LLike art, business or politics, football is made up of personalities. The current one is influenced by three coaches from Italy, Portugal and Spain. This will also be evident in Saturday’s Champions League final between Chelsea and Manchester City, the highlight of the season.
The decisive innovation dates back to Arrigo Sacchi. He invented the operating system that is still in force, the Microsoft of football, without which nothing works: the spatial coverage oriented to the ball. With this type of choreographed play, he shaped Milan around prominent individualists Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Ruud Gullit and Roberto Donadoni into the strongest team in the world. They reached their zenith in 1989, beating Real Madrid 5-0 in the European Cup semi-finals and Steaua Bucharest, winners in 1986 and with future world star Gheorghe Hagi in their team, 4-0 in the final.
Their plays were of higher quality and the brilliantly organized Milan continued to engage the opponent in duels that led to turnovers. Steaua barely crossed the midline, the goals inevitably fell and the winner was clear in the 30th minute. Any coach worth his salt must have seen these 90 minutes of uneven competition.
Sacchi drove progress, first in Italy. Other Misters, such as Italy’s coaches known for their looks and wardrobe, adopted his style. In particular, Fabio Capello, who dominated Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona with Milan in a 4-0 win in the 1994 final. Or Marcello Lippi, who reached three finals in a row with Juventus from 1996 to 1998, and a player from Sacchi, Carlo Ancelotti, has won the trophy as a coach three times.
At that time, Italian football was the maximum because sponsors like Silvio Berlusconi and Angelo Moratti financed the clubs. With their millions, they attracted the best players. As a result, Serie A won the European Cup / Champions League five times between 1989 and 2003, and the UEFA Cup and the Cup Winners’ Cup a total of 11 out of 26 times. During that time, seven clubs from Italy won a European trophy, including Parma, Sampdoria, Napoli and Lazio. No league could match that.
Germany also benefited from the high level of Italy. In 1990, West Germany became world champions, in part because almost half of the team around Lothar Matthäus played in Serie A. Since 1995, the modern operating system was installed in the Bayern Munich youth team; the ball-oriented spatial coverage and four-man baseline were revolutionary in Germany. I became the German U19 champion in 2001 and 2002, a first for Bayern.
You always need someone to take on the ideas of others and enrich them with their own. Our Sacchi was Björn Andersson, who won the European Cup with Bayern in the 1970s. He did not treat us young players with authority, but at eye level. With this Scandinavian pedagogy, Swedish gave my generation a new leadership style: flat hierarchies, discussion, participation.
Innovation never goes unnoticed. In different locations, other coaches adapted Sacchi, developed their own programs, added their interpretation, formed great teams with continuity, dissolved the dominance of Italy. For more than a quarter of a century, Alex Ferguson gave Manchester United stability, his team looked like an attacking machine. With his talent for character, he led them to the Champions League final four times, winning in 1999 and 2008.
Louis van Gaal captured the title in 1995 with Ajax, a minor league club with a history of offensive football. Ottmar Hitzfeld, a master of speech and people management, won titles with Dortmund (1997) and Bayern (2001). Jupp Heynckes won with Real Madrid in 1998 and Bayern in 2013, Vicente del Bosque with Real in 2000 and 2002. Frank Rijkaard, champion with Barcelona in 2006, was also Sacchi’s player.
Then José Mourinho arrived. His doctrine of modernity catenaccio it took away the offensive spirit from football. With Porto disadvantaged, he triumphed in the UEFA Cup in 2003 and the Champions League the following year. In the semi-final and final of 2004, the opponent was unable to score. During this period, everyone was talking about playing against the ball.
Mourinho minimizes the risk of conceding a goal. Thanks to a high level of organization and physical strength, his teams achieve curious defensive feats. For example, he built a human barricade around the penalty area with Internazionale in the 2010 semi-final in Barcelona. Their teams wait for the ball to be lost and take advantage of this moment of vulnerability to attack the goal with few movements. In 2010, in the final against Inter, our Bayern were beaten.
One of Mourinho’s champions is Diego Simeone. He has led Atlético de Madrid for 10 years to lead a finely tuned 11-man defense. He has won the Europa League twice and recently secured the Spanish championship for the second time. He has been in the Champions League final twice, when he narrowly lost. In 2014 and 2016, that is, at a time when another era had dawned a long time ago.
It was the height of possession. He went back to Pep Guardiola, who responded to Mourinho and took out Sacchi offensively. Guardiola attacked. He let the romantic ideology of total football, with which Cruyff had reached its limits in the 1990s, grow into a new flower in Barcelona. He wanted to be in full control of the game, tie up the opponent in the attacking half and if he ever missed the ball, they were supposed to get it back up front.
This is how you repress the accumulation of others, a permanent offense is created. In the first leg of our 2009 quarter-finals, Barcelona beat Bayern 4-0. In the 2009 and 2011 finals, Manchester United hardly received the ball. Barça was overwhelming.
He was momentous, he was born in Spain and therefore had a huge impact on the national team, which was almost unbeatable at the time. Guardiola’s game with the ball then permeates international football.
Transitions are always smooth and great coaches find intermediate solutions. In the mid-2010s, Real Madrid dominated the Champions League, winning in 2014, 2016 and 2018. The biggest club in the world always attracts the best footballers. It would have been a long search to reinforce the XI around Luka Modric, Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos, Karim Benzema and Toni Kroos.
But soccer is not just about strategy, which brings us to another recent example: Jürgen Klopp. He responds to Guardiola with passion, physicality, faith, anarchy and a dynamic counterattack. Klopp always finds an emotional connection with his players. His last appearance for Dortmund in 2013 was a great performance. He advanced to the final twice with Liverpool, a city that fits his mentality perfectly. In 2019 he won.
Sacchi, Mourinho and Guardiola, the ball-oriented operating system, playing with the ball and against it, total offense, lurking in the counterattack, all this will also be shown in Porto. Because no team currently has the dominance that Milan did or that of the Spanish later, all major teams contain this three-part mix, including the final two. Manchester City and Chelsea want to besiege their opponents in the penalty area and pressure them there with counterpressing, but they also fold again and again and leave them the ball and the initiative.
Both clubs have charismatic coaches. Guardiola’s style is still recognizable, but he borrows defensively from Mourinho because his team is not as majestic as Real or Barça. Thomas Tuchel is the first coach to reach two finals in a row with two different clubs. It has found recognition among the approximately 10 clubs that bill between 500 and 1 billion euros a year and can compete internationally. This results in a rough equality of forces. It will probably be an exciting finale.
Philipp Lahm’s column appears regularly in The Guardian. It is produced in association with Oliver Fritsch in Online time, the German online magazine, and is being published in several European countries.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism