The philosophy of Arrigo Sacchi

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An insight into the coaching philosophy and methodology of legendary Italian coach, Arrigo Sacchi.
In any debate about the best club side of all-time, Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan side of the late 80s and early 90s are sure of a mention.Boasting a glittering array of the world’s greatest players including Franco Baresi, Paulo Maldini, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten the Milanese giants were the last side to win two successive European Cups (‘89 and ‘90).

Sacchi, the former Italy head coach who until recently was the federation's technical coordinator, speaks proudly about this chapter of his career claiming the squad were ‘the closest group to perfection’ that he ever worked with.

The Italian refutes the idea that his Milan team of ‘89 was a team of individual superstar “dribbling players” insisting the success was built around the effort to become a “movement team” one which both attacked and defended with organisation, harmony and understanding.

Sacchi holds up that side as a perfect model of the principles behind the “Co-ordinazione” [co-ordination] a team of players that embodied his definition of total football. For Sacchi “if you’re far away from your team mates, you’re not a team” stressing his preference for compactness and togetherness when they didn’t have the ball – “ the defensive line to be no more than 25 metres away from attacking line” – and for support play and multiple attacking options when in possession.

The way in which Sacchi got the Rossoneri to understand the principles of his total football concept was simple: he designed practices to test and stretch players. The principle was to numerically disadvantage one team, repeating the exercise to give the players the opportunity to solve the problem of playing outnumbered.

One of the key ingredients Sacchi cites for the success of his Milan side was the “unbelievable intelligence” of midfielder, Carlo Ancellotti. Despite his lack of pace, Sacchi said that the former Real Madrid head coach was key to everything the team did. The importance he places on developing intelligent footballers is evident throughout the discussion.

Writing about Sacchi’s coaching methodology in his book, Ancelotti said: “as many times as possible we would work in game-realistic situations”. There was mutual affection between the pair, with Ancelotti claiming he owes much of his football education to the time he spent with Sacchi, admitting he adopted many of the lessons and approaches when preparing the Madrid giants.

Coaching philosophy of Arrigo Sacchi
Arrigo Sacchi signed the likes of Carlo Ancelloti, Frank Rijkaard, Marco Van Basten and Ruud Gullit, who helped AC Milan win back-to-back European Cups. Image: Simon Bruty/Allsport.

Italian Football FederationIn August 2011, following Italy’s poor showing at South Africa 2010, Sacchi was appointed to overhaul Italy’s International youth teams. Based at Coverciano, the National Italian Football Centre in Florence, Sacchi inherited a development system which locked young players into specific positions and admitted that defensive mastery was prioritised above all else.

More worryingly he found a fractured player pathway: “each national group had a different style and system”. Resultantly, the 68 year-old made significant changes to the coaching staff, retaining only one member of the group he inherited, and worked to develop a more unified approach with greater consistency in message and overall vision: “when you coach a national team you are not an U16s coach, you are a coach of Italy”.

Coaching philosophy of Arrigo Sacchi
Sacchi changed the approach of all of Italy’s age group teams to make sure there was a unified way of developing and playing the game within the national setup. Image: Dino Panato/Bongarts/Getty Images.

Inside Club Italia: an overview of Sacchi’s programmeTechnical/Tactical Training programme

Players are brought up to understand different systems, with a focus on playing 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1. Sacchi has introduced the importance of the style in which teams play and the manner in which they win games rather than just simply winning. This is followed all the way through to the senior team.

The stated technical objectives of the development programme include: developing multi-dimensional players who understand how to play Italian total football.

Much work is done in 11v11 game realistic practices with one group challenged to build play out from the back and one team challenged to press. Although there is greater focus on possession and build up play, Sacchi stressed that there’s still a lot of work done on the structured organisation of pressing as a team.

After all national team sessions all the coaches involved review a video of the session and discuss areas of improvement ahead of the next training camp.

U15 squad

U15 is the first age-group for Italian players to represent their country. Four regional trials, held in north, central and southern Italy, feature a total of 80 players with the best 30 progressing onto Coverciano for further training camps.

Scouting programme and player release

Each weekend between 30-40 scouts work on behalf of the federation identifying, monitoring and selecting talent for the development teams. The identification of players is very much based around the type of player that will fit the Italian total football way.

Unlike some of the player-release difficulties we have faced in England there are very few issues with the release of Italian players to represent their country. Each squad meets for a two/three-day training camp every month.

Developing Italian coaches

Twice a year Italian club coaches are invited to Coverciano for a presentation where the methods and philosophy of the Italian federation are shared. Additionally, coaches from other national federations are welcomed to view training and to learn more about the programme on two days each season.

Issues and challenges

When Sacchi first arrived at Coverciano he found much evidence of the old Italian football stereotype: “Italian clubs can play 90 minutes without one mistake in defence,” he said.

He also believes that the varied styles adopted by teams in the Serie A poses a problem for the national set-up with the national team having to unite the players in a different style in a very short period of time. There is a feeling that many Serie A clubs still play with a very defensive Italian style, which in many respects goes against the more European style the new-Italy wish to play.

Article image courtesy of Grazia Neri/ALLSPORT.

This article was first published in The Boot Room magazine in April 2014.

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