The Innovators

Sarri and Pep encapsulate the evolution of the Premier League

When Manchester City played Napoli in the group stage of the Champions League last season, one of the most notable aspects of two thrilling games was the unusual mutual respect of the two managers. There were no mind-games here, no pointed comments or psychological barbs. Pep Guardiola said he and his opposite number Maurizio Sarri shared “the same idea” of how football should be played, and went on to call Napoli “maybe the best team” his City had played against.

It helps, of course, that Sarri, at least in his public pronouncements, comes across as relaxed and likable, intelligent and mischievous. He is not somebody for whom the next game begins in the post-match press conference. Still, the warmth of Guardiola’s response was striking given that he is the most successful manager in the world over the past decade, and Sarri has still never won anything as a coach. 

Their backgrounds, similarly, could hardly be more different. Guardiola joined Barcelona at 13 and stayed there for 17 years, during which he won six league titles and a Champions League. 

In contrast, Sarri worked as a banker while pursuing an amateur football career with Figline and didn’t even commit full-time to the game until he was 40 years old. It would be unfair to say Guardiola was born into football aristocracy, but it is true that he joined one of the biggest clubs in the world very early and grew up amid the best facilities at a club with a clear ideology. Sarri had none of that; he had to work out his own way of doing things.

And yet, as Guardiola said, they are “of the same school”. Sarri’s immediate influence was Arrigo Sacchi who, like him, had no career as a professional player. Sacchi had travelled Europe as a salesman for a shoe factory, watching football and slowly coming to the conclusion that the widespread perception in Italy, one propagated by the journalist Gianni Brera in the years after the war when food shortages were common, that Italians were physically smaller than others and so needed to play defensively, simply wasn’t true. That meant, Sacchi realised, that there was no need to stick to Catenaccio and its derivatives: Italians could and should press.

Within a decade of quitting his salesman’s job, Sacchi had led AC Milan to two European Cups, playing a hard-pressing 4-4-2. This was revelatory, and yet so radical in the context of Italian football that it took a long time for it to be accepted. Even now, despite the successes of the likes of Antonio Conte and Gian Piero Gasperini, Italian sides tend to press less than those of other European nations. Sarri, after a lengthy apprenticeship that took him through 17 clubs before he reached Napoli, found himself a revolutionary presence. His team still defended much higher up the pitch than the majority of his rivals. 

Guardiola, in his brief stint at Brescia, had played under Carlo Mazzone, one of the other godfathers of Italian pressing and a major influence on Conte, and perhaps through that had come to understand just how unusual Sarri‘s approach was in context. He, too, is an admirer of Sacchi, although the influence is far less direct. Rather there is a common source.

“It was Holland in the 1970s that really took my breath away,” Sacchi told me. “It was a mystery to me. The television was too small; I felt like I needed to see the whole pitch to understand what they were doing and appreciate it fully.”

That Netherlands side that lost in the final of the 1974 World Cup, of course, was managed by Rinus Michels, who by then was manager of Barcelona. His leader on the pitch, the tactical brain of his side, was Johan Cruyff, who had joined Barcelona a year earlier. The origins of what we now know as Total Football can be traced back to the late nineteenth century but it is that pairing of Michels and Cruyff who brought it to fruition. They created a Dutch exclave in Barcelona, instituted the philosophy there and set up an academy to instil that doctrine in promising young players. Guardiola came through that academy; he was given his debut by Cruyff.

There are differences between Sacchi and Michels. “They were different from us,” Sacchi said. “They were based more on athleticism, we were more about tactics. Every player had to be in the right place. In the defensive phase, all of our players always had four reference points: the ball, the space, the opponent and his team-mates. Every movement had to be a function of those four reference points. Each player had to decide which of the four reference points should determine his movement.

“Pressing is not about running and it’s not about working hard. It’s about controlling space. I wanted my players to feel strong and the opponents to feel weak. If we let our opponents play in a way they were accustomed to, they would grow in confidence. But if we stopped them, it would hurt their confidence. That was the key, our pressing was psychological as much as physical. Our pressing was always collective.” 

It is that concept of pressing that underlies the philosophies of both Sarri and Guardiola: get the positioning right, control the space, press as one. “I like it when the team is in control of the match, I like very much the ball possession, I like to play in the other half,” Sarri told Sky Sports in August. "Ball possession, but at a very high speed. Mental speed, first of all, not only ball possession in my half.”

Sarri and Guardiola are not identical. Both seem instinctively to prefer the classic Dutch 4-3-3 rather than Sacchi’s 4-4-2. Sarri demands a playmaker at the back of midfield, which is why he signed Jorginho, while Guardiola, although that holder is often the fulcrum, as Sergio Busquets was for Barcelona and Fernandinho is for City, needs that player to be able to drop between the central defenders.

But the similarities outweigh the differences. Last season, Guardiola would watch Napoli on television and then ring Sacchi to talk about it. On Saturday, he gets a first chance in a league game for a much closer look at how Sarri does things. The promise is for a festival of modern press-and-possess football.

The Goal Pressure Index is presented by Sure, Official Partner of Chelsea FC, Everton FC and Manchester City FC. Join the conversation on Twitter @Sure.