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comment Arrigo Sacchi: ‘Liverpool are a masterpiece – United have been thrown together’

Legendary Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi on Jurgen Klopp, England having the best coaches in the world and why he was never fully understood in Italy

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Flashback to 2008: AC Milan coach Carlo Ancellotti (right) talks to Arrigo Sacchi during a charity game against Fiorentina. Photo: Getty Images

Flashback to 2008: AC Milan coach Carlo Ancellotti (right) talks to Arrigo Sacchi during a charity game against Fiorentina. Photo: Getty Images

Flashback to 2008: AC Milan coach Carlo Ancellotti (right) talks to Arrigo Sacchi during a charity game against Fiorentina. Photo: Getty Images

I am in the Italian countryside, sipping a glass of Lambrusco and talking football with Arrigo Sacchi. Welcome to my idea of heaven. Sacchi holds court like a truth-giver; a wise, ageing oracle whose advice modern coaches will travel from across the world to his villa to seek.

Twenty-five years ago Arsene Wenger sought the counsel of the two-time European Cup winner. Two weeks ago Thomas Tuchel was here.

“We started talking and the next thing we knew it was 2am,” Sacchi told me.

A Jürgen Klopp visit – postponed due to the pandemic – is pending. This weekend an exhibition in Sacchi’s village in Fusignano will be attended by luminaries Marcelo Lippi, Alberto Zaccheroni and Antonio Conte. I met him 24 hours after my beloved Liverpool humiliated Manchester United, led by the manager who cites Sacchi as his greatest coaching influence.

I cannot resist seizing the moment.

“Did you watch the match yesterday, Arrigo?”

“This Liverpool team is a masterpiece,” he replies.

“A fantastic team without any real superstars. A true team. You see one playing for eleven, while other teams are eleven playing for themselves. 80 per cent of the time, they are moving when they have the ball. If they were an orchestra they would always be in perfect tune and in perfect time.”

And what of Manchester United?

His response is more diplomatic but in its way damning.

“At the 2014 World Cup, one of the Brazilian television stations asked me what I thought of the Brazil team,” he said. “I told them, I didn’t see a team. I saw eleven individuals, thrown together on the pitch.”

I am in awe during this interview. Football is built around the great coaches who enrich the game. A select few change it forever.

Sacchi is more than a legendary manager. He is one of the architects of modern football, arguably the most influential in the last 40 years.

Look around European football and wherever you see high pressing and compact, synchronised, high-line defending, you will find a coach working to Sacchi’s blueprint – that which was most obvious in his extraordinary AC Milan side of the ’eighties. “Football is about collective intelligence,” says Sacchi, summing up his ideas.

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I am eager to know where his plan to revolutionise playing style – the abandonment of the ‘sweeper’ which was so dominant in Italian football, and the coordinated defensive patterns which could be used as an attacking weapon, winning the ball far higher up the pitch – came from.

His replies constantly reference the characteristics of his players, their willingness to set aside their ego for the team, as much as his tactical instructions. As Italy manager, he famously picked 120 players during his five-year spell, seeking the elite 22 with the capacity to execute his vision.

“There were always four things I would look for in a player: intelligence, modesty, humility and desire,” he says.

“When I first arrived at Milan there was a player I didn’t want because I found out he would go out every night and sleep at the training ground. [Silvio] Berlusconi [AC Milan’s owner at the time] asked me, ‘Well, who should we sign?’ I told him nobody – we should use his understudy, because he was modest and he wanted to learn.

“Allesandro Costacurta said that he thought I would be gone in a month.

“The profile and the mentality of the player was vital. Daniele Massaro was a technically excellent player but at the start he did not work as hard, so he had to learn. Ruud Gullit was a massive influence, not just technically but from a human point of view. His spirit was as important as his talent.

“Hard work, as well as the style of play, was at the heart of everything.”

Sacchi saw his ideas as an evolution of the Dutch way, evolving the patterns of Rinus Michels’ sides and applying the same discipline without the ball as with it. “There are three great teams, each 20 years after the other,” he says.

“The Ajax of [Rinus] Michels, my Milan and the Barcelona of Pep.

“Ajax – that total football team – was a big influence. And when I was a kid, I loved the Real Madrid of Di Stefano, Puskas and Gento. Football for me has always been a show; a spectacle. Its purpose is to entertain. Winning without style is no victory at all.”

Sacchi’s triumph in Milan is chronicled in the book, The Immortals, released this week.

Incredible as it seems now, players and potential employers were initially sceptical of his concepts. After curtailing playing ambitions due to injury, he began coaching the children in his village before taking over his local club aged 26. From there he sought to rip up notions of Italian football as defensive masters of man-to-man marking, the country at that time revelling in its reputation for taking the lead and then managing the game to secure a narrow win.

“I took the view that the club – its tradition and its style, its identity – always comes before the player,” he says.

“In Italy, until then, it had been the other way around – the individual was always deified.

“Football always reflects the culture and the history of the country. Italy’s history after the time of the Romans was not great – invaded by everyone, and always running away. I thought it was possible to have an Italian team that played on the front foot and in a positive fashion. Mentality is always important.

“I knew it was impossible that we couldn’t attack and thought it was better to attack than to be attacked. Having possession, you learn more. You are the boss of the ball. And the closer to the opposition goal you win back the ball, the higher the chance of scoring.

“I wasn’t sure about my ideas at first, but we worked and worked. I always wanted to work with intelligent people, because when you give them a concept, they improve it themselves. They become the ones driving the process.

“By the time I arrived in Milan [in 1987], one of the most important Italian papers said: ‘Tomorrow, Milan will unveil Mr Nobody’. But they ignored the 14 years of hard work I had done by then. I had won trophies and never been sacked.

“The players at the time like Franco Baresi weren’t hostile to the changes, but they were wary. That was the challenge I faced everywhere. In the fourth division, there was a player who was the same age as me and who had played in Serie A. I came out of the dressing-room one day and I heard this guy talking to the other players, he said: ‘This guy is either a genius or a madman’.”

Even when his methods enjoyed instant success – winning Serie A in his first season at the San Siro – it took time for outsiders to grasp his changes.

“There was a time when my wife and I were at a restaurant and a famous Italian journalist, Gianni Brera, was at another table,” he recalls.

“We were about to play Napoli and he came over to me and asked who I was going to use to man-mark Maradona. My wife, who had no interest in football and didn’t watch any matches, said: ‘Don’t you use zonal marking?’

“I said to her, ‘Either we aren’t doing it right or this guy doesn’t understand’.”

By 1988, with Milan on their way to the first of successive European Cups, the San Siro was recognised as the foremost footballing university for the next generation of coaches.

“None of those Milan players had even reached the quarter-finals of the European Cup before,” he says.

“We played Bayern Munich in the semi-final and won 1-0 at home. We went away without Gullit, [Roberto] Donadoni and [Carlo] Ancelotti. At half-time we had already had 11 shots on goal, to one for Bayern. At that point I knew they understood that it was better to attack than defend and that highly organised pressing was lethal.”

Invitations to share his methods became frequent.

“Once, I was invited over to England by the FA, to speak about my Milan team,” he recalls. There was another time when a group of French coaches came to watch my team train: Gerard Houllier, Luis Fernandez, Arsene Wenger. They said they had never seen a team work so hard.”

So where does he see his methods enforced most effectively today?

“England now has the best coaches in the world,” he says. “Pep and Klopp are two greats who allow football to move forward. Without coaches like that, football dies.

“I watched Liverpool play Barcelona and I was emotional. I was emotional because it was not just a team winning, it was an entire city. In the next life, I want to be a coach in England.

“The football intelligence of the fans was always different in England. But I am worried because the clubs are being bought by people from America and the Middle East who do not share that understanding.”

If there is a sense of regret, it is how Sacchi’s ideas have been successfully exported around the world, but are less visible in Serie A.

“The lesson of Milan has been learned and developed everywhere except Italy,” he says, ruefully.

“The prophet is never welcome in his own country.”

The Immortals by Arrigo Sacchi is out now in paperback and ebook, published by BackPage

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