Jonathan Wilson: Ancelotti could be UCL’s greatest

Carlo Ancelotti wouldn't be sitting up until 3am, as Brendan Rodgers did. Picture: AP
Carlo Ancelotti wouldn't be sitting up until 3am, as Brendan Rodgers did. Picture: AP
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TALK to Pep Guardiola and he will speak in terms of a philosophy laid down by Rinus Michels and honed by Johan Cruyff. He has such a clear set of principles that at times it seems that living out his ideals through his team matters more to him than winning. T

he 3-0 defeat by Barcelona last week, coming after last season’s semi-final humiliation by Real Madrid, may have led some at Bayern Munich to question that approach, but at Barcelona, the issue of style remains paramount – even if that has evolved since Guardiola’s day. Talk to Carlo Ancelotti and he will acknowledge he does what the club wants him to do. And talk to anybody at Real Madrid about the ideology the club represents and they will reply that their model is Disney.

Ancelotti stands alongside Bob Paisley as one of only two managers to have won the European Cup/Champions League three times. That places him among the elite and yet, in 18 consecutive years of managing elite clubs, he has won only three league titles. In half of those 18 seasons at Juventus, AC Milan, Chelsea, Paris St-German and Real Madrid, he has finished third or lower. It would be hard to argue that even meets expectations and yet, if Madrid can overcome a 2-1 deficit from the first leg of the semi-final against Juventus, he will be one game from becoming the most successful manager in the history of the game’s premier club competition.

He would also become the first manager to retain the title since Arrigo Sacchi led the AC Milan team of which he was a key member to a second successive European Cup in 1990. The contradiction isn’t readily explicable, but at its heart lies the financial model that governs modern football.

It may be Barcelona who boast of being “more than a club”, but it is Real Madrid who are essentially a commercial enterprise with a football club attached. “We are another content producer,” the club’s general director Jose Angel Sanchez said. Just as the films Disney produces have to be good or nobody would want to go to the cinema to watch them or buy the merchandise, so the football Real produces has to be good or nobody will flock to the stadium, pay for the cable subscriptions or buy the shirt. And just as nobody demands that Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy do anything more than entertain, just as nobody expects them to express any kind of coherent philosophy, so Cristiano Ronaldo, James Rodriguez and Gareth Bale are asked simply to be a collection of brilliant individuals – and to win; there is no demand that they should inhabit the tactical avant garde. When Real Madrid win it is a celebration of their wealth.

Paradoxically, that in itself places Real Madrid at the forefront of modern football. This is how the game is going (it’s telling that of the five managers to have won the Champions League at more than one club, three have done it in the last five years; there is a merry-go-round of managers among the elite). The rise of the super-clubs, the demand for icons to be marketed, militates against tactical radicalism. That was why Sacchi quit as technical director of Madrid in 2005: their football, he said, had become “reactionary”.

They bought stars and then they tried to work out how they might be able to play together. It was a policy that ultimately undermined the galacticos, and it may yet come to undermine this present side.

The sales of Xabi Alonso and Angel Di Maria in the summer may have been explicable in financial terms – neither has the looks or the flamboyant talent that will shift units – but they were baffling from a football point of view. It was Di Maria, man of the match in the Champions League final, whose shuttling allowed Ronaldo to neglect his defensive duties. Xabi Alonso may have looked weary since January, but he was exceptional for Bayern Munich in the first part of the season and Madrid, surely, would rather have had him at the back of midfield in Turin than the centre-back Sergio Ramos.

Other managers might protest, but not Ancelotti. For him, “football is the most important of the less important things in the world,” an attitude that sounds healthy enough. He wouldn’t be sitting up till 3am, as Brendan Rodgers supposedly did, with tea, toast and a tactics board trying to find a solution; partly because Ancelotti would presumably be indulging in something more exciting, and partly because he simply wouldn’t be stressed enough to be up that late. Another brilliant forward is foisted upon him by an interventionist owner? He shrugs and finds a way of accommodating him, as he did at Milan when Silvio Berlusconi insisted both Pippo Inzaghi and Andriy Shevchenko be included; not for him the passive-aggressive tantrum of Jose Mourinho when Roman Abramovich wanted Shevchenko to be played alongside Didier Drogba at Chelsea.

Ancelotti wrote his coaching dissertation at Coverciano on the 4-3-2-1 formation, but there’s been little sign in his management that he particularly favours that above other formations. He is a pragmatist. He gets by. He muddles through. He is not a visionary. The result is an affable, pliable manager who will do an owner’s bidding. The corollary to that is that lacks the zealot’s will to win league titles, lacks the drive to lift his side week after week.

That might imply that Ancelotti is a master – like Rafa Benitez – of adjusting his tactics for one-off encounters, but his league record does not bear that out. Over his career, Ancelotti has managed 71 games against other teams who have finished in the top four of his league; he has won just 26 of them. The logical conclusion is that he is a good but not a great manager who has ridden his luck at times in knockout football; if that is true then his greatest gift is diplomacy. Yet if Madrid come back to beat Juve on Wednesday, Ancelotti will, by one metric, be the greatest manager of all time.