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The greatest teams of all time: AC Milan 1988-90

The Greatest: "We defended by attacking and pressing," says Carlo Ancelotti as he recalls the AC Milan side that crushed all comers in the late 1980s under Arrigo Sacchi.

Milan ahead of their 1990 European Cup final triumph
Milan ahead of their 1990 European Cup final triumph ©Getty Images

UEFA.com analyses the teams that changed football; this time, the AC Milan side that won back-to-back European Champion Clubs' Cups at the turn of the 1990s.

The golden age
Without a trophy since winning a tenth Scudetto in 1979, Milan were in the doldrums until Silvio Berlusconi took over as president in 1986. The relatively-unknown Arrigo Sacchi joined as coach in summer 1987, along with Dutchmen Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit. Sacchi's squad won the Italian title in their first season, then the European Cup – and indeed the corresponding UEFA Super Cups and European/South American Cups – in the following two campaigns.

Though Fabio Capello and later Carlo Ancelotti would maintain Milan's position as a major force in European football, Sacchi's side was the most memorable of the age. "Our president had a dream," Sacchi recalled. "He wanted to build the best team in the world. When I arrived, I found a group of great professionals who were eager to win, but only by playing the most spectacular football."

The baton handover
Beating Real Madrid CF in the semi-final of the 1988/89 European Cup was a watershed moment for Milan, who had signed a third Dutch star, Frank Rijkaard, the previous summer. Madrid were considered effectively unbeatable at home, with Milan expected to sit back and accept punishment in the first leg at the Santiago Bernabéu. Sacchi, however, had other plans.

His side took the initiative and were unlucky to be held to a 1-1 draw. No matter. They won the return leg 5-0 in Milan, with Ancelotti scoring a brilliant opener. "Ancelotti's goal was emblematic of our approach," midfielder Roberto Donadoni said. "We were incredibly determined and hungry."

"Fantastique Milan AC!" read the headline in French sports paper L'Equipe the following day, with their 4-0 final victory against FC Steaua București in Barcelona – with two goals each from Gullit and Van Basten – almost an afterthought.

Arrigo Sacchi in 1990
Arrigo Sacchi in 1990©Getty Images

The game-changing philosophy
Committed to concepts like "collective intelligence", Sacchi demanded "11 active players in every moment of the game, both in defence and attack". Remarkably, he used to stage full matches in training without a ball, telling players where the imaginary ball was so they could respond – and position themselves – accordingly.

"The only way you can build a side is by getting players who can play a team game," Sacchi said. "You can't achieve anything on your own, and if you do, it doesn't last long. I often quote what Michelangelo said: 'The spirit guides the hand.'"

The tactical genius
"I never realised that to be a jockey you had to be a horse first," snapped Sacchi after critics questioned the unremarkable defender's ability to lead a top club like Milan. He had worked his way up the ranks as a coach, joining Milan after a successful spell at Parma FC, and was determined to change the traditional Italian style. "Most Italian teams focus on defence," he explained. "Every team played with a libero and man-markers. In attack, everything hinged on the individual skills and creativity of the No10."

Sacchi's sides played in a 4-4-2 system with zonal marking, the distance between the defence and midfield lines never greater than 25 to 30 metres. That high defensive line – and an efficient offside trap – maintained pressure on opponents not used to being hurried. 

The star players
Franco Baresi: 'Kaiser Franz' was coach Nils Liedholm's libero when Milan won the 1978/79 Scudetto, and captained Milan through hard times before embracing zonal marking to lead Sacchi's defensive line, marshalling the equally daunting Mauro Tassotti, Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini.

Ruud Gullit in 1989
Ruud Gullit in 1989©Getty Images

Ruud Gullit: The epitome of Sacchi's total football style, Gullit could threaten in any position. "He is a great player by any standards," George Best said of him in 1990. "He's not afraid to do things with the ball. And he looks as if he's enjoying every second of it. By my reckoning that's what makes him an even better player than Maradona."

Marco van Basten: "He remains the best striker of all time in my opinion," Sacchi once said of the Dutchman. "No other forward has worked as hard for the team as Marco did at Milan. Above all, however, I remember him for his elegance, his grace and his incredible ability."

What they said
Roberto Donadoni: "Sacchi started a revolution in Italian football, at mental and tactical level. We had our style of playing and we were trying to impose it on all opponents, from amateurs in a mid-week training game to Real Madrid at the Bernabéu."

Carlo Ancelotti: "Arrigo completely changed Italian football – the philosophy, the training methods, the intensity, the tactics. Italian teams used to focus on defending – we defended by attacking and pressing."

Xavi Hernández, FC Barcelona midfielder in 2012: "We are incredibly proud when they compare us with Sacchi's Milan. That was a side which made history in football."

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