Next up on our journey through the history of the European Cup is the 1989 final between AC Milan and Steaua Bucharest.
In front of a largely partisan crowd at the Camp Nou in Barcelona, Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan secured the first of their two consecutive triumphs. In the first part of the series, we covered the dominant Real Madrid side of the early years of the competition in the context of their victory over Eintracht Frankfurt in 1960; last time out, we looked at a clash of styles in the 1972 final between Ajax and Inter Milan.
After three consecutive victories for that Ajax side followed by three for Bayern Munich, English teams then dominated the competition, winning it six times in a row between 1977 and 1982 and seven times in eight, including four for Liverpool, if that end date is extended to 1984. But in the five years prior to the 1989 final, from the last of Liverpool’s wins through to PSV Eindhoven’s triumph in 1988, teams from five different countries lifted the trophy. Milan Dominance This match didn’t last long as a genuine contest. Milan had already opened the scoring and taken 10 shots before Steaua even mustered their first attempt. By half-time, Milan had added two more goals. A fourth arrived in the opening minute of the second half.
Milan pressed high — their average defensive action was performed further away from their own goal than the average of any team in last season’s competition — and kept Steaua at arms length. Their pressure heat map shows a distinct tilt towards the defensive left, primarily because Steaua consistently sought to work the ball out of defence to that side.
This was a very good Steaua team. They had averaged 2.75 goals per match on their way to the final, had reached the semi-finals a year earlier and were only three years removed from lifting the trophy in 1986. They had just wrapped up the fifth of five consecutive Romanian league titles, the latter three achieved without losing a single game. In that time, they put together a 104-match unbeaten run that remains a European club record. In this match, Steaua consistently tried to play out short from the back. Silviu Lung’s average pass length of 24.81 metres was far shorter than that of any goalkeeper in last season’s competition.
There were glimpses of their quality in some of the sequences in which they were able to work the ball around the Milan press and advance. Captain Tudorel Stoica showed himself to be a calm head under pressure. But they were unable to establish any sort of regular presence in attacking areas against a compact Milan side with a legendary defensive four of Mauro Tassotti, Alessandro Costacurta, Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini. Only four of Steaua’s 12 shots were from in and around the area, and the best chance they created was a blocked 0.14 xG opportunity when the game was already long lost.
It is interesting to note that the two teams completed exactly the same number of passes (401) over the course of the 90 minutes. The difference lay in what they were able to do with them. While Steaua struggled to penetrate, Milan’s attacks were rapid and incisive. Fifteen of their 27 efforts on goal came directly after winning the ball back in opposition territory. Four or five is considered a lot these days. They created a good volume of high-quality shots.
Two goals apiece from Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit — alongside Frank Rijkaard, the trio of Dutch internationals who helped power the side to their successes in this era — won Milan the trophy. Gullit the Reference Point Milan were relatively direct in their use of the ball, with Gullit the primary reference point when advancing from the defensive half into opposition territory, and from there into central zones inside the final third.
Gullit had a couple of inches on both of Steaua’s central defenders, and successfully received 11 head-height passes from teammates. Given the range of his abilities, he was far from a typical target-man, but he was certainly capable of fulfilling aspects of that role for his side. Donadoni and the Milan 4-4-2 Sacchi is famous for his use of a 4-4-2 formation, but this was far from a flat or boxy version of that alignment. For one, there was clear asymmetry amongst the two full-backs. Maldini largely hung back, while Tassotti advanced much higher down the right.
Interest was also provided by the positioning of Carlo Ancelotti and Roberto Donadoni, who overlapped a great deal from their respective nominal starting positions of central and left midfield. Their receipt maps show that they both spent a good amount of time in both wide and central areas, although it was Donadoni who more often joined up with the two forwards.
They also did much of their defensive work in similar areas, although Ancelotti did generally appear to be the wider positioned of the pair out of possession.
Donadoni may not have been the flashiest player, but he was an invaluable one. He got through a ton of work on both sides of the ball in this match. In defence, he led the team in pressures and tackles (including a couple of very nicely timed sliding ones); in attack, he set up seven chances, three more than any of his teammates, while he and Rijkaard were the two players who most often moved the ball into the final third.
Hagi Gheorghe Hagi was the most recognisable name on the Steaua team sheet, and with the number 10 on his back, the one expected to carry the majority of the creative burden. Yet he struggled to effect the game. He dropped back into deeper areas to help advance the ball forward, primarily off dribbles and carries:
But he produced very little end product inside the final third. He didn’t set up a single chance for a teammate, and though he led his team in shots, they were all of low quality.
Hagi’s spectacular strikes in the saturated sunshine of USA 94’ are an enduring childhood memory, but it must be noted that they were the result of a consistently optimistic long-range shooter.
Nowadays that is normally coached out of a player, though not always. Check out his son, Ianis Hagi, now of Rangers. The fruit clearly doesn’t fall from the tree.
Corner Variations The previous two finals in this series featured just six short corners between them, and even then, one of Ajax’s two in the 1972 final was simply to keep the ball and run down the clock in second-half stoppage time. Most corners across those two matches were simply swung into the area. There was more variation in this match. Only two of the 10 corners (five apiece) were high deliveries into the area. Milan had twice scored from short corner routines in their 5-0 destruction of Real Madrid in the second leg of their semi-final and again went short in the final. Steaua, meanwhile, had one interesting routine that didn’t quite come off when a low delivery from the right was laid off just outside the ideal path of an incoming player.
Dribble Volume Remains High Just as in the previous two finals we’ve covered, the dribble count in this match was huge by modern standards. There was a slight reduction between 1960 and 1972, and there is again here, to 46 attempted and 29 completed, but it’s still far above the contemporary average.