Carlo Ancelotti is an old timer. This year marks his 30th since he hung up his black Lotto boots and kept his white Italy tracksuit top on for Italy matches, becoming assistant to Arrigo Sacchi. He’s in fine Italian suits now and wears his greying hair expertly. Most of the time he chews nicotine gum, but on special occasions he still has a a cigar handy.
What might have been the norm when he started now makes him an outlier. Football on the whole has looked to a fresher, younger figurehead for their club, animated in press conferences and with all the airs of an intense genius.
Ancelotti, for his part hasn’t bothered trying to be something he isn’t. That hurts him too. Managers are part of brand, it pays to be seen to have a big idea, regardless of whether you can implement it or not.
Yet if you look back across the last 20 years of Real Madrid’s history, their second glorious era of European success, few of the people behind it are idealists. Vicente del Bosque, Zinedine Zidane and Ancelotti himself are responsible for all of their 21st century Champions Leagues.
Recent experiments with managers who are more ‘modern’, more obsessed with the structure of the team than the people in it, are less successful. Julen Lopetegui tried to play with a defined style and was ruthlessly shunted out the door by the players. Rafa Benitez might make the modernists cringe, but he too was nudged out the door at about the halfway point.
The facts are that those managers who are perceived to be a softer touch, a guiding presence rather than an automated system of navigation do much better at Real Madrid. Even the very idea of Antonio Conte brought about shudders at Valdebebas.
This is not to say that Ancelotti (or his predecessors) is the tactical dunce he’s made out to be. Many have criticised the fact that Real Madrid don’t imitate the other successful teams around Europe – they don’t impose a pattern of play on their rival.
In blunt terms, they just don’t have the strength in depth to press for 90 minutes of football. Trying a higher line early in the season, they survived due to the disparity in quality but also conceded six goals to Alaves, Celta Vigo and Levante. An ageing midfield, an injury prone defence and a series of slightly below standard alternatives on the right-hand side make outrunning opponents simply impossible.
Granted there have been mistakes and he has been aided by the lack of form from their rivals, in the first case most infamously in their 4-0 El Clasico defeat. Yet what Ancelotti misses in terms of pedantic game-planning he makes up for in those soft skills.
It seems the ability to work in synchronisation with players has lost cachet though. Perhaps it has gone unnoticed that Thomas Tuchel and Mauricio Pochettino, two managers who most supposed would expose Ancelotti and run Real Madrid, ragged are no longer in the competition. To a certain extent they did do so, but Ancelotti knew how to handle it. For whenever a big moment has come up this season, Real Madrid have been bigger than their opposition.
Even if he has those flaws, his ability to connect with his footballers surpasses that of many of his peers. It’s harder to talk about, trickier and less fun to analyse, but it’s proving to be just as important. Whenever Real Madrid have been knocked off balance this season, there’s been no over-compensation from Ancelotti. The Italian keeps his side on their feet when most would lose their cool.
His star, Karim Benzema, is better than he was last season at 34. The development of Vinicius Junior has enabled that and Ancelotti has been able to reach him in a way others haven’t. Losing the backbone of four Champions League wins last summer, David Alaba and Eder Militao have been provided with a context that allows them to be the second best defence in La Liga. Luka Modric has been given the freedom to solve problems in a way that many managers would struggle to come to terms with.
Before the season, even the most fickle of Madridistas, of which there is no shortage, would have to have signed off on the European semi-finals and the La Liga title with four matches to spare. This squad is not the best in Europe and many had argued that Atletico Madrid held that position at the start of the season.
If Real Madrid lose to Manchester City, it would make sense. There should be no talk of failure if they lose to squad better equipped to win than their own. It might not have come with a philosophy nor a set of impressive soundbites, but Real Madrid have maximised their resources this season. Surely that remains the job of a manager, however they go about it?