Dissecting Carlo Ancelotti’s tenure at Real Madrid

As Carlo Ancelotti’s arrival at Bayern München looms closer, we take a look at his time at Real Madrid. What went well, what did not, and why did he fail to lift a trophy in his last year?

Depending on how you look at it, the fact that football moves on so quickly can either be a brilliant thing or a terrible one. Teams have to constantly look at all terms of time: the short term, the medium term and the long term. For Bayern, the picture goes like this: in the short term, we have Benfica to deal with. The medium term is dependent on the outcome of that. The long term, however, sees an important change. And the team has already started to look at it.

I reckon, so should we at Bayern Central. Carlo Ancelotti is one of the top managers in Europe and the world. His list of trophies is remarkable, and he has found success in very different countries and teams. We will be focusing this piece on his time at Real Madrid, which serves as direct precedent to what we might encounter when he takes the reins at Säbener Straße.

Honours

Let us start with the basics, shall we? The most basic measure of success in football is titles. At Real Madrid, they are the only thing that matters. Carlo Ancelotti won four of those in two years at Valdebebas.

  • 2013-14 Copa del Rey
  • 2013-14 UEFA Champions League
  • 2014 UEFA SuperCup
  • 2013-14 FIFA Club World Cup*

* denotes a first-time win for the club.

Now, barring the noteworthy absence of a league title there, Ancelotti’s time at Real Madrid looks quite fruitful. It looks even better when you compare it to José Mourinho’s tenure:

  • 2010-11 Copa del Rey
  • 2011-12 Liga BBVA
  • 2012 Supercopa de España

When you take into account the fact that Mourinho was afforded a full season more than his Italian counterpart, you really do start to wonder why Ancelotti would be sacked. The short answer is Real Madrid is run by an idiot, but there is a fair bit of meat before we can say we have reached the bone of the matter.

The 2013-14 season

Ancelotti came to Real Madrid at a time of turmoil. The 2012-13 season had been at absolute disaster. The team failed to defend the league title they had gotten the year before, and ended the season a whopping fifteen points behind Barcelona. In the Champions League, their semifinals bid was barely strangled by an inspired Borussia Dortmund. Despite rallying and getting a 2:0 win in the return leg, the 1:4 deficit they left Germany with was too much, and the image madridistas were left with was shocking.

All of this was compounded by a defeat in the Copa del Rey final, which was particularly painful. Not only did the 1:2 defeat represent the first time Madrid were beaten by their cross-town rivals Atlético since the 1999-2000 season, but the match was played at Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu.

Real Madrid’s annus horribilis prompted Florentino “Quickfire” Pérez to dispose of Mourinho. Along came Ancelotti, tasked with bringing Madrid back to the road of titles. The club brought in Gareth Bale, Casemiro, Isco and Asier Illarramendi, as well as promoting Jesé Rodríguez to the first team. There was also an important outflow of players who were deemed surplus to requirements or simply not good enough anymore. These included Kaká, Gonzalo Higuaín, José María Callejón, Mesut Özil and Raúl Albiol.

Almost immediately, Ancelotti earned a reputation for his mano izquierda, a Spanish term to describe managers who act in a fatherly and rather permissive way towards their players. The contrast with Mourinho’s uber-demanding and deeply critical style was stark.

Despite not performing at all well in the league, Real Madrid did brilliantly in the other two competitions, and won them both. At the heart of both the Champions League and the Copa del Rey wins were two goals by Bale. The Welshman was said by the press and the fans to have justified his record price tag with those two goals. The future of Madrid was Ancelotti and Bale.

So, the 2013-14 season was hugely successful for Real Madrid. They played some interesting football, and despite not winning once against Barcelona or Atlético in La Liga, they came away with the two other titles.

The 2014-15 season

The success of the previous season meant that everyone looked at Ancelotti’s second campaign in charge with much hope. Summer was business as usual for FloPer. Out went the likes of Xabi Alonso (thank you very much), Ángel di María, Álvaro Morata and Sami Khedira, and in came Toni Kroos (suckers), James Rodríguez and Keylor Navas.

The first half of the season was absolutely brilliant. Scintillating, if you will. After a bit of a rocky start with back-to-back defeats to Real Sociedad and Atlético de Madrid, los merengues began a remarkable streak of form, winning 22 games on the trot. By this point, the team was progressing nicely in all three competitions. First in the league, through to the Champions League knockouts and past the first (and easy) hurdle in the cup. Add this to the fact that they won the UEFA SuperCup and the FIFA Club World Cup, and you would think Real Madrid were headed for utter glory at the end of the campaign.

The abrupt end came against Valencia on 4 January. Three days later, Atlético would defeat them in the first leg of their Round of 16 tie for the cup. They would eventually be eliminated by los colchoneros. This was not too much of a problem, as Madrid would win five league games after that Valencia debacle. The real trouble would begin in February and March.

Between those two months, Madrid played eight league games. Four were wins. They were defeated three times and managed a draw once. By 7 March, they fell behind Barcelona in the table and would never regain the top spot.

The Champions League would also be a source of some concern. After a 2:0 win away to Schalke in the first knockout phase, everyone thought the tie was all but over. A 3:4 thriller at the Bernabéu saw Schalke coming just one goal short of pulling off the upset. Ancelotti’s grasp on the job was becoming less and less solid.

In the quarterfinals, they faced Atlético de Madrid. After a 0:0 first leg at the Vicente Calderón, the mood was tense for the return game. As you can guess, only a win would see Madrid go through, and they had not pulled many of those recently against Simeone’s men. A late Javier Hernández strike saw them squeeze through.

The end to Real Madrid’s season would come with the semifinals. They were drawn against Juventus. As fate would have it, Álvaro Morata, who had been let go because he was deemed less good than necessary to compete with Karim Benzema for the centre-forward spot, scored two goals in the tie and sent Real Madrid out of Europe.

By this point, Florentino Pérez had already made up his mind.

What happened?

Pérez was absolutely ungrateful when he explained Ancelotti’s sacking to the press. He said that the team had been overplayed and that it had suffered significant wear throughout the second half of the season. His tone and his wording made it easy to infer that he blamed that on the Italian. “This club is one of maximum exigency”, he said. “It is time for a new breath of air”. We have all seen how that has gone for him.

But let us focus on those last six months of Ancelotti’s tenure at Real Madrid, and try to anticipate whether such a thing can happen in his time at Bayern. How his team went from treble hopefuls to utter losers in every competition was remarkable, and nobody seemed to stop and look at an obvious fact.

Brilliant eleven, rubbish subs

For all the spending Real Madrid do every summer with looks to “improve their team”, it is astonishing to see that not many positions have more than a single high-level player pushing for a place in any given starting eleven.

For instance, at the left back position, Madrid have one of the best in the business in Marcelo. His understudy is the greatly overwhelming Fábio Coentrão, famous in Bayern fans’ memories for letting Philipp Lahm easily provide an assist for Mario Gómez in the first leg of the 2011-12 semifinals.

The centre-back places have three men at it, with Sergio Ramos, Pepe and Raphaël Varane. There is not a fourth man. The woes continue in the last position of the defence. Dani Carvajal is a sublime right-back – so much so that I would love him to be signed by Bayern as a Lahm replacement. Álvaro Arbeloa, who was never extremely remarkable and even less so now with his age, is a very ill-suited competitor for the spot.

If you continue along these lines, you will see that the only position that Real Madrid have two very good men for is the number 10 position. Both James Rodríguez and Isco are fantastic players when they are in form. The funny bit is that there is no place for them in the 4-3-3 formation that the team has favoured after Mourinho left. Madrid even purposefully got rid of Benzema’s competitor in the summer of 2014. Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale are uncontested.

So sure, Real Madrid had a heck of a team on paper. When they were all fit, ready to go and have a proper amount of games under their belt to boost their chemistry and collective form, they were unstoppable. But with a few injuries and spells of bad form from some of the undisputed starters, the team sank beyond salvation.

And what about Bayern?

This is not at all the case at Bayern. Let us take it in an orderly manner.

  • Left-back: both David Alaba and Juan Bernat are solid starters, even if the difference between them is huge;
  • Centre-backs: if they are all fit? You have Jérôme Boateng, Holger Badstuber, Medhi Benatia (?), and you can throw in Javi Martínez and Joshua Kimmich if and when required. Heck, even Alaba can play there;
  • Right-back: Lahm and Rafinha? Thank you;
  • Defensive midfield: depending on how you want to play, both Xabi Alonso and Arturo Vidal are fantastic starters. Javi Martínez’s rightful position is as number 6. Sebastian Rode is a bit far from their level but not bad at all;
  • Offensive central midfield: Thiago, Thomas Müller, Mario Götze. Need I say more?;
  • Wingers: Franck Ribéry, Arjen Robben, Kingsley Coman, Douglas Costa. Be scared;
  • Striker: admittedly, I think we fall short here, but Müller can play number 9. Oh and that brilliant guy Bob;

Bayern trumps Real Madrid in both depth and versatility. You would never fathom Pepe doing anything worth your while as a full-back, and James Rodríguez’s performance in the wings is lukewarm at best.

Although it is plainly obvious that Real Madrid’s downfall at the end of last season cannot be attributed to this single factor, and it is also quite clear that Ancelotti made some mistakes along the way, you cannot deny that Real Madrid lack a long-term sporting project that directs their transfer policy. This is why Barcelona consistently beat them since 2006, and why Atlético de Madrid caught up with them. They will spend €100m on Bale but not care to cover his back properly if he is missing.

Ancelotti never really had a choice in some positions either. Benching Ronaldo in a bad bout of form would amount to sacrilege. Not so with most Bayern players. Jupp Heynckes did not hesitate to relegate Robben to the bench during much of the 2012-13 season. Guardiola has made Götze a chronic benchwarmer. The club knows that there is a sports project and that untouchables should be kept to a minimum.

Conclusion

No. I do not think that Ancelotti will have the same sort of problems at Bayern than he did at Real Madrid. He will have plenty to worry about, undoubtedly. But the squad depth and versatility woes that, in my opinion, were crucial for his Real Madrid side’s downfall in 2015, will not be in that list.

Real Madrid is crap, man. They let go of the man that gave them their tenth European Cup. All the better for us.