social evolutions. If football, the Italian way was the football of after war of a beaten nation condemned to manage on its own, the total football of the Dutch has been the football of a new humanism. And the football of Sacchi has presented the a mirror world, in its surety and in the arrogance of a Reagan, in the victory and the amusement and entertainment of the strong. Like a flashback to a prudence of principle, to a less emotive choice, more complex and thought, corresponding to a football of the 1990’s and 2000’s, a bit sacred a bit realistic, but a bit lacking strong illusions, but decided to go on. Toward the future. 


1 comment:

  1. i cant believe something like this is too be found on a scouser site!!

    probably one of the best articles on football I have EVER read and definitely the best Sacchi tribute.

    the breadth of your knowledge but its how your transfer it on 'paper' that is really amazing.

    Bravo to you sir.


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Quote of the moment

Defying belief however, is a market Benitez has cornered quite well. The moment you think Benitez is clueless, he defies it by pulling off a result of majesty, like the one achieved in Madrid. The moment he is hailed a genius, he masterminds toothless surrender to a team going nowhere. In the ongoing Anfield power struggle, just when he was cornered by the firing squad, the Spaniard's demise at Liverpool looking practically assured with the ominous suspension of betting by the bookmakers, he squeezes out through a narrow trapdoor and eliminates Rick Parry. Rafa Benitez is Keyzer Soze.
- Just Football blog: The Curious Beast that is Football 28 Feb 2009