“In both the defensive and possession phase, I think it is essential for the team’s shape to be short and narrow. In the possession phase, my system of play is based on synchronisms and timing. We leave and occupy spaces. It’s difficult to arrive whilst on the move. But it is also more difficult for opponents to control. The distance between whoever has the ball and the receivers should generally not be more than twelve or fifteen metres. If the distance is greater, the pass will be less accurate, almost always off the ground, slow, and the receiver will be isolated. Therefore, in addition to the aforementioned advantages, defensive blocking and preventive positioning could be carried out in the best possible way, being short and narrow. Pressure and preventive blocks allow for less running and the saving of energy; sprints are short and long recovery runs back for the whole team are avoided.”

These could quite easily have been the words of Pep Guardiola, Juanma Lillo, Marcelo Bielsa, Thomas Tuchel, or indeed, said by Italy’s national team Head Coach Roberto Mancini before leading the Azzurri into the 2020 European Championships. Instead, they were written in Arrigo Sacchi’s autobiography titled; ‘Calcio totale’, and the concepts were in place more than 30 years ago, when the former shoe salesman led AC Milan to national and European glory with his diverse philosophies.

Sometimes, and less frequently as the game evolves, teams which allow the opposition to have the ball and sit deep in a low-block win competitions. Portugal were crowned European Champions 2016 having won just one game in normal time and scoring only nine goals along the way. Greece recorded a similar feat 12 years prior.

Playing in such a reactive style has been something ingrained deep into the Italian mindset for many decades, and the ‘Catenaccio’ systems of Gipo Viani and Nereo Rocco are carved even deeper into the walls surrounding Coverciano. It was at the Florence-based Italian Football Headquarters where Sacchi first turned heads and raised eyebrows amongst the hierarchy of the Centro Tecnico Federale when discussing his football beliefs on the ‘Supercurso’.

A few years later, and after leading Parma to promotion in his first season and then taking them within three points of promotion to Serie A in his second, Silvio Berlusconi, the owner of AC Milan, called the 41-year-old to offer him the job after his Parma team had beaten Milan twice in Coppa Italia. Sacchi’s ideology dominated the European scene, and caused footballing conflicts nationwide by demonstrating a new way of both seeing the game and winning as he guided Milan to the Scudetto against Diego Maradona’s Napoli and, more importantly for Italy’s trophy cabinet, a Sampdoria which was led by a strike-duo of Mancini and his current right-hand man on the national team staff, Gianluca Vialli.

Franco BARESI and Arrigo SACCHI head coach of Milan AC celebrate the victory with the trophy during the European Cup Final match between Steaua Bucuresti and Milan AC, at Camp Nou, Barcelona, Spain on 24th May 1989 ( Photo by Serge Philippot / Onze / Icon Sport )

During a study visit to Coverciano in 2019, the Chairman of Italian football Renzo Ulivieri admitted to me: “We’ve made errors in recent times. Following the 2006 World Cup win, we thought we were the professors. Then Spain won in 2010 with their short, patient style and people tried to copy that. Four years later Germany were the best with quick, aggressive, and direct football, and that was imitated here.” He added, “We lost our principles and so we put a stop to it. We said, ‘Let’s calm down. We can learn from others and mix it in with our character, but we are Italian and want to remain Italian!’”

He continued: “There is a time for each style of football. If we have to sit in deep to defend with organisation then counter-attack, we are Italian. If we win the ball and have no immediate opportunity to counter, we are Spanish. And if the best solution is to go forwards in the fastest possible way, we’ll be German. We must always do what we do best though, and nobody can be Italian better than the Italians.”

Like life, the game moves in cycles; systems and shapes change with the wind. But what remains in place amongst the methodologies of the elite are the principles and a love of having the ball; which also means winning it back as quickly as possible when it is lost. These were clear notions for the Azzurri at the 2020 Championships and, with a ‘Positional Play’ which carried a whiff of Roberto De Zerbi’s Sassuolo, rotations and overloads arriving between lines from wide areas that had a flavour of Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta, and then a strategically deeper set-up, sturdy defensive line and brashness to miss players out and play vertically whilst managing the game emotionally operated in a fashion that Antonio Conte’s Inter would be proud of when up against the more expansive Spain in the semi-finals; the 2020 European Champions never once strayed from Sacchi’s concepts from the opening paragraph.

Italy overload wide area against Belgium in short and narrow distances

Possession is lost to Belgium

Possession is immediately regained as spaces are occupied

Physicality and pace are the attributes which often top the list of scouts and coaches alike who’re looking for players to play in a high-pressing system, but Italy conquered the continent with a central-defensive pairing of Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, who have a combined age of 70; yet Belgium, with the brutal pace and physicality of Romelu Lukaku, and England with Raheem Sterling’s electric counter-attacking skills, very rarely caused any great harm during transitions.

In compact areas, Italy look to attack down the right

Possession is lost, and with Lukaku up against Bonucci and Chiellini, passing lines are blocked by closest players to the ball and the Belgian player in possession is immediately pressed

Possession is regained in a central position

Only Jorginho got onto the list of the top seven players for distance covered at the tournament (though he played more minutes than any other outfield player) and defenders Bonucci and Giovanni Di Lorenzo were the only other two in the top 16, even though Italy played more minutes than any other team. Also, Leonardo Spinazzola, Federico Chiesa and Di Lorenzo were the only three Italian players in the top 52 for fastest sprints recorded. Yet, with 291 balls recovered during the tournament, nobody pressed better than Italy or regained possession more effectively in transitions.

With players equidistant apart, Italy build up play against England with more than 60 metres behind Bonucci and Chiellini

With Harry Kane isolated against Bonucci, Italy regain possession immediately as England are forced into a long, hopeful ball

Federations around the world suggest that coaches should break their model and philosophy down into ‘Four phases of play’ as well as what they want to do on set-pieces. The phases consist of what principles are to be used; ‘In possession’, ‘Out of possession’, in the ‘Attack to Defence Transition’ and in the ‘Defence to Attack Transition’, yet the world’s elite are constantly providing evidence that separating and focussing on the phases or moments in isolation is baseless and untenable in such a sport which is so convoluted, fluid and unceasing.

As Thomas Tuchel once said in a post-game press conference: “We spend very few minutes and moments in training isolated on defence or attack. We train in complex situations because the game is complex and we don’t try to divide the situations in an artificial way. He added: “Football is complex. It’s about balance. You can’t score without defending and you can’t defend without having the ball.”

 “The further away from our goal the ball is, the safer we are. There is a relation. When you attack good, you defend well, and when we defend well and solid we attack better. You can’t separate them or only talk about the different things like; “Just attack” or “Just defend”. Over the past 20 years, the teams who have scored the most have conceded the least.” – Pep Guardiola

There are some coaches who even intentionally focus on losing the ball in the final third and target individuals on the opposition team as many opponents are far less organised to attack and retain possession when they’re defending. Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool used this tactic when playing against FC Barcelona in the 2019 Champions League semi-final.

In recent years, ‘Playing out from the back’ has become such a conformed agenda and many do it with no real understanding or perception of the benefits or objectives; rather than being perceived as a ‘modern coach’. Though it can attract opponents and draw them out of position, open spaces and give rhythm to the play, many of the top teams prefer to build up from the back as it allows them to arrive into the opposition’s half or final third whilst travelling together in numbers, thus allowing possession to be regained quicker and more effectively if the ball is lost.

Italy’s goal-kicks were passed from central defenders to goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma as it gives more directional options and freezes the opposition centrally

“If you haven’t travelled together as a team with the ball, then you can’t rob it back when you lose it. If you’re too far away from where you’ve lost it then you can’t go and press the opponent. If you’re not together, connecting with passes, you cannot win it back immediately” – Juanma Lillo

Donnarumma would make a ‘pausa’ and wait for opponents to press him directly, thus leaving a space behind him for teammates to pass or move into.
The ‘pausa’ also bought time for teammates higher up the pitch to rotate and occupy spaces, disorganising and unbalancing the opposition

Speaking on his appointment as Italian national team coach, Sacchi conceded that having limited time to work with the players provided him with great challenges in transmitting his attacking mentality of possession football to his players who were so set in their rigid ‘Catenaccio ways of thinking’.

However, stages were constructed as he had extra-time to plan and work with his players as Azeglio Vicini’s reign came to an abrupt end when Italy failed to reach the European Championships in 1992. Sacchi constructed a team that believed in his methods and managed to lead them to the 1994 World Cup final.

He said: “Over time we built through stages. The stages were used to learn the game and the positioning with the correct distances, the coverage of the spaces, the counter-attacks when it was possible to steal the ball by means of a suffocating pressure, with good distances between the units. But then, our system of play was based on continuity. That way we didn’t give our opponents any points of reference. It required us to be perfectly synchronised.”

An infamous Roberto Baggio penalty miss sent Sacchi’s team packing for Rome with silver medals. But Mancini was appointed in similar circumstances, taking on a team which failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2018 (the first time since 1958) and, after a run of 34 unbeaten games, he took his country one step further than Sacchi in lifting the 2020 European Championships trophy.

Time stands still for no man, and at the ripe old age of 75, Sacchi hasn’t coached for 20 years. However, the philosophies of the shoe-seller from Fusignano live on through Mancini and his many other disciples.

Written by Alex Clapham – @alexclapham

Quotes taken from: Calcio totale. La mia vita raccontata a Guido Conti – Arrigo Sacchi – Mondadori (16 May 2017)