This is a piece written by guest author Ö-zil to the Arsenal! off the SI forums. You can check him out and his posts here Ozil’s profile
Welcome to a spin-off article on Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan team and innovative 4-4-2 – continuing the theme of using very fluid tactics and a team of technical, intelligent and hard working (aka Complete) footballers to recreate the style of football made famous by the likes of Ajax, Barcelona & Milan and personified by the likes of Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff, Pep Guardiola and – of course – Arrigo Sacchi.
If you haven’t read the first thread, please follow the link for Johan Cruyff’s 3-4-3 Diamond.
Before I begin, I’d like to say thank you to everyone who has contributed so far for making this an enjoyable discussion
In this thread, I am going to talk about Arrigo Sacchi’s 4-4-2 formation employed by his legendary AC Milan team – the last side to successfully defend the European Cup / Champions League & commonly regarded as one of the best club sides of all time.
Sacchi’s philosophy stems from that of the Total Footballing Dutch teams of the 1970s and is a great example of how you can maintain a similar approach to the game, whilst playing a totally different formation. Understanding this will give you a lot more flexibility and freedom in your approach.
Resources Arrigo Sacchi’s 4-4-2
- Inverting the Pyramid, by Jonathan Wilson – Chapter 16: the coach who wasn’t a horse
- ESPN’s Greatest Managers, No. 6 – Arrigo Sacchi
- Football Coach – Arrigo Sacchi’s Method
- YouTube – Arrigo Sacchi
- YouTube – Milan 5 – Real Madrid 0 (Highlights)
- YouTube – European Cup 1988/89: Real Madrid v Milan
I have tried to avoid –“..bla bla.. he was a shoe sales man.. bla, bla.. he’s not a horse” – as much as possible and provide content with some insight. It isn’t easy If you can recommend any additional resources, please do & we’ll have them added!
Once again – using the excellent resources at Spielverlung – this is the shape we are trying to create.
*I am not sure which game this was taken from but many resources list the wingers on opposite flanks.
Inspired by the legendary ‘total footballing’ Dutch teams of the 1970s, Sacchi followed a lot of the same concepts. Sacchi was also responsible for some innovations of his own.
- Dynamic 4-4-2 formation
- Proactive, attacking football
- High intensity pressing game
- Compactness – Sacchi has been quoted as instructing his players to play no more than 25 meters from defence to attack.
Very hot topic in modern tactics (Raneiri’s Leicester & Simeone’s Atletico)
- Universality (link)
When Sacchi took over AC Milan, very negative tactics were common place. Most sides played a back 4 + libero with tight man-to-man marking so Sacchi’s decision to play an expansive 4-4-2, press and use a zonal marking system was another reason he is seen as a visionary. Given zonal marking is common these days, that will be less of the discussion but certainly not overlooked.
Shape, Mentality & Team Instructions aka Playing Style
Last time, I talked about formation, shape and mentality as the backbone of my tactic – which is true – however this time I want to discuss shape, mentality and team instructions as the key components of your playing style. This can also illustrate how you can use the same playing style with any balanced formation.
For example, Pep Guardiola has used 4-3-3, 3-4-3, 4-1-4-1, 2-3-4-1 (?) and goodness knows what else but always maintained a similar style of play, which has evolved over time. The same could be said for Simeone with 4-4-2, 4-3-3 and 4-5-1.
Shape: Very Fluid
As you may have guessed from the title, we are going with Very Fluid. This is for 3 primary reasons.
- Very Fluid gives us the most compact shape possible, by reducing the difference between the mentalities of attacking or defensive players.
- Very Fluid instructs our whole team to attack and defend as a unit, which – combined with Team Instructions – is excellent for high intensity pressing.
- Very Fluid gives the entire team higher creative freedom so my “complete footballers” can make their own decisions.
When picking your mentality please remember that playing a Very Fluid shape gives your entire team the same, or very similar mentalities. That explains why Very Fluid makes your team:
- Attack & Defend as a unit
The combination of Very Fluid shape with Standard mentality offers synergy due to it’s balance. The entire team attacks and defends as a unit.
The downside (if misunderstood) of very fluid is that it effectively magnifies your mentality changes massively. For example, using very fluid + attack means you have 4 David Luiz in your back-line. Using very fluid + defend means your attackers are very risk averse and primarily defend.
If understood correctly, tweaking mentality at the correct stage of a game can be a real weapon for you.
- Much More Closing Down, Much Higher Defensive Line, Tight Marking, Prevent GK Dist. and Offside Trap – these set up a ‘High-Block’ aka pressing
- Low Crosses, Play from Defence & Pass into Space – attacking preferences
I think the only difference between this and my Ajax team is the offside trap and not selecting be more expressive, due to slightly less creative players.
Summary of our Playing Style
In conclusion – regardless of formation – our playing style is:
- Expansive, high creativity football
- High intensity pressing
- Compact without the ball
- High creative freedom for intelligent footballers
- This style is less of a strategy and more of a template to allow good footballers to play good football.
Looking at the YouTube videos and analysis detailed above, you could easily opt for a 4-4-2, 4-4-1-1 or a variant of 4-2-3-1. My interpretation is a 4-4-1-1 illustrated below.
So, it’s a pretty basic 4-4-1-1 formation. You can see a few basic traits:
- Two solid banks of four.
- A holder and a runner in central midfield.
- Width on both flanks from the right Wing (Attack) and left Wingback (Attack).
- The wide midfielder and attacking midfielder both support the central midfielders – at times, creating a diamond shape in possession.
- Attacking midfielder linking midfield and joining the attack.
- Spearheaded by a Complete Forward who will move, create space for support runners and attack directly.
Player Roles and Instructions
As per wwfan’s influential 12 Step Guide on How to Play Football Manager, in order to successfully play a Very Fluid shape I need to limit my team to 0-1 Specialist roles i.e playmakers, ball-winners or anything with a fancy name.
Goalkeeper (Defend): Distribute the ball to Playmaker, Distribute Quickly
Right Fullback (Support): N/A
Centre Back (Defend): N/A
Centre Back (Defend): N/A
Left Wingback (Attack): N/A
Right Winger (Attack): N/A
Central Midfielder (Support): N/A
Deeplying Playmaker (Defend): Close Down Much Less
Wide Midfielder Left (Attack): N/A
Attacking Midfielder (Attack): Hold Up Ball
Complete Forward (Support): Move into Channels
Universality & Complete Footballers
One of Sacchi’s key innovations was the concept of a complete footballer. Similar to the Dutch, Ajax or Barcelona, Sacchi defined a complete footballer as a player with:
- Technical Ability – Technique, First Touch, Passing
- Intelligence – Decisions, Vision, Off the Ball, Anticipation, Concentration.
- Work Ethic: Determination, Work Rate, Stamina.
Throughout this game, these attributes have been at the centre of my scouting and youth development policy. Even establishing a custom squad view to monitor:
Sacchi’s team had an Italian spine and a heavy Dutch influence. As you can see, I have a similar Italian spine but my attacking influence is from Portugal due to the well rounded technical ability, intelligence and work ethic of Ruben Neves, Goncalo Guedes and Bernardo Silva (AMC w/ work rate = 17).
This squad wasn’t cheap, or easy to assemble but I am very happy with it.
You join me in the 2018 Champions League Final, preparing to face Paris Saint-Germain. After PSG won the Champions League in 2016 and took advantage of their hefty budget they boast a very strong squad.
On the way to the final, PSG defeated Dortmund along with English super-money clubs, Arsenal and Chelsea whilst Milan have faced an aging Barcelona, Juventus and Bayern Munich.
PSG are lining up in a very narrow 4-1-3-1-1 with a superstar midfield. It’ll be interesting to see how the compactness of our playing style helps the two man central midfield against five, excellent opponents.
Analysis without the Ball
Key Instructions / Attributes:
- Very Fluid Shape -> Compactness & defending as a unit
- High Defensive Line, Closing Down and Tight Marking -> High Block
- Work rate, determination and stamina
In this scenario we have Di Maria, in possession and looking to initiate an attack from deep. Here we can see:
- Mauri immediately closing down & putting him under pressure.
- Neves drops deep, creating a solid triangle with the Rugani & Romagnoli and gets close to opposition AMC.
- Locatelli comes inside to press the opposition MCR.
- Silva presses the opposition MC and cuts off DMC.
- Bernardi supports Silva.
- Guides covers the left fullback.
- High defensive line.
The objective here is to not necessarily win the ball immediately – although that is ideal – most of the time you’ll pressure the opposition into a speculative long pass, easy for our defence / midfield to intercept.
Deep Press & Compactness
Here, PSG are building an attack through the centre – where they should have a large numerical advantage. We can see:
- Silva leading the press.
- Silva, Berardi, Neves and Mauri really crowding their space.
- Solid two banks of four.
- Very compact shape.
- Jorge is free to press aggressively due to the lack of a 2nd wide player
- Jorge is supported by Neves, who can cover his position and is cutting out a pass.
- This is a great example of our compactness, eliminating PSG’s expected midfield overload.
- Locatelli, again, moves centrally to help out in midfield.
- Silva drops back creating 5 vs 4 advantage and a very crowded space.
- My right back is free to help where necessary.
- Their 16 is drunk.
- Berardi could be deeper, perhaps illustrates he has decent but not exceptional work-rate.
Analysis with the ball
Whilst the 4-4-2 does not offer the same flexibility as the 3-4-3 it does offer some interesting attacking shapes. The asymmetric roles create some interesting shape so I will show you how we look when:
- Transitioning into attack from deep
- Attacking through the centre
- Attacking the right flank
- Attacking the left flank
Key Instructions & Attributes
- Very Fluid – High Creative Freedom & Movement.
- Standard mentality allowing players to chose the best option rather than other influences such as being more attacking.
- Player role distribution creating asymmetrical shape.
- Play from defence, pass ball into space and low crosses show attacking style.
- Striker moving into flanks creating gaps.
Build up from defence
Very common scenario here, we have the ball in defence and we’re looking to transition into attack. This illustrates:
- Neves acting as the primary playmaker – multiple options, here he picks Jorge.
- Notice the difference in the behaviour of the DCs in a back 4 in comparison to 3.
- Neves, Locatelli, Mauri and Silva form a diamond allowing an easy transition.
- Jorge and Guedes provide width
- Berardi keeps opposition defence in position.
- Once the ball passes Silva, he turns and attacks as a second striker.
Attack through the middle
Here we go again – building through the middle, attacking a compact PSG defence. Here we see:
- The diamond has formed again.
- Jorge and Guedes are providing width.
- Red / Blue run options for Berardi and Silva to create space for Silva to attack.
- Red dotted arrow is the obvious pass I anticipated Locatelli choosing, playing Jorge in behind to shoot or cross.
- Green dotted arrow is the actual pass he played, the other greens are Berardi’s run and excellent finish. 1-0.
Attacking the right flank
Guedes is attacking the right flank. Here we can see:
- More of a typical 4-4-2 shape – attacking runs mean we do not see a diamond shape in midfield.
- Silva has joined Berardi as a second striker – if Guedes beats his man, #5 must decide whether to press Guedes or track Silva – either way, one is free.
- Locatelli is making a dangerous run at the back post and occupying the fullback.
- Di Sciglio is making a supporting run.
- Mauri is a little too deep here.
Attacking the left flank
Here Jorge, overlaps Locatelli and attacks the flank. We can see:
- Wingback – rather than winger – orchestrating the attack.
- Due to the combination of roles on the right flank, we actually look more dangerous attacking down the left side.
- Diamond has previously formed but now you can see Silva transition into his role as second striker.
- Guedes is much more aggressive attacking the far post, really stretching the defence.
- Shape is almost a 3-3-4
Comfortable win. Not as emphatic as Ajax but also completely in-control and played some great football. Timo Horn saved PSG’s blushes here with a man-of-the-match performance.
- Retained Scudetto
- Finished the season unbeaten with a 100% home record
- Conceded 8 goals and kept 30 clean sheets in Serie A
If you’re interested in the development of this squad, once again I have posted updates in the AC Milan thread in the Good Player & Team Guide Forum, although please note this has been a much shorter game.
Thank you very much for reading. Hopefully you enjoy it and maybe find it useful. I’m very interested to hear how you get on implementing a playing style of your own!