Carlo Ancelotti is a phenomenally accomplished manager. He has won the Premier League, Serie A and Ligue 1. He’s won the FA Cup, the Coppa Italia and the Copa del Rey. And most impressively, he’s won the UEFA Champions League on three occasions; most recently, last year – with the same Real Madrid club that may ease him out this summer.
Real Madrid will always be controlled by its chairman; in this case Florentino Pérez, who can’t understand a strategy beyond throwing money at the brightest lights. Trophy-less seasons aren’t tolerated at the Bernabéu, requiring the club’s managers to be held to a nearly impossible standard. Ancelotti is seen to be at fault for a team that looks increasingly unlikely to win La Liga, is no longer favorites in the Champions League and has already been eliminated from the Copa del Rey.
The narrative that is starting to develop is that Ancelotti is no longer good enough for Real Madrid, a bizarre sentiment as he is, in fact, the club’s perfect manager.
A stuffed trophy case is just a symbol of Ancelotti’s virtues. His brilliance lies in his unmatched ability to take any piece, no matter how poorly it fits, and make it work. When at AC Milan, he won trophies with one of the greatest and most skillful midfields the world has ever seen. In his first season with Chelsea, he leaned on the team’s physicality and pace, turning it into a deadly attacking machine that set a Premier League record for goals. At Paris Saint-Germain, Zlatan Ibrahimović and Thiago Silva paved the way to success, with Ancelotti relying on them to make up for an unpredictable midfield.
Each of his teams has had entirely different strengths and weaknesses. They’ve never been squads he’s assembled, and that’s suited him just fine. Ancelotti takes a bunch of masterful square pegs and reforms round holes.
Real Madrid asked him to do the same thing when it brought him in almost two years ago. The team took Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Luka Modrić, Sergio Ramos and Ángel Di María and surrounded them with more excellent players, like Karim Benzema, Xabi Alonso, Pepe and Álvaro Arbeloa. But it lacked a true ball-winning midfielder, boasted little depth in the back and barely had a goalkeeper, with Iker Casillas and Diego López both below the standard we’ve come to expect at Real Madrid.
Ancelotti was handed a pile of misfit toys, many outfitted with oversized personalities that threatened to overshadow the team. He was then tasked with competing against Barcelona and a resurgent Atlético. Oh, and he had to succeed in Europe, where Real Madrid hadn’t made a Champions League final in 12 years.
Somehow, Ancelotti brought it together. The team’s lack of steel in the midfield was masked by its focus on controlling tempo and dictating the spaces where the match would be played, cutting out chances for teams to counterattack. It defended in numbers, showing supreme discipline, and then broke in the most breathtaking counters. The strategy resulted in not just the Copa del Rey but the most important trophy of them all – Real Madrid’s long coveted Décima.
After just one season under Ancelotti, Real Madrid lifted the Champions League trophy, unquestionably the best team in the world. It hammered the defending champions, Bayern Munich, in the semifinals, embarrassing the Bavarians in their home ground, then upended rivals Atlético in the final. It was a masterful season.
Less than a year later, Ancelotti is no longer regarded with the same esteem at the Bernabéu. Nevermind that he’s dealt with a mind-numbing spattering of injuries. In addition to Modrić’s absence, Ronaldo started the season crocked and Bale missed huge chunks of the year. Fabio Coentrão has been out, too, as has Pepe, and Benzema is now stuck on the trainer’s table. Marcelo, often an attacking force at left back, is scheduled to miss Wednesday’s game at the Bernabéu. But this matters not to Real Madrid.
The club – and others buying into the narrative of Ancelotti’s decline – also ignores the horrific job Pérez has done assembling the team. Apparently so pleased with Ancelotti’s ability to succeed without a ball-winner in midfield, Pérez bought Toni Kroos and decided to call him holding midfielder. The team also thought it wise to sign James Rodríguez, because that’s what a team with Ronaldo and Bale needed. Of course, Ancelotti made it work in large part because of Modrić, but the Croatian’s new injuries have just about wiped out any chance of replicating last season’s success.
Pérez has proved a terrible doctor, one who’s forced Ancelotti into a surgeon’s role, requiring him to stitch up gaping holes. He’s performed magnificently, but now, if Real Madrid does not win the Champions League, it’ll be Ancelotti who’s removed.
The wounds, however, will remain. Real Madrid’s poorly constructed team will be bastardized even further this summer. More great players will be signed, of course, but not the ones needed in the squad. An elite manager is sure to come in, but even if the team is fit, it will struggle. The new man won’t be half the surgeon that Ancelotti is.
Money is the solution at Real Madrid, but it’s a solution that won’t work – at least, not consistently. No manager is capable of permanently molding a collection of stars into a true team. But Ancelotti is able to sew, to bind, to paper over the cracks, to plug in the gaps. He’s able to work the club’s strategy better than anyone else.
Unfortunately for Real Madrid, it’s too stuck in its ways to recognize that.