With two European cups and league titles in all three countries he has previously coached in, we should be at the point where Carlo Ancelotti has become infallible, however, early in his debut La Liga season that was not the case.
The hyperbolic Spanish media are capable of some incredible feats but they may well have topped the lot when placing Ancelotti firmly in their sights following a poor start to the season which saw Real Madrid drop six points behind Barcelona and city rivals Atletico. Much like under any previous coach, when the going gets tough, it’s time to pick sides, and the press took little time showing their early disdain for Ancelotti, whilst backing club president Florentino Perez as a summer of record ins and outs took their toll on the teams early season form.
Real Madrid’s second ever Italian manager has since worked his magic with the squad, and criticism has died down to a silence; Ibai Gomez’ wonder strike in the 1-1 draw away at Athletic Bilbao was the first goal Real had conceded in nine games, and they haven’t lost a single match since Ancelotti was hung up to dry after a 2-1 Clasico loss.
An epic 21 wins and four draws (67 goals for 16 against) have since followed which has seen Madrid draw level at the top of the league and reach the Copa del Rey final. Not only have the results taken a monumental leap but Real’s previously worrying performances have matured to a level which has convinced many they can compete on all fronts; Ronaldo and Bale have clicked, a balance in midfield has been struck, the defence looks more solid than it has in years, and perhaps the biggest sign Real have found their groove- no one is even mentioning the goalkeeping situation.
Ancelotti’s turnaround has been spectacular but not at all unprecedented for the Italian, and Florentino Perez will be as relived as he ever has been during his tenure as club president because despite being the man who has everything, for once in Perez’s life, he was running out of options.
It’s no little secret that a tenth European cup is the holy grail for Madrid, which means after a haul of one league title and a Copa del Rey, Jose Mourinho’s three years at the Bernabeu were objectively a failure when money and expectations are taken in to account, so previous to last summer Florentino Perez decided it was time to switch to another coach who knows a thing or two about the Champions League. The problem for Real Madrid’s president however, is that due to the lack of options; the only other managers able to match Mourinho’s multiple European Cup wins are either dead, retired, sworn enemies, previously sacked, or Ottmar Hitzfeld. So Ancelotti was the obvious choice. The timing of this blockbuster coaching appointment is curious though; Perez’s previous spell as president lasted six years before his formula ran out, his second term will hit the six year mark in 2015 and if the Carlo Ancelotti experiment has proved unsuccessful by then, Perez may once again have nowhere to hide.
Perez hasn’t made it easy for his new coach, and the biggest issue here is that modern football is beginning to prove that league titles can be bought; the recent trend of billionaire oil merchants buying European clubs then partaking in record splurge of millions at the next transfer window tends to be followed by a league win, PSG and Manchester City being the most recent examples. However, cups are a different matter, they require a carefully crafted tactical approach and culture of winning; you can’t simply notch a league topping number of points by beating the teams with less money than you through having a superior quality of player, something which Ancelotti knows very well from his time at Milan, but his clubs president is strikingly unaware of.
This isn’t to suggest the Italian would’ve been upset at the prospect of Gareth Bale and Isco Alarcon joining his side, but that his theory on how to win doesn’t quite match up with that of Perez. When returning to the Spanish capital for Galacticos Mk2, Perez declared his philosophy, announcing that at Real Madrid he wanted the best players in the world, the best Spaniards in the world, and the best youngsters in the world. Bale and Isco fill those categories perfectly, and ironically at the same time highlight exactly why Perez should be leaving sporting matters to a football man. Gareth Bale my well of been the best player money could buy, but his purchase also meant one of Gonzalo Higuain or Karim Benzema would be forced out. Given neither player qualifies as a youngster anymore and that neither is Spanish, Benzema’s blockbuster price tag and Galactico status saved him and led to the club losing a fan favourite and one of the greatest finishers to ever grace the Bernabeu.
According to Ancelotti, Mesut Ozil fell into the same bracket as Higuain and was also deterred by the level of competition. Clearly Isco was not brought in as cover for Ozil and with the German no longer qualifying for any of Perez’s three criteria after a bellow bar season, he was considered the most practical option to help offset the world record fee paid for Bale.
Nevertheless, solutions have been found to offset the manic and poorly thought out summer from Perez. Angel Di Maria has shown a previously unexpected versatility in replacing Ozil as the creative outlet with help from unarguably the leagues most improved player in Luka Modric.
Ancelotti’s system and man management has also started to extract a form of consistency from the enigmatic Karim Benzema who has begun to score enough goals for Madrid to compete whilst also utilising his more complete game in order to help accommodate Ronaldo and Bale. The quest to make up for the loss of Higuain’s scoring has also been aided by Ancelotti succeeding where most Galactico coaches failed; he has brought through not one, but two, Cantera products in to the first team with Jese Rodriguez and Alvaro Morata looking like genuine striking options in a world class team instead of window dressing show pieces like Negredo and Soldado had under past management. Perhaps the most unappreciated part of Ancelotti’s management revolves around their most underrated piece of transfer business- buying back Dani Carvajal from Bayer Leverkusen. A defence that hasn’t really screamed ‘Galactico’ since Fabio Cannavaro’s departure now looks solid and is dominating games whilst phasing out a liable set of fullbacks in Alvaro Arbeloa and Fabio Coentrao.
Ancelotti’s task is now straight forward- do what no coach has done since the genius of Vicente del Bosque at the turn of the millennium; win the European Cup with Florentino Perez’s team. The signs are now pointing towards that direction, on paper Madrid should compete for the cup and now in practice they’re close to being favourites, and if Perez’s plan finally comes together, Carlo Ancelotti could well be set to confirm himself as one of modern football’s true greats.Follow @icentrocampista