In an era when he who shouts loudest lasts longest on Sky Sports News, we’re not conditioned to the idea that, sometimes, good management is shutting up and chilling out. It’s cutting out the background noise, not adding to it.
José Mourinho was to Real Madrid as a cigarette lighter is to a pyromaniac, but Carlo Ancelotti entered in 2013 to throw a blanket over the flames, calming everyone down. He was the arch-pragmatist with the arched eyebrow who makes love not war, defusing tensions with his dry wit, sense of mild amusement, and ironic detachment.
Ancelotti’s made an exceptionally successful career being the eye of the storm. Silvio Berlusconi’s AC Milan, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, and since 2013, Real – the world’s most decadent club. The elegant vulgarians. The golden cyclone of European soccer.
Reports in Spain suggest that Ancelotti could be offered a contract extension, which is pretty good going. After all, by next May he’ll have been at the Bernabéu for two whole seasons. Only four of the previous 30 head coaches have lasted that long. The paint they use to designate a manager’s parking space at the training ground is made from the same material MLS uses to spray the 10-yard line for free kicks.
Were it not for the 92nd-minute equalizer that took last May’s Champions League final to extra time, when Real eventually overcame its city rivals Atletico, Ancelotti might have been fired. But if that sort of pressure stresses him out, it’s impossible to tell.
Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images
If he’s upset when president Florentino Pérez sells Ángel di María and Xabi Alonso and replaces them with James Rodríguez and Toni Kroos – y’know, just because – it never shows. He’s been through this kind of thing before, like at Chelsea in January 2011 when a feckless Fernando Torres was thrust upon him like a belated Christmas present with batteries not included; or at PSG, when a 37-year-old David Beckham strolled into Parc des Princes and into a side that was doing just fine without him.
After the stressful sound and fury of Mourinho’s regime, Ancelotti at Real is the tactical equivalent of pan pipe music. It’s the spa treatment following the boxing match. Take the Iker Casillas compromise that saw Ancelotti play the fading great in the cups and Diego Lopez in the league. The way he accommodated Di María in a three-man midfield after the signing of Gareth Bale. And now plays James on the wide. Luka Modric is more involved. Ancelotti strokes egos where Mourinho slapped them.
At Florentino Pérez’s Real, Ancelotti has to pick a team based on a player’s price tag as well as his form. But accommodation, compromise, and easy-going aren’t euphemisms for “weakness.” He doesn’t walk into the locker room clutching teamsheets, shouting “peace in our time” like some sort of dugout Neville Chamberlain.
The 55-year-old won league titles in Italy, England and France, but because he’s not a self-publicist, there’s a tendency to ascribe much of that success to the undoubtedly excellent players he had working under him. That would underrate his political and tactical nous. Pretty much everyone likes him, and that’s a skill in itself.
There’s no sense that he’s tactically naive or commands anything but respect from his players. His teams have a calm coherence that allows a player such as Isco to cover for the injured Bale and excel. The Italian’s gone for a 4-4-2 without the Welshman, superseding last term’s 4-3-3, and after a bad start, Real have won 11 straight games going into Tuesday’s home Champions League group game with Liverpool, including its 3-1 Clásico success.
The press conferences are duller than under his predecessor, but Ancelotti promised attacking soccer in contrast to Mourinho’s more cautious counter-attacking, and he’s delivered (not that it’s a huge ask with Cristiano Ronaldo on the roster).
Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images
If that sounds relatively pedestrian, consider Tuesday’s opposition. Liverpool will take to the field in a state of uncertainty and incoherence that is reducing Brendan Rodgers’s stock price each week. The former Mourinho prodigy’s projection of confidence/cockiness worked last season, but was it really just the facade of a 41-year-old who, after all, has only been a manager for six years – several of them in the English second tier?
Rodgers currently looks like the victim of his own overachievement, but it’s fair to question his transfer record at Anfield and the way that he’s failed to get goal production from Mario Balotelli. Contrast that with Ancelotti and the production of James, Kroos, and Chicharito Hernández.
While Rodgers’ tactical tinkering seemed to work more often than not last season – finding a way for Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suárez to flourish together, helping Raheem Stirling develop into a star – right now, he looks like a man who can’t find the winning formula without the Uruguayan. The attack’s no longer masking the defensive deficiencies. He’d do well to learn from Ancelotti’s explosives-defusing management style; but this week, the Italian’s only likely to add to his problems.