Has Carlo Ancelotti completed football?
After his Real Madrid team recently wrapped up the La Liga title, their manager thus became the first to of won the league titles in Spain, England, Italy, Germany and France. Oh, and he also has won the Champions League 3 times as a manager (more than Jose, more than Pep, more than Klopp, more than Sir Alex by the way). Oh, and he’s also won a total of over TWENTY major honours as a manager. Oh, and as a player he played over 450 games for Parma, Roma, Milan and the Italian national side and along the way, he won every major trophy in Italy and on the continent (2 European Cups with Milan, and many more trophies with both the Rossoneri and AS Roma).
And yet, I get the feeling in the annuls of football history, he wont get the credit a revolutionary like Guardiola or a colossus like Ferguson will. Which in some ways I understand, maybe it’s because of the way and the manner in which Carlo Ancelotti operates… But to me that’s what makes him so endearing. We’ve all seen the clip by now when his Everton side scored a late goal, and all around him people are going wild with joy… their manager was instead taking a sip of his drink, just as he may do if he was at home on his sofa totally relaxed.
Carlo Ancelotti is the Master Splinter of football management. In the popular show Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Master Splinter was the sensei, the one the turtles all listened to and everything he said seemed to have meaning. But he was never flash, never a shouter and never frantically waving his arms around and screaming. Cool, calm, but very VERY knowledgeable on what it is he does. And above all else, just like Splinter, he’s DAMN good.
Although his career as a manager has taken him to a total of 10 different clubs (Real Madrid twice of course), I’m going to focus on his time in charge of AC Milan, Chelsea and his two spells with Real Madrid. The 1st July this year will be the 27th anniversary of the beginning of a quite remarkable managerial career. A story of success at the absolute highest level, but at very different clubs in which Ancelotti showed their are certainly different ways to skin a cat…
Unspectacular spells with Reggiana, Parma and Juventus didn’t stop Ancelotti getting the opportunity to return to the club he played for 160 times as their manager in November of 2001. After a poor start to the season Ancelotti steered Milan to qualification for the Champions League via a 4th place finish in Serie A, as well as the semi finals of both the Coppa Italia and the Uefa Cup. After that in the summer of 2002, 3 players who would become stalwarts of the the Ancelotti-Milan era all came to the club; Alessandro Nesta, goalkeeper Dida and Dutch international Clarence Seedorf. A 3rd place finish in the league, behind Marcello Lippi’s Juventus and an Inter side featuring Christian Vieri who scored 24 league goals. It was in the cups that Don Carlo and his gang shone through, as victory in the Coppa Italia final against Roma came alongside a run to the Semi Finals of the Champions League. There they got past city rivals Inter, before going to Old Trafford in Manchester to face another of their domestic rivals… Juventus.
And having not won europe’s top prize for 9 years, Milan faced a grueling battle of intensity, tactical patience and endurance. Italy’s two top teams, two of their most idolized managers. It was only ever going to finish 0-0 wasn’t it?
Ancelotti thus joined an illustrious list to of won the great trophy as a player and a manager. But just as Pep and Zidane would go on to do also, wining both with the same club? Now that is just magic.
Milan’s success under Ancelotti would continue with the Serie A title the following season before the infamous Champions League Final loss to Liverpool in 2005. Milan went trophiless in 05/06 before a run to the Final of the Champions League again in 2007. Their run to the final was made even more extraordinary given they began their campaign right at the very start in August of 2006 with a third round qualifying win over Red Star Belgrade. After finishing top of their group, they went on to knockout Celtic, Bayern Munich and Manchester United in the semi finals. The second leg of the aforementioned win over United came with a thumping 3-0 win at San Siro. If the hero of 2003 was Shevchenko, now Milan had a new jewel in their crown, the eventual winner of that year’s Balon d’Or…
Going into the final with Liverpool, the tables seemed to of turned somewhat… in 2005 Milan were an amazingly star studded team, and Liverpool were the underdogs, but 2 years later now it was the English side who were favourites.
Not for the last time in a big final, Carlo Ancelotti showed it is not always about the better team, but the team set up to win. And to quote the BBC Sport report on the 2007 final, ‘For all Liverpool’s huffing and puffing there was no end product’.
Ancelotti won his second Champions League with Milan. Their third appearance in a final in 5 seasons. That haven’t been to a final since.
By this point, Milan’s squad was definitely what you would call ‘aging’. And finishes of 5th and 3rd in the league with only the European Super Cup and Club World Cup to show for it would bring a somewhat disappointing end to an incredible period as manager for Ancelotti. but during his team he was able to mold a team of experienced players (each of whom you’d of thought would have egos to match their skills) into a team of winners. And as much as people talk about Real Madrid and the Galacticos, in their era (2000-2006) they won 2 league titles and 1 champions league. Ancelotti with Milan won a league title, a cup and 2 champions leagues (as well as reaching another final). Yet his team of stars isn’t talked about as much…. and I’ve never understood why…
This was maybe the ‘peak’ Ancelotti team: Dida, Cafu, Stam, Nesta, Maldini, Pirlo, Gattuso, Seedorf, Kaka, Shevchenko, Inzaghi. Not bad hey? Largely playing a 4-4-2 Diamond with Pirlo sitting and Kaka in the 10, but over the years there were slight variations depending on personnel. But the rock solid, no nonsense defensive unit, and the compact but hard midfield remained the same. Add to that Poachers up front and you have quite the team. You could watch this team and think of Ancelotti as a defensive coach? OK… how about he comes to England and takes a team who finished 3rd the previous season to the league and cup double the next… Oh, and they score 103 league goals with scorelines of 7-2, 7-1, 7-0 and an 8-0 among them… A defensive coach you say… hardly.
Ancelotti would join Chelsea as manager in the summer of 2009. He would find a club and a team still reeling from the departure of Jose Mourinho, a defeat in a maiden Champions League Final before the sacking of World Cup winning coach Phil Scolari. A revival of sorts under caretaker manager Guus Hiddink saw them secure a 3rd place league finish and an FA Cup Final win. But a robbery of refereeing in the semi final second leg to Barcelona meant that although Ancelotti inherited a talented squad of players, they still very much had something to prove having not won a league title for 3 years when the Italian joined.
Unlike in previous seasons, Chelsea didn’t spend big as they had in the past. And this was a Chelsea team known for their defensive but match winning style. Although they trained to add more flair under Scolari, they seemed to lose that solidity that had become a cornerstone of their success in previous years. Ancelotti would need to follow up on the groundwork Hiddink had done and find a perfect balance. A penalty shoot out win in the Community Shield over reigning league champions Manchester United was followed by a flawless 6/6 wins to begin their league campaign. By the start of December Chelsea had 12 wins and just 2 defeats, with 5 clean sheets in a row. December proved a more difficult month with just two wins, three draws and a defeat.
Manchester United pushed Chelsea all the way in the title race. Wayne Rooney carrying his team into taking it to the last day… Chelsea won 6 from 7 games in the league meaning that all they needed to do was match United’s result elsewhere to win the league. Chelsea faced Wigan at Stamford Bridge, with the Premier League trophy on standby…
In typical fashion of an Ancelotti side, Chelsea went about their business professionally, with ruthlessness, and with a little bit of flair. Wigan were well and truly put to the sword, and Chelsea followed up an emphatic 7-0 win against Stoke and a 2-0 win away at Anfield by hitting Wigan… for EIGHT! Chelsea champions for the first time in 4 years. Ancelotti in his first season outside of Italy had seen his side pip Sir Alex Ferguson’s team to the title, with 103 goals along the way.
Oh… and they won the cup too… Oh and they conceded ONE goal in their 6 FA Cup matches, culminating in a 1-0 final win against Portsmouth. Ancelotti joined only Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson (at that point) to have won the league and cup double since the Premier League began. They were knocked out of the Champions League by eventual winner Inter Milan, but Ancelotti’s first season in England was an overwhelming success.
The follow up season began as the previous had ended, despite losing in the Community Shield they started the league with two 6-0 wins, as they lost just one of their first 10 games. But a horrific run from the start of November until mid January, the horrific form of big January signing Fernando Torres, elimination in the Quarter Finals of the Champions League by Manchester United and early exits from both domestic cups saw Ancelotti’s spell in charge of Chelsea come to a sad end. You can go with a number of reasons as to why the first and second seasons differed so much, but just looking at that Chelsea team in the first season… 4-2-3-1 for most of it … Cech, Ivanovic, Alex, Terry and Ashely Cole formed to foundation with a solid defensive unit. Ballack and Lampard infront of them provide about as reliable a partnership as you could get (Lampard getting 27 goals by the way, a career season best for him), and infront of them Kalou, Malouda, Anelka and Didier Drogba leading the line (Drogba too getting a season career high number of goals with 37). From a solid, well organised Milan team who were known for their defensive knowhow, Ancelotti created a Chelsea team who scored goals for fun, and very much demolished teams particularly in that first season in charge. A brilliant quote from Phil McNulty in the BBC Sport report of Chelsea’s 2010 title winning 8-0 win over Wigan summed up the Italian’s first season in England perfectly… ‘Ancelotti’s steady hand and refusal to overreact in defeat or victory has calmed any troubles Chelsea have faced’.
Two years later, after a spell in charge of Paris St Germain where he won the Ligue 1 title in his sole full season…
Ancelotti next found himself given another opportunity to dine at European football’s top table. as the 2-time Champions League winning manager was tasked with winning ‘La Decima’ for Real Madrid.
Everything seemed to be about one man for Real Madrid in the summer of 2013… no not their new manager Ancelotti, but their latest Galactico, as Gareth Bale joined for a record fee from Tottenham. La Liga boasted not just one but three exceptional teams with eventual champions Atletico winning the title on the final day with a win at runners up Barcelona, who in turn were level on points with 3rd place Real Madrid when the league campaign was over. But Ancelotti’s tactical genius came into its own with this group of players in the two cup competitions. Real Madrid didn’t just win them both, they did so in quite extraordinary fashion. After a 5-0 aggregate win over local rivals Atletico in the semi finals, Real Madrid went to the Mestalla in Valencia to contest the 2014 Copa del Rey Final with Barcelona. Plenty had tried to criticise Gareth Bale since his record move, with injuries and fitness hampering his early days as a Real Madrid player, but he would come through when it most mattered…
With one trophy already in the bag, over a month later Real Madrid would go for the big one. Having destroyed Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich 5-0 on aggregate in the semi finals, The Champions League final would be an all Madrid affair between newly crowned La Liga champions Atletico (going for their first European crown) and Real Madrid (still in desperate pursuit of the elusive La Decima). And for me this game perfectly illustrates what separates those truly GREAT managers and players from the rest.
4-1 looks like a hammering, and whilst it wasn’t like that as a match. All along for me there was only going to be one winner of this final. Just look at the characters in that Real line up, the same group of players who in 2022 now have multiple Champions Leagues to their name. I will touch on the tactics that Ancelotti utilized in this game shortly, but given Gareth Bale was at times criticized after his big move, he ended his first season at the club with 22 goals in 44 games, and scoring decisive goals in both the Copa del Rey and Champions League finals. And it all meant that where the likes of Del Bosque, Queiroz, Luxemburgo, Capello, Schuster, Ramos, Pellegrini and Mourinho had all failed, Carlo Ancelotti had delivered the ultimate prize to a club that defines itself by it’s success in European football, La Decima.
Season 2 for Ancelotti in charge of Los Blancos was… well if his first was glorious, the second was painful and heartbreaking. Toni Kroos and Keylor Navas came in, but Xabi Alonso and Champions League Final man of the match Angel Di Maria departed. Madrid would win both the European Super Cup and Club World Cup, but a semi final loss whilst defending their European crown to Juventus, a cup loss to city rivals Atletico (whom they also lost out to in the Supercopa too) and having to see fierce rivals Barcelona not just win La Liga, but to win the TREBLE… All of that was too much for Madrid president Florentino Perez, and Ancelotti was dismissed.
It was a such a sad ending after such a historic first season, very similar to his time in charge of Chelsea in fact. Ancelotti again took over a talented group of players, but one that needed that little bit extra to really succeed. Now not only did Ancelotti have to manage two first choice goalkeepers (Diego Lopez played the league matches in the first season, Casillas played in the cup games), but he also had to fit in record signing Gareth Bale, record goalscorer Cristiano Ronaldo, AND Karim Benzema, AND Angel Di Maria. and for a team that plays 3 up top, 4 into 3 doesn’t go. So Ancelotti made a key change that came to full effect in that Champions League final with Atletico, Di Maria (with Xabi Alonso suspended) played in the midfield 3 alongside Modric and with Khedira sitting. Bale, Benzema, Cristiano formed a ferocious front 3, and as the game went into extra time after such a late equalizer from their opponents, Atletico just couldn’t cope. They were gone. In his second season in fact, Madrid actually scored more goals than treble winners Barcelona, and in the first season despite coming 3rd they scored more goals than both Barcelona and league champions Atletico. Considering a decade prior to this, it could be argued that Ancelotti was a defensive, functional coach… but at Chelsea, PSG and now Madrid he had proven he could a manage teams to play far more goalscoring and attacking football, and to win with them as well. he could combine great attacking talents with solidity at the back. Madrid would later win the champions league 3 times in a row, largely with the line up that Ancelotti put together and got them their first taste of European glory.
After a year out of the game, Ancelotti next rocked up in Germany with Bayern Munich. Where again, in his sole season in charge (sound familiar?) he won the team the league title. He would leave the Germans part way through the next season, and this was followed by spells with Napoli and then Everton. But prior to the 2021/22 season began, Ancelotti was given a second chance to finish up his business in Spanish football. After club icon Zinedine Zidane left once again, Perez made the call, and Don Carlo was quickly back in the all white.
Not too much was expected from Real Madrid at the start of the 2021/22 season. In fact, with Barcelona in crisis it was champions Atletico who were favourites to retain their La Liga crown. In terms of new arrivals on the playing side, in came David Alaba on a free transfer, and Eduardo Camavinga (seen as a star of the future) joined from French club Rennes. But out went their multi-time Champions League centre back winning partnership Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane… Although Ancelotti wasted no time in holding down the key members of his squad, with 6 first team players signing contract renewals in the first couple of months of Ancelotti’s second spell in charge.
It was in the league that Ancelotti made history, as with Atletico floundering and Barcelona only getting a revival mid season, Real Madrid stormed to the La Liga title, losing just 4 league games all season and finishing 13 points clear. Carlo Ancelotti thus became the first manager in history to win league titles in England, Italy, Germany, France and now finally in Spain.
But if Real Madrid won the league title by a margin, without question the outstanding team in that competition… their Champions League campaign kind of seemed to creep up on everyone else. It seemed that for round after round after round people were expecting Real Madrid to be eliminated. Yet every time they overcame all expectations.
Although they finished top of their group in the Champions League, all people talked about was the fact Real Madrid lost at home to Moldovan minnows Sheriff Tiraspol. It was very much a humiliation, but on they went into the knockout stages although almost under the radar, given all the talk was about if the likes of Manchester City, Liverpool or PSG may go on to lift the European Cup.
It was pretty much written in the stars that Kylian Mbappe would have an impact on the tie between his current club Paris St Germain and his potential suitors (we know how that ended of course, but that is a story for another day). And in fact it was the mercurial Frenchman who scored the only goal of the game in the first leg, that would see PSG take a 1-0 win into the return match at the Bernabeu.
As if it was going by a script, Mbappe opened the scoring in what many called his ‘trial’ match for Los Blancos. But although it was to be a Frenchman who would write himself into the headlines after the game, it wouldn’t be the 23 year old but an older master of the game that often (until this season anyway) goes way undervalued and underrated compared to his world class ability… Almost like his manager you could say…
A hat trick for Karim Benzema. Benzema who when he signed was only the 3rd maybe 4th biggest signing Madrid made that summer. Benzema who was so often the 3rd man in the famous trio with Bale and Ronaldo. Benzema who had been a top striker for almost 15 years previous and only now is having the world class label widely put with his name. Benzema who aged 34 is having the best goalscoring season of his career. So with Benzema having slayed his country’s best team, next up was defending European champions Chelsea. The same side who had proven to be far superior to Madrid en-route to winning the trophy in the previous season’s semi finals.
Again people expected Madrid to be put to the sword. Again Madrid and Ancelotti’s calm yet ruthless style of play caught a team napping…
Seriously… if he doesn’t win the Balon d’Or, what are we even doing?
The return leg proved even more surprising, but even more so showed the resolve and tactical nouse of Carlo Ancelotti and his group of merrymen. Madrid found themselves 3-0 down at home and heading out with 10 minutes to go. Rodygo’s goal meant we headed to extra time, where a sole additional goal from their latest leading man proved decisive. With Benzema taking charge once again, Real Madrid had once again advanced when many said they wouldn’t.
So onto the semi finals then. Two ties which pitted England vs Spain, and every man and his dog was desperate for a final between the outstanding Liverpool and Manchester City. And after the first legs that did look to be the case, Liverpool put Villarreal to the sword 2-0 in their first leg (later reaching the final thanks to a second half comeback that made things a lot more comfortable than they seemed at one point)… The opposing tie between City and Madrid, really was one for the ages. I watched both legs in full, and can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever been more entertained across two games in my life.
The first leg at the Etihad was incredible. City dominated the first half, but only lead 2-1 when the half time whistle blew (in reality it could’ve and maybe should’ve been a LOT more comfortable at that stage, such were the number of chances Pep Guardiola’s side created). City did take a 2 goal lead again, but were pegged back within 2 minutes and eventually thanks to a Panenka penalty from Benzema (for his second of the game), we would go into the second leg back in Spain with City leading 4-3.
And after we thought we had seen it all in that first leg, then the second leg happened.
All seemed to be going Manchester City’s way… They had come through a grueling second leg the previous round to see off ‘the other’ Madrid side, so they knew they COULD do it… and it seemed even more likely when Riyad Mahrez gave them a 2 goal advantage once again. When the clock was at 89 minutes, Manchester City were well on their way to their second successive Champions League Final. SOMEHOW they didn’t get there.
I have watched these highlights several dozen times since I watched the match itself, and I still can’t believe Real Madrid are in this final.
Why did this happen? How? It seems all I’ve heard about this ‘collapse’ of City (and yes I concede it does look like just that)… But can we give the credit to Madrid? City didn’t let them score 3 goals, Real Madrid dug deep when they most needed to. They showed the same character, resolve and above all else ability that their great manager has shown for the best part of 20 years as a coach at the highest of levels. It was quite amazing, and of course it just had to be Benzema to put the icing on the cake. For me, much like when Sergio Ramos denied Atletico in 2014, and that match went into extra time, I could ONLY see Real Madrid advancing as soon as Manchester City found themselves having to recover from what on earth had just happened. Had it not been for a brilliant point blank save from Ederson, they wouldn’t of even made it to extra time. Real Madrid, Karim Benzema and Carlo Ancelotti all once again showed you cannot beat experience combined with mental knowhow, a calmness in the most chaotic of times and the extraordinary world class ability to produce when it most matters and at the highest of standards of the game.
As much as I have spoken about the experience of this Real Madrid team, the likes of Benzema, Modric and Kroos only form part of this fantastic side. Largely this season Madrid have lined up in a 4-3-3 with Courtois as the goalkeeper, a back 4 of Carvajal and Mendy as full backs with Militao and Alaba as the first choice centre halves. Casemiro was the rock that would sit behind Modric and Kroos, for me I cannot understate the role Casemiro plays in this team. It is his work mopping things up that allows for the exquisite passing and positional play of the two magicians in front of him to really hurt opposing teams. For me if Liverpool can find a way to worry and put Casemiro off his game, it’ll go a long way to deciding who takes the Champions League trophy back with them. As always with Real Madrid, their front line is something to behold. Vinicius and Rodrygo are the young, flying Brazilians that play on either wing, allowing for the masterful Karim Benzema to have the chance to be the difference. This team has tactical knowhow, pace and power, and an incredible mentality. Yes Jurgen Klopp has put together a quite brilliant Liverpool team, but I would stop short of saying this will resemble anything close to a walk in the park for his side.
We all know how Klopp, Guardiola, Mourinho, Simeone teams play and have always played. But what separates Ancelotti from them for me, is the ability to adapt. To take a club and a group of players and manage them in a style and a system that maximizes their potential outlet. Unlike Mourinho, who’s success at the highest of levels has somewhat lessened over the years, Carlo has moved with the times and his teams have played the way that the game is being played at that time. I’ve seen Ancelotti teams (as I’ve mentioned) score 6s and 7s and absolutely steamroll teams with glorious football, and I’ve seen them scrap and battle and claw their way to victory. And all along the way, Carlo Ancelotti’s teams have always done one thing. Win.
Whatever happens between his Real Madrid side and his old enemy Liverpool in Saturday night’s showpiece, it promises to be such a wonderful occasion. Two exceptional managers, two very different teams who are both remarkable in different ways in their own right. Either winner would be a worthy champion of Europe for me. My only hope is the game lives up to the billing. But win or lose, I’ll always have a soft spot for the Don of football.
Carlo Ancelotti, I salute you.