Silvio Berlusconi had seen enough. For the second time in the 1986-87 season he had watched his AC Milan team lose to Parma, a club who had only recently been promoted to Serie B. After beating Milan into second place in the Coppa Italia group stage, Parma then kicked the Rossoneri out of the competition altogether having drawn them again in the first knockout round. For Berlusconi the whole episode was embarrassing. The Milanese business magnate had taken over the club to revitalise one of Italian football’s traditional behemoths; such miserable results simply were not part of his script.
Being the sort of man who usually gets what he wants, Berlusconi opted for the ‘if you can’t beat it, buy it’ approach and decided to hire the man behind the embarrassments, Parma’s coach, Arrigo Sacchi. A relative unknown at the time, Sacchi had no experience of Serie A football and his playing career took place in the amateur leagues. He was an outsider.
Sacchi went on to become one of the best coaches of his generation, going down in the annals of football thought as one of the game’s most influential theoreticians. Not only would he revitalise Milan; he would introduce new concepts to Italian football. His detail forensic, his vision clear, Sacchi defied the critics and left his mark.
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It’s Monday 29th June and Maurizio Sarri is speaking at the Perlamora Festival, an annual cultural event featuring various authors, artists, historians and sportspeople. The event is held in Figline Valdarno, a tranquil town south of Florence; where Sarri was raised. The bespectacled football connoisseur was invited to speak on the back of a wonderful year coaching Empoli to safety in Serie A. His achievements in guiding Empoli to survival made him a wanted man and soon led to Napoli appointing him as coach following the departure of Rafa Benitez for Real Madrid.
Among other things, Sarri spoke of the bond he had with the small club just south of the Arno River. “For the next 10 years…at the end of every game I’ll ask for the Empoli result”, he said. “It was very difficult for me to leave, as we…achieved targets that were previously unthinkable.”
Leaving Tuscany, the region in which he grew up and made his name as a coach, for Naples, the city of his birth, Sarri promised that he would not change ahead of the next big step in his coaching career. Amid the reflections and affirmations, however, one particular statement the 56-year old made stood out. With a cheeky nod to the past, he proffered, “In order to be a good jockey, you needn’t have been a horse first.”
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“A jockey doesn’t have to have been born a horse.” Arrigo Sacchi was answering the naysayers directly, though over the years his Milan team would do it for him. For years calcio had been synonymous with catenaccio, a defence-first style of football predicated on man-marking, chaotic pressing and counter-attacking. Helenio Herrera, coach of the ‘Grande Inter’ team of the 1960s, arguably encapsulated the ideology with one of his many sayings: “taca la bala” or “attack the ball.” This meant dispensing with any kind of over-elaboration, that players had to defend with focus on the ball and attack with simplicity and speed once the ball was theirs.
The top Italian teams, with the occasional exception, had been ‘attacking the ball’ for many a year when Sacchi was controversially hired by Silvio Berlusconi to reform and bring success back to a club thirsting for silverware; Milan hadn’t won the Scudetto in eight years by the time Sacchi took charge after productive spells with Parma, Rimini and Fiorentina’s Primavera.
A former shoe salesman, Sacchi had visions of attacking football different to the predominant methods in Italy at the time. He wanted a more proactive way of playing, one where man-to-man defence and quick counter-attacks were not the primary tenets. Instead of attacking the ball, he wanted his players to control and attack space, the aim being to incrementally increase the space covered by his team when with the ball and to effectively minimise it when without. This idea no doubt had its origins in Totaalvoetbal, the Dutch concept formulated in the 1960s.
Sacchi’s focus on space bled into his ideas on marking and pressing. From the 1960s to the 1990s football in Italy had generally been associated with man-marking. In contrast, Sacchi’s football entailed a concentration on specific zones. Instead of individuals relentlessly tracking individuals around the pitch he wanted his team to have greater retention of overall defensive shape. Zonal marking, as he would have it, included two other reference points including the ball; the team-mate, and the opponent.
Sacchi definitively broke away from the old Italian style by fielding a 4-4-2 formation, dispensing with the sole libero behind a back four. This was geared towards playing a high offside line and the aforementioned compaction of space when without possession. His tactics were visionary and represented a strange new world for Italian football to encounter.
In training he would incorporate shadow-football, a term derived from shadow-boxing, in order for his players to acclimatise to his ideas without pressure from any sort of opposition. The movements when with and without possession still had to be realistic – there were no long balls over the top for strikers to run into empty penalty areas – but here his players could practise his instructions without fear.
Sacchi’s intense dislike for specialism saw him make bold declarations. He often suggested that any individual could fit into his system and prosper. His systematised view of football was a further confirmation of his appreciation for Totaalvoetbal. Aided by Berlusconi’s spending power and the arrival of three superbly talented Dutchmen; Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten, Sacchi guided Milan back to the top of European football with one Scudetto and two European Cups.
He left Milan in the hands of Fabio Capello and took charge of the Italian national team before returning in 1996. He then had spells with Atletico Madrid and once more with Parma but wasn’t able to replicate the success he had initially with Milan. Despite that his philosophy had become ingrained in Italian football.
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An analogy of football involving jockeys and horses isn’t the only parallel that can be drawn between Arrigo Sacchi and Maurizio Sarri. Both as coaches and people they share a number of similarities.
Like Sacchi, Sarri had no professional playing career to boast of when entering the world of football coaching. He had studied Economics, Commerce and Statistics before working as a banking consultant, which he did until 2001, when he became coach at Sansovino after years of coaching around Tuscany with various local teams. It was there that Sarri decided to make a choice between two competing professions and began to dedicate himself wholeheartedly to football.
Leading Sansovino to Serie C2 in 2003 acted as a breakthrough moment, with Sarri using that achievement as a springboard to make moves up the Italian football coaching ladder, eventually arriving at Empoli in 2012. Within two years Empoli were back in Italy’s top flight and last season Sarri earned plaudits not only for his results with the club, but because of the methods behind the results.
He put faith in youngsters, with his defence almost completely made up of players in their early 20s, including goalkeeper Luigi Sepe (recently turned 24), full-backs Elseid Hysaj (21) and Mario Rui (recently turned 24), and centre-back Daniele Rugani (20).
In addition to his inclination to field young players, his preference for attacking football stood out. On average, only six teams in Serie A had more possession than Empoli last season, they being Inter, Roma, Fiorentina, Juventus, Napoli and Lazio; all of whom have significantly bigger annual budgets than Empoli, who were also by far the most disciplined side in the league, with a mere 54 yellow cards and four reds.
It is possible that – just as Sacchi’s inspiration of Parma to victories over Milan in the 1980s led to him getting the coach’s job at Milan – Empoli’s late-April dismantling of Napoli led to Sarri getting the coach’s job at Napoli. Given the way Empoli played that day, it wouldn’t be surprising at all to find out that Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis had established contact with Sarri soon afterwards with knowledge of Rafa Benitez’s upcoming departure.
Sarri’s Empoli were shrewd in their use of space but any true tactical commonalities between he and Sacchi are hard to divulge given the former has so far had only one year of Serie A experience. What is clear is that Sarri is opinionated, has clarity of principle and an eye for details on the training ground.
This summer’s pre-season has offered a good glimpse into Sarri the coach, with positive noises coming from Napoli players. Below are a selection of quotes from several players who emphasise both the quality and type of training undertaken with Sarri’s influence.
“Sarri is manic about every little detail, he leaves nothing to chance. He builds things up from the bottom (and) always asks for the best.” Christian Maggio.
“The real strength of Sarri is his attention to detail.” Manolo Gabbiadini.
“We work much harder now, both physically and tactically. Sarri is maniacal when it comes to tactical training.” Marek Hamsik.
“Our training sessions are much more intense under Sarri, as we work hard both technically and tactically. Last year we focused more on the ball.” Jorginho.
Sarri himself has had some intriguing things to say about the tactics of his new team, commenting:
“We are working on two or three alternative systems. I am convinced that the 4-3-3 can be useful every now and then, but at the moment we are focusing more on the 4-3-1-2 and 4-3-2-1. This team scored 102 goals last season, which means there’s something good there. When it comes to the new defensive movements, I think it’s just a matter of assimilation.”
The focus on tactics, particularly specific systems, is positively Sacchi-esque; the former Milan coach often referred to his teams as ‘modules’. Furthermore, Sarri has earned a reputation as a bit of a first-mover in his field. Whether he will leave an innovative legacy anything like Sacchi’s remains uncertain, but his ideas have drawn attention.
Earlier this year, Eddie Howe, manager of newly promoted English Premier League club Bournemouth, travelled to study Sarri and his methods, one of which involved using drone technology to gain greater insight into Empoli’s training sessions; the idea being that with the benefit of an aerial viewpoint, positioning and tactical setup are easier to observe, critique and correct.
Sarri has been compared with the legendary Sacchi on more than one occasion, and it’s not just because of their equally unusual routes to the top of the Italian football coaching ladder. Sacchi has even gone so far as to endorse Sarri himself, saying in his book, Calcio Totale:
“Lately, I have followed the Cagliari side of the maestro, Zdenek (Zeman), the Empoli of Sarri and (Eusebio) Di Francesco’s Sassuolo, respectively. All three teams have an ardour to play the game without excessive defensive tactics and don’t leave the pitch or initiative to their opponents. They don’t want to be sparring partners but protagonists.”
In hiring Sarri – an overachiever with a penchant for detailed tactical organisation and attacking play, a systematised view of football and a willingness to try new things – Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis has taken a calculated gamble. However, as Silvio Berlusconi’s hiring of Arrigo Sacchi portrayed, this sort of bold coaching appointment can reap rewards not just with trophies, but with long-lasting legacies.