AC Milan Part 1: The Teacher, the Pupil, and the Legacy

Currently, AC Milan are the second-most decorated club in Europe, boasting a massive trophy cabinet stockpiled with European and domestic titles. However, Milan, and Italy in general, didn’t have much to offer before the entrance of Arrigo Sacchi, the man who reinvented Calcio. Sacchi single-handedly took an Italian side plagued with lacklustre, dreary, dull, and dangerously cautious defensive football, and, over the course of a few years, made Milan one of the best teams on the continent.

Brought to the San Siro by Berlusconi shortly after his side locked horns with Parma, the ambitious yet unknown Italian was hastily handed the reins to the team’s riches. He was, essentially, an outsider, encompassing both the positive and negative connotations of the term.

Sacchi was an outsider due to his unique tactical ideas. Brought up while watching the beautiful football of Real Madrid, he quickly realized that Italy’s football style could be momentously elevated through the implementation of intense pressing, blinding counter-attacking speeds, and strength at the back, both collectively and as a team. His tactical upbringing was catalysed by his grey playing career – at a very young age, he opted to prioritize his managerial career.

On the other hand, Sacchi was also an outsider due to his lack of credentials. He was an outlier, unproven and untested. His lack of playing (and managerial) experience worried fans and caused scepticism in the media. Nobody believed that a man who spent his playing career in amateur leagues while juggling the duties of a shoe-seller would excel in such a demanding post. Little did they know, he would go on to lead a revolution in Italian football.

When confronted with his lack of managerial experience, Sacchi coolly replied: “I didn’t know that you had to be a horse first to become a good jockey.”

FIRST GRAPHICSacchi quickly introduced flair and daring to a distressingly defensive country with his revolutionary 4-4-2 and the tactics used in tandem with it.

After inheriting keystone Italian players Franco Baresi and Mauro Tassoti alongside future legends Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Castacurta, Sacchi established a defence that combined individual character with teamwork. His back four played fluidly, only remaining flat when the opposition’s possession was central. The defence used astute positioning skills, always moving instinctively as a unit, to ensure that they were a step ahead of the opposition. Intense pressing tactics, combined with the diligent organization and the individual grit of the defenders, allowed Milan to win the ball back effectively during periods of opponent possession. Defending under Sacchi was amazing because he played using aggressive offside traps and ingenious zonal marking systems.

For Sacchi, each player on the team was important. In the words of Maldini himself: “Each player was as important defensively as he was in attack, it was a side in which players and not positions were key.”

This pressing tactic was carried over to the midfield and attacking areas, where the “Holy Trinity” of Gullit, Rijkaard and Van Basten wreaked havoc through their understanding of spacing and unbeatable skill.

Pressing in the opposition half payed off very well for Milan. It allowed them to win the ball in advanced positions and set up brilliant attacking moves in a matter of seconds, thanks to the availability of passing options (Sacchi ensured that five players were always open ahead of the ball, with two of them playing on opposite wings), which only needed the touch of a clinical finisher to put the chances to bed.

Sacchi’s pressing shook the world of football, and today, we can still find the echoes of his tactical genius in the “Counter Press” and “Gengenpress” playing styles employed by the likes of Guardiola and Klopp. The compactness of his side allowed his team to play in a naturally pressing formation. Pressing allowed his side to control the space available to their opponents, while influencing them to change their passing patterns and playing styles.

“Pressing is not about running and it’s not about working hard; it’s about controlling space,” said Sacchi. “Pressing was always collective; I wanted all eleven players in an active position, affecting and influencing the opposition when we did not have the ball.”

Throughout the course of the game, players were instructed to collectively partake in its different variants:

  1. Partial Pressing – players focus more on jockeying rather than winning possession, cancelling out the options for the opponent while preserving stamina. Essentially, a minimalistic approach to the game.
  2. Total Pressing – heavy metal football at its finest. Regaining the ball becomes the priority.
  3. Fake Pressing – the team pretends to press the opposition, putting them on edge, when, in fact, the players are recuperating, restructuring and preparing themselves.

Sacchi placed great attention to the details of his team’s playing style, often coming up with tactics that had never been heard of before. For example, during his team’s defensive phase, the players had to look at four reference points to decide their movement – namely the ball, the space, the opponent, and their team mates. After looking at the individual quality of his defenders, Sacchi quickly concluded that a compact playing style would help his team to win the ball back without expending any energy. Therefore, he instructed his players to not leave more than 25 metres of space between the attackers and the defenders, making it extremely difficult for their opponents to play through the team.

Off the pitch, Sacchi used tactful man-management skills honed during his stint at Rimini to win over his squad of insanely talented players. The effort payed off, as Milan went down as one of the only sides to have ever won back-to-back European Cups, while revitalizing their league campaign and dominating it for years to come. Furthermore, Sacchi laid down the foundations for the reigns of other great managers, inspiring many with his radical tactical ideas, including Carlo Ancelotti.

Carlo Ancelotti – The Wise Italian

AC Milan under Carlo Ancelotti was a side to be marvelled at. The team went through a lot of tactical deviations due to Ancelotti’s eagerness to follow the football’s upcoming trends. However, his unique approach payed off. During his tenure, he managed to win:

  1. Two Champions League trophies – 2002-03, 2006-07
  2. Two UEFA Super Cup trophies– 2003, 2007
  3. One FIFA Club World Cup – 2007
  4. One Serie A title– 2003-04
  5. One Coppa Italia – 2002-03
  6. One Supercoppa Italiana – 2004

His team blurred the lines between football and art, due to the mathematically calculated yet abstract, artistic structure of his team. His overwhelming success lied in the following:

Midfield Control

Ancelotti’s craving for midfield control originates from Arrigo Sacchi. Ancelotti played under Sacchi for Milan itself between 1987 and 1991, before serving as his assistant at Italy’s national team between 1992 and 1995.

Ancelotti realised under Sacchi that the results of a game hinged heavily on the amount of control a team had, on the game, on the ball, and on the opposition as a whole. He brought the same simple reasoning over to his managerial career; the opponent can never score if they don’t have the ball! Sacchi had a great impact on Carlo’s managerial career, and probably played a huge role in making him the persona he is today. Like he said, Carlo was, is, and always will be his “genial pupil”.

Carlo Mazzone and Andera Pirlo

Carlo Mazzone is another manager that Ancelotti needs to pay his due respects to. The then-manager of Brescia was pivotal in changing the role of “the heir of Baggio”, Andrea Pirlo. Originally regarded as an attacking midfielder who could create and score goals, Pirlo was dropped further down the pitch by Mazzone to allow his side to make the most of his long-range passing ability. He was entrusted with controlling the play. This role change altered the future of Italian football itself, and, more importantly, played right into the hands of Ancelotti. Pirlo was another golden piece in the golden puzzle, allowing Carlo to play the type of football that he’d fallen in love with years ago.

Formations

SECOND GRAPHICAncelotti always preferred lining up in narrow formations at Milan. It reflected his craving for midfield control, and was the only part of his playing style that would remain prevalent during his tactical evolutions.

He began with a static back four at the beginning of his managerial career (although that would change in a few years once the modernisation of the wing back positions was introduced in Italy), which didn’t contribute much to the attacking exploits of the team. In front of them was Pirlo, who, after his development, dictated the play in his newfound deep-lying playmaker role with his unparalleled passing range and awareness of space. In front of him were Seedorf and Gattuso, two midfielders known for their all-around, tank-like playing style. Occasionally, they were forced to drift wide, playing as wide midfielders to create space for Pirlo and Rui Costa to operate in. Shevchenko and Inzaghi, however, were one of the greatest highlights of this side. They were, arguably, one of the best striker partnerships that the world has ever seen. Shevchenko was feared by defenders, and his movements often created space for Inzaghi to move into. When Shevchenko didn’t score them, he played an integral role in creating the chances. The duo dominated Italy and Europe for many years

Transfers – Evolving and Buying into New Trends

When most teams would prefer relaxing after winning a Champions League trophy, Milan went out, used Berlusconi’s riches, and signed a relatively unknown Brazilian: Kaka from Sao Paulo. In a few years, under the favourable tactics of Ancelotti, Kaka would establish himself as one of the best in the world.

Mere mortals like ourselves cannot describe Kaka’s role and importance in the midfield. Kaka was the midfield for Milan. He brought to Italy a level of skill rarely found even in Europe. Kaka won millions over with his silky dribbling and natural goalscoring capabilities. As Ronaldinho reminisced: “At AC Milan, Kaka was the best player in the world for two or three seasons. There was nothing that he couldn’t do.”

Unfortunately, Kaka’s arrival to Milan coincided with the injury of Inzaghi, which meant that he was out for most of the campaign. But fortunately, this allowed Ancelotti to continue the love story with his midfielders. Milan fielded Kaka, Rui Costa, Seedorf, Pirlo and Gattuso in central midfield, with Shevchenko playing as a lone striker. This created a formidable attacking threat; the creativity of Pirlo, Rui Costa, and Kaka, with the defensive prowess of Gattuso and Seedorf, created a stable, yet highly dangerous midfield that struck fear in the hearts of their opponents.

But the Italian wasn’t done yet. Ancelotti bought into (literally) the emerging “attacking right back” position by signing the one of the best in the world – Cafu. The Brazilian’s well-rounded playing style was the best insurance any team could have on the right flank. His tireless nature, strength, and both defensive and attacking prowess allowed Gattuso and Seedorf to stay central, in the positions that were appropriate for their abilities. Yet another golden piece in the golden puzzle.

Avenging Istanbul

Milan fans, rejoice.

This seemed like the best place to end my piece, as it is the culmination of Ancelotti’s reign. Over the course of ninety minutes, his side took revenge, and won back what was rightly theirs. The golden puzzle was complete.

Istanbul was a horrendous game for Milan, but in hindsight, it was just a timely exposure of cracks that were present in their foundations as a team. An excess of midfield players, especially those with attacking mentalities, meant that the defence was often stretched, making them easy prey for the opposition.

Furthermore, Liverpool managed to take the game by the scruff of the neck as a combination of momentum and psychological impacts led to Milan’s untimely and undeserved demise. But, as fate might have it, the two teams were united once again in 2007, with Milan calling for blood.

THIRD GRAPHICMilan lined up with Ancelotti playing his favoured 4-3-2-1 – revamped by Kaka. The Brazilian possessed boundless talent and effectively relieved Gattuso and Seedorf of their marathon duties. They didn’t need to run to create space for him; he could do it all himself. Therefore, the midfield was re-purposed to suit Ancelotti’s needs – in this case, he instructed them to look for control, as he’d already seen the dangers of lacking of it. During the game, he adjusted to a 4-4-2 to deter Liverpool’s defend-and-counter-attack playing style.

Seedorf and Gattuso played out on the wing again, placing traffic which prevented the likes of Pennant and Zenden from breaking down the line. Pirlo and Ambrosini passed the ball around to defuse Steven Gerrard’s maniacal pressing. Kaka attacked with force, breaking down Liverpool’s Mascherano-Alonso pivot with the help of Seedorf, who pushed forward once his side were attacking.

The golden puzzle was complete with timeless pieces – Milan took the lead through a Pirlo free kick, Ancelotti’s attacking full backs put pressure on Liverpool, Kaka played brilliantly, and lastly, Inzaghi used his clinical finishing to put the game to bed. This game was truly a coming together of all the things that Ancelotti had worked so hard to achieve. Tactics that were deployed from the start of his stint, combined with transfers and evolutions of the team, had won him the most coveted trophy in the world. Ancelotti went out with a bang.

Sacchi was the teacher for many, and Ancelotti was one of his studious pupils. They created European and tactical history, while ensuring AC Milan went down in history as one of the best teams in the world. Milan has a legacy that can never be achieved by most teams, and they achieved that in style, thanks to the work of a “nobody” and his pupil.