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Carlo Ancelotti: Champion coach

Print edition : Jul 02, 2022 T+T-

Carlo Ancelotti: Champion coach

Carlo Ancelotti.

Carlo Ancelotti. | Photo Credit: V Srinivasan

Four Champions League titles and the only man to win all five of Europe’s “big five” leagues, Carlo Ancelotti represents perhaps the essence of quiet leadership, the title of his book too, amid a surfeit of celebrity football managers.

“The third season is fatal,” said Bela Guttmann, the legendary Hungarian manager of Milan and Benfica. Two good years in a job are as many as can be hoped for. But even the rare manager who retires on top soon sees his legacy unpacked by revisionists. When Alex Ferguson left Manchester United in 2013, having just won his 13th Premier League title, he defined excellence in football management, just as Jack Welch and Alan Greenspan were thought to have defined the practice of managing conglomerates and central banks. Within years Ferguson, like Welch and Greenspan, was being judged not only on his track record but also on the problems that had silently accumulated on his watch, only to be foisted on his successors.

But Ferguson is an outlier; almost all the best managers decline in a painfully slow and public way. There is usually a point where everyone but the manager themself knows that he or she is over the hill.

For Carlo Ancelotti, that time seemed to have come in September 2017. Barely a month into a new season, he was sacked as manager of Bayern Munich. Reports—like all modern football journalism, reliant on anonymous sources—soon emerged of how “underwhelming” Bayern’s stars, used to the rigour and ambition of Pep Guardiola, had found Ancelotti’s methods. Those methods had won Ancelotti three UEFA Champions League titles—but now he was judged over the hill, and, in football as in so many other fields, you cannot reverse up again.

Former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. When Wenger was eased out of Arsenal in early 2018, Ancelotti made no secret of his desire to succeed him.
Former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. When Wenger was eased out of Arsenal in early 2018, Ancelotti made no secret of his desire to succeed him. | Photo Credit: MATTHEW CHILDS / Reuters

Within months it was clear that the assessment of Bayern’s players and executives was shared by the industry as a whole. When Arsene Wenger was eased out of Arsenal in early 2018, Ancelotti made no secret of his desire to succeed him. He was keen to return to London, and to the Premier League. Ancelotti did not even make Arsenal’s shortlist, which included a man who had never managed in his life. The eventual choice, Unai Emery, had won three European titles too, although in a lesser competition—the Europa League. But he was seen as a man with a future, Ancelotti as one who only had a past.

Ancelotti landed at Napoli, a passionately supported club whose stature did not match his CV. Here, too, his players found him wanting by comparison to a more intense predecessor, Maurizio Sarri. Little more than a year later he was sacked. Once again, the Arsenal job had come up; this time, he does not appear to have even been considered. On the day that Mikel Arteta was given his first job in management, at Arsenal, Ancelotti took charge of middling Everton.

Carlo Ancelotti celebrating in Madrid on May 29, a day after Real Madrid beat Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League final in Paris. 
Carlo Ancelotti celebrating in Madrid on May 29, a day after Real Madrid beat Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League final in Paris.  | Photo Credit: OSCAR DEL POZO/AFP

There is no going back to the summit. Or, is there? Carlo Ancelotti had some experience of being written off. In his first “big” job, at Juventus, he was derided by the fans. “A pig can’t coach,” they said, in reference to Ancelotti’s (in)famous love of food, and his childhood on a dairy farm in Emilia-Romagna. When Ancelotti was sacked by Juve, he almost ended up managing in Turkey. When he joined Everton, no one thought he would come close to a big European job again.

And yet—on May 28, Ancelotti’s Real Madrid, underdogs for perhaps the first time in their history, beat Liverpool to make him the first manager to ever win the Champions League four times. Weeks earlier, they had won La Liga—he was now the only man to win all five of Europe’s “big five” leagues. Italy, England, France, Germany, Spain—no other man has won four, never mind all five.

Was “the pig who couldn’t coach” in fact the greatest coach of all time?

The odd thing about asking where Carlo Ancelotti belongs in the pantheon of great football managers is that of all the potential contenders for such a pantheon, he may be the only one to be openly sceptical of the cult of the manager.

The idea that the importance of the manager is overrated gained currency after the publication of Soccernomics, a collaboration between the football writer Simon Kuper and the sports economist Stefan Szymanski. Soccernomics aimed to put conventional football wisdom to the empirical test; and its most prominent target was the cult of the manager. The vast majority of managers, Kuper and Szymanski showed, make almost no difference to their team’s on-pitch fortunes. At either end of the distribution are a handful of managers who make their teams notably better or worse. But what ultimately determines success is money—as measured by a club’s wage bill.

Kuper and Szymanski’s argument has been challenged by subsequent studies, although these tend to quibble with the extent to which managers matter, rather than the fundamental insight that money matters far more. But most top managers—not only Jose Mourinho—regard themselves as “special”, unique, indispensable.

Not Ancelotti. While it is increasingly common for football managers to write treatises on leadership, intended for the business rather than sports shelves, Ancelotti is unusual in having written one while still active. In Quiet Leadership, as well as in the memoir that preceded it (published in English as The Beautiful Games of an Ordinary Genius), Ancelotti is more preoccupied with the limits of what managers can achieve than with the possibilities. It is an odd strategy for selling a business book and can only be put down to honesty.

With his victorious team, at the Stade de France near Paris, on May 28. 
With his victorious team, at the Stade de France near Paris, on May 28.  | Photo Credit: LEE SMITH/REUTERS

“I feel like a member of the group, inside it, not above it or beneath it,” he writes; later, he reminds us, let’s be real, only the players really matter. Try imagining Guardiola or Mourinho or Brian Clough or Valeriy Lobanovskyi saying that, and meaning it.

It helps that before Ancelotti was a coach he was a player of the highest class, a two-time winner of the Champions League with Milan. His coach at Milan, Arrigo Sacchi, had never played professionally. “I never knew that in order to be a jockey you had to have been a horse first,” quipped Sacchi. Little wonder that the manager Ancelotti regarded as his true mentor—the one he sees himself in—was Niels Liedholm, a Swede who starred in Italy as player and coach, with a deceptively laid-back approach that empowered players.

“Judged on his record alone, it is difficult to say definitively that Ancelotti has improved his teams.”

Judged on his record alone, it is difficult to say definitively that Ancelotti has improved his teams. Managers judge themselves—even Ancelotti admits it—on their performance in the league. Ancelotti has won titles in five countries, but he has won exactly once in each country. In Italy, he managed 14 seasons with Parma, Juventus, Milan and Napoli—all, at the time, title contenders. One Scudetto out of a possible 14 bears poor comparison to the likes of Giovanni Trapattoni (six Scudetti), Fabio Capello (five, plus two voided), Marcello Lippi (five), and Antonio Conte (four).

In France and Germany, he won the league with teams so financially dominant as to render those titles almost meaningless. With Chelsea and Real Madrid, he won two championships in five seasons—in both cases, he faced only one financial equal.

On the whole, Ancelotti’s teams have done about as well as might have been expected—harsh judges would say a little worse. His real claim to greatness lies in those four Champions Leagues, as revealed by the punning Italian title of his memoir. Preferisco la coppa, “I prefer the cup”, except that “coppa” also refers to an Italian pork cold cut.

To win four Champions Leagues—as many as Ferguson and Mourinho combined—cannot be put down to money, or luck. In Quiet Leadership, player after player returns to Ancelotti’s most powerful managerial quality. He puts people at ease. In the days leading up to a big match, at half-time or before a penalty shoot-out, “Carletto” looks to relax his players, rather than further ratchet up an already unbearable intensity. It seems a lesson that Pep Guardiola would do well to learn, except that it is inimical to everything that has made Guardiola what he is. And it may not be a lesson, anyway, but a genius that only Ancelotti of his peers happens to possess.

In the long run, trophies are not the only way to judge a manager. A lack of trophies is what gets you sacked, as Ancelotti knows better than most. But a manager’s contribution to the game of football, rather than just a particular club, has to be measured on other terms.

In 1999, FIFA named its Coach of the Century: Rinus Michels. The choice could not be called controversial. While Michels was certainly successful, his claim to being the greatest of them all did not rest on trophies. In the biggest match of his life—the 1974 World Cup final—his team, the Netherlands, lost. Michels was chosen because he had transformed football, as the founder of the Ajax-Barcelona gharana that married physically intense and innovative training methods with a possession-driven attacking style on the pitch. The true measure of Michels is his living influence: from Hendrik Johannes Cruijff through Louis van Gaal to Guardiola and Erik ten Hag.

Former Italian midfielder Andrea Pirlo. Ancelotti made a few brilliant individual tweaks, like turning Pirlo into a deep-lying playmaker.
Former Italian midfielder Andrea Pirlo. Ancelotti made a few brilliant individual tweaks, like turning Pirlo into a deep-lying playmaker. | Photo Credit: AP / ALESSANDRO DI MARCO

Ancelotti has founded no school. He has made a few brilliant individual tweaks, like turning Andrea Pirlo into a deep-lying playmaker, but he has no distinctive formation or style. At Milan, he developed the 4-3-2-1 “Christmas tree” as a way to cram all his attacking midfielders in, only to abandon it as soon as the chairman, Silvio Berlusconi, demanded an additional striker. His teams will not be studied, years or decades hence.

The history of football management is more than a little like the history of film direction. Football teams, like film productions, are in every sense collective enterprises. Both, however, are subject to the urge to reduce the collective to the individual: to a star of pitch or screen, to a master puppeteer on the touchline or behind the camera.

If Michels and Guardiola are the footballing equivalent of the auteur—the all-powerful director to whom the film is not a collective endeavour, but a fulfilment of his or her artistic vision—Ancelotti represents a rival conception of the director as studio man. He is just one part of an enterprise that will go on without him. He knows he can be sacked every day. He knows who wields the real power—not him—and who the real stars are—not him.

If Pep Guardiola (left) is the footballing equivalent of the auteur, Ancelotti represents a rival conception of the director as studio man.
If Pep Guardiola (left) is the footballing equivalent of the auteur, Ancelotti represents a rival conception of the director as studio man. | Photo Credit: AP / Andres Kudacki

The footballing auteur has a “philosophy”; not of management but of the game itself. Arsene Wenger described himself as “striving for perfect football”. Even if perfect football is possible, Ancelotti does not regard it as his job to deliver it. Instead of a philosophy he has a craft: management.

In 1998, and again in 2007, the American Film Institute named the 100 greatest Hollywood films of all time. On both lists, only one director had two films in the top 10. Not Hitchcock or Scorsese or Welles, but Victor Fleming. Not a name that you could ever have called household. And yet Fleming, in the same year (1939), directed Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.

For Ancelotti, football and life are meant to be enjoyed.
For Ancelotti, football and life are meant to be enjoyed. | Photo Credit: KAI PFAFFENBACH / REUTERS

Victor Fleming never wrote an account of his approach to the craft of directing. But I suspect he would have recognised much of the wisdom in Carlo Ancelotti’s Quiet Leadership. The importance of managing up as well as down. The importance of continuity. Fleming was one of three directors who, at different points, helmed Gone With the Wind; when Ancelotti took over at Chelsea, he retained the training methods the players were used to rather than impose his own (for Michels or Guardiola, this would go against the entire point of management).

Above all, a sense of humility and perspective. Football and life are meant to be enjoyed. Ancelotti tells us he prefers managing to playing, in part because he can now eat and drink what he wants (Guardiola, Wenger and Arteta are all ascetically committed to staying as lean as their players). Of all top football managers, Carlo Ancelotti has long been the only one a non-sycophant might actually enjoy having lunch with; one who is as likely to listen as talk. All this, and four Champions Leagues.

Keshava Guha is the author of Accidental Magic.