A multi-use football pitch sits at the back of the Teatro Moderno on Corso Renato in the northern Italian town of Fusignano. In a built-up area comprising shops and houses its positioning behind a cinema seems a tad incongruous – but for one night only it could not be more apposite.

Around a table inside the cinema, there is an empty seat. Three of Italian football's cognoscenti have gathered to discuss their careers, their impact on the game and the legacy they left on it. The Italians call these round-table conversations parliamo, its more prosaic English translation is 'let's talk' and these men have plenty to talk about. Gathered together are Arrigo Sacchi, twice European Cup winner and il gran maestro of the greatest Italian club of the modern era, AC Milan. Marcello Lippi, a five-time scudetti winner who also guided Italy to the 2002 World Cup and Alberto Zaccheroni, another erstwhile Milan manager, another winner of the scudetto and the Serie A coach of the year in 1999.

A fourth man is missing: he is Antonio Conte who had been scheduled to attend but is presiding over his first match as manager of Tottenham Hotspur – it takes something really pressing to keep him away from this meeting of minds. The others – football men to their marrow - would not have it any other way, of course.

The conversation comes at the end of an exhibition celebrating the life of Sacchi – a man who transformed the Italian landscape with a team that broke the traditions of austere, defensive football – and coincides with the launch of his superb book The Immortals: the season my Milan reinvented football which has just been released by the equally innovative Scottish publisher Backpage Press. Curated from extracts of Sacchi's diary it gives a front-seat view of three compelling seasons under the master tactician when his all-conquering side won Serie A in 1988 then followed that success up with back-to-back European Cups.

He had been viewed with suspicion by his players – Franco Baresi and Marco van Basten were initial vocal sceptics and the media, among whom the hugely influential sports journalist Gianni Brera was a particular pessimist. Despite witnessing Sacchi's Milan side sweep all before them at home and on the continent, Brera was still advocating caution on the eve of the first of those European Cup finals against Steaua Bucharest in 1989.

There are more recent echoes with Ange Postecoglou here – and indeed other coaches who cherish innovation. The Celtic head coach was a pupil of Sacchi's and has faced similar questions about his style of play and totalitarian approach to sticking to what he believes in when others are urging pragmatism. Sacchi had an answer for those disciples of doom.

Citing Brera's recommendation that Milan “Must wait for Steaua, trap them, hit them on the break”, he says: “This is the advice that the most authoritative Italian sports journalist is giving us – should we listen to him?”

Of course they didn't. They swarmed all over the Romanians and duly blew them away winning 4-0 with two goals apiece from Ruud Gullit and van Basten on a night inside the Camp Nou when football was redefined. The next morning French sports paper L'Equipe screamed 'Football Can No Longer Be The Same'.

Fusignano is Sacchi's home town but it is in another part of the country, 170 miles to the north-west with which his name will be forever enshrined.

Tomorrow Sacchi will be an interested onlooker as AC Milan contest the derby against city rivals Inter. For the first time in more than a decade the Rossoneri have assembled a team that looks capable of lifting Serie A and they go into the derby level on points at the top with Napoli, seven points clear of Inter, the defending champions. Stefano Pioli, the incumbent head coach, has drawn approving comments from Sacchi on a regular basis, for his part in Milan's revival in the pages of Gazzetta dello Sport, for whom he is a regular contributor.

There are parallels between the two: both were childhood Inter fans who had unheralded playing careers before becoming coaches of Milan having served lengthy apprenticeships in the lower leagues.

But where they diverge is in playing style. Sacchi was credited with inventing a bold, novel approach to football, that dispensed with a sweeper, encouraged pressing in defensive areas and sought to unleash rampaging full-backs – concepts that were alien in Italian football. Some said he was a revolutionary, a description Sacchi disagreed with claiming he was a true conservative because football had started out as an attacking game before “other people transformed it into a defensive, individualistic game”. Pioli is more circumspect playing in a traditionally Italian way: solid and defensive whereas Sacchi had decided as a young kid watching the holy trinity of Real Madrid, Hungary and Brazil on his friend Lorenzo Zagaroni's television growing up in Fusignano that there was only one way of playing and that was with beauty and purpose.

Sacchi perfected his press by building a small cage – “like Sing Sing maximum security prison” – at the Milanello training ground, whereupon intense three-minute, four-a-side matches would take place. Ever the micro-manager, he climbed a ladder and would bawl instructions at his players through a megaphone.

It prompted Sacchi's wife to remark to Mauro Tassotti, the legendary right back of that great team, that her husband no longer needed to shout at the players, to which Tassotti, a renowned master of the one-liner, replied: “That's not strictly true. Now he shouts into the megaphone.”

At 75, he is more sedate. As he watches events unfold at San Siro this afternoon, Sacchi would be forgiven for allowing his mind to wander back to the derbies of that season 33 years ago when his Milan side ended a nine-year wait to lift the scudetto. They were staging post matches. In the build-up to his first derby the vultures were circling in the Italian press. There had been a 0-0 draw at Empoli then a defeat by forfeit at Roma which left his side in seventh and Brera and his cohorts were asking who would be in charge of Milan the following season. At which point Silvio Berlusconi called a press conference for a Saturday morning in November where he announced that he would reveal the identity of his choice to be the next Milan coach.

Sacchi recalls: “Journalists and TV crews filled the room with the hearth at Milanello, and the president, once more clear and concise, declared: 'The next manager of Milan will be Arrigo Sacchi'.”

The following weekend Milan won the derby thanks to a Riccardo Ferri own goal. When the ball went in, Sacchi “jumped so high that I tore my calf”. In their next match, they tore the champions Napoli to shreds.

Sacchi notes: “That day, Milan offered the first true picture of the football built on domination and beauty that I'd had in my head since childhood.”

It was the start of a run that would convince the players and the rest of Italy that Sacchi's pioneers were going to win the title. By the time their second Milan derby came around they were a relentless force and perhaps surpassed the performance that had earlier throttled Diego Maradona, Careca and Co.

“The 2-0 final scoreline did not reflect our absolute domination,” writes Sacchi. “Inter couldn't manage to get out of their own box – as soon as they stuck their nose outside we jumped on them. What a show. Gullit delivered another monstrous display.

“For a full idea of what happened, the result tells less than a quip the Inter forward Spillo Altobelli made to the referee after half-time: 'Count them properly this time. In the first half, there were 15 of them.'”