All the big, successful teams have one thing in common. They like to control the situation. That’s all good, but the greatest goal should be to let the crowd have fun.
Tactics are funny. The ridiculously good/bad ones leave an impression that last longer than anything else when it comes to football. New fan bases are usually ushered in largely due to a team playing some really good football, read: Barcelona, Dortmund and Bayern, in recent times. If you’ve watched enough football over the last half a decade, chances are that the style exhibited by these teams would stay etched in your memory. Conversely, substituting Defoe for Emile Heskey when 4-1 down against Germany in a World Cup Round of 16 match will have a hard time being forgotten. Alright, I think I’ll stick to the good ones for the sake of sanctity.
Good teams define phases. Great teams define mini-eras. The very greatest of teams, though, define a tactical revelation that transcends generations as influential. Case in point, Rinus Michels’ Netherlands from the early 70s. His Dutch team reached the finals of both the ‘74 and ‘78 World Cups, failing to win either. They achieved something else though. The brand of football they played still influences the tactical-briefings at some of the biggest clubs in the world. We all like our ball-playing centre-halves and through-balling central midfielders, don’t we? With all due respect, Josep Guardiola didn’t devise a footballing style of his own. He simply carried forward the legacy of that one man who changed how the world looked at football, the sport. He sure needed a certain talent called Johann Cruyff to execute it to perfection, but let’s leave players for another article, shall we?
A manager must be like an orchestra conductor, but not only must he direct, he must also be the one who has written the piece.
Today, most are in awe of Borussia Dortmund’s style of play. Their passing, their work-rate, their speed at counter-attacks. Safe to say, it has captivated all and sundry. When tiki-taka was busy engulfing the world in its elegance, a bearded man called Jurgen Klopp was telling his young players to play differently. More direct, more aggressive. And boy, did his team repay him. You could be forgiven for thinking that he came up with the formation and the tactics which turned out to be so very effective. What if, it were to be a clone of exactly what was achieved a decade and a half ago at an Italian club?
When people talk of tactical masterclasses, you will always find that one name which a tactics connoisseur will never miss: Arrigo Sacchi. There have been coaches, and there have been good coaches, and then there was this man. Italian teams, club and national alike, are known for their strong defensive game. AC Milan of the 80s were no different. In 1987, his Parma team from the Serie B beat Milan 1-0 twice in the Coppa Italia. A phone-call from Silvia Berlusconi later, a journey began. One which forever changed how coaches would look at their teams. He moulded the AC Milan team into a metronomic entity of high-pressing attacking football. The starkest characteristic of that team was that they never gave opponent players time on the ball. It went on to define how they played when they had it themselves. Winning back-to-back European Cups and sweeping everything domestic, this Milan side would turn out to be one of the best European teams ever more influential than many would imagine. This continued at the national level when he took over as Italy’s head coach. Roberto Baggio may have inspired them to the World Cup finals, but Sacchi’s tactics went a long way to ensure that he didn’t sit back in his half protecting the goal. Sacchi was all about good, enjoyable football.
In Italy, you score a goal and everyone retreats. And I would say, “No, we score a goal and we attack more. It’s like boxing. After a hook, you want to land the definitive punch.”
‘Parking the bus’ was never his cup of tea. History is testament, it’s hard enough to make an Italian team want to play consistent levels of good attacking football, let alone be spectacular. Arrigo Sacchi achieved the unthinkable and in some style. When one looks back, they’ll probably admit that in terms of quality of football, Italy deserved to win the World Cup 1994 more than Brazil did.
Whether you take Klopp’s Dortmund or Heynckes’ Bayern, it’s extremely hard to miss the Sacchi influence when they don’t have the ball. That’s something everyone looks up to him for: how to play when you ‘don’t’ have the ball. Marco Reus and Franck Ribery would hunt down opposition full-backs. Robert Lewandowski and Mario Mandzukic have been no different either. This approach has permeated to teams like Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke too. The Germans seem obsessed with it. As Sir Alex Ferguson found out early in the 2012-13 season, a 4-2-3-1 formation, the one popularized by the aforementioned teams, is incomplete without playing pressing football, something that his teams have never been known to be adept at. In the same vein, for all the talk of their flair and elegance on the ball, you must check out how the Arsenal of early-mid 2000s played when they didn’t have the ball. Patrick Vieira’s greatest quality was to break the opposition play sooner than they could plan. There was also a refreshing verticality about that Arsenal side. Cue: Arrigo Sacchi influence. If you’re asked to name one team which really deserved to win a Champions’ League, but couldn’t, it’ll be hard to deny them that spot. There weren’t a lot of teams playing football like that then. Most big teams, national or club, were playing what you’d call risk-free football. Take the ball, pass it to the winger, cross, goal, repeat. Wingers were the ‘in-thing’. It used to be ‘cool’ to be a pacy footballer who would run along the byline all match. Then came Pep Gaurdiola and his merry men taking posession football to a new level and winning all they possibly could. If 2008-11 was a throwback to Rinus Michels’ total-football, the current scenario is back to the days of high-pressing and more energetic football. It is, but a glowing tribute to most of Arrigo Sacchi’s teams.
Football will evolve. Tactics will evolve. Teams will evolve. We will continue to come across times when we’re spellbound by a team and its style. Giving a thought before branding them revolutionary might open us up to footballing gold from the glorious past, as has happened in the last few years. Or who knows, somewhere out there, a coach is busy twisting the jigsaw at an angle never tried before. One only wishes to witness revolutionaries reach the peak at giving their craft a whole new look. As it turns out, the 80s generation have a lot to say.