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The Real deal
With Real Madrid well placed to overcome Borussia Dortmund in their Champions League quarter final, Adam Bate looks at the career of their coach Carlo Ancelotti and how his flexible philosophy makes him a man to be feared in the Champions League...
Last Updated: 08/04/14 4:52pm
Carlo Ancelotti had a philosophy. When you've been a cog in the wheel of arguably the greatest football machine the world has ever seen, how could he not? The midfield artisan of Arrigo Sacchi's great AC Milan side of the late 80s and early 90s, Ancelotti understood 4-4-2 better than most.
Sacchi's Milan moved as one cohesive unit, abandoning the long-held principles of man-marking in favour of pressing and zonal responsibility. Taking advantage of the old offside rule, the defence pushed up and closed the space between the lines. The team were drilled endlessly to ensure each player knew his responsibilities and precisely where he had to be in the 4-4-2.
Naturally, he took the tenets of Sacchi's style into his own coaching career. But it didn't take long for the Italian to discover the difficulties that a dogmatic attitude can bring. In the summer of 1997, as a young coach who'd just guided Parma to second place in Serie A, Ancelotti rejected the opportunity to sign a 30-year-old Roberto Baggio for the bargain price of just $3million.
The Divine Ponytail instead moved to Bologna, scoring 22 goals. Parma slipped to fifth. And Ancelotti learnt a lesson he never forgot. "Looking back on it now, I was crazy," he recently told La Gazzetta dello Sport. "How can you give up on someone like Baggio? I was young and didn't have the courage to throw myself into something that I didn't know well enough. I knew everything about the 4-4-2."
In his next job with Juventus, armed with one of the best squads in Europe and at a club that had reached the final of the Champions League in three of the previous four seasons, Ancelotti was forced to take a more flexible approach. "The first major tactical change I made was for Zinedine Zidane at Juventus," he added. "I learned quickly."
It was just the start of an impressive coaching career that has become notable for its focus on personnel rather than systems. Whether at AC Milan, Chelsea or Paris St Germain, the talent available has been the driving force behind this coach's decisions. And it has been a successful approach. Ancelotti has won titles in each of his previous three jobs.
After dabbling with the diamond at Juve, there was an attempt at a Christmas Tree formation at Milan before he won two Champions Leagues with the Rossoneri - the first with a 4-3-1-2 and a strike partnership of Andriy Shevchenko and Pippo Inzaghi, the second with the latter playing on his own up front with Kaka in support in a 4-4-1-1.
At Chelsea, the diamond returned before switching to the popular 4-2-3-1 formation and for two seasons at Paris St Germain the team seemed to be in a continual state of flux - the graphic below showing the four different formations used in home and away matches against Dynamo Kiev and Barcelona during the course of last season's run to the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
Essentially, Ancelotti has become a billionaire's dream. This is not a man likely to swagger into a dressing room and decide that the club's player of the year needs to be bombed out the door because he cannot adapt to the system. Those expensive summer signings - even if acquired on a whim to bolster the ego of oligarch - will not be left pulling faces on the sidelines.
These are just some of the reasons why Ancelotti is a good fit for the unique task of coaching Real Madrid. What other club would have the 2013 Ballon d'Or winner on the books and still pay out the world record transfer fee in the summer of that same year for a player who'd made his name occupying a similar left-sided attacking role?
It presented something of a problem and the early results were mixed. Cristiano Ronaldo was used as a centre forward in pre-season games against Lyon and PSG before being asked to take on second-striker duties in a friendly with Los Angeles Galaxy. "For a number of weeks it seemed clear that Ancelotti was sure that 4-4-2 was his tactical starting point," wrote Spanish football expert Graham Hunter.
But Ronaldo not comfortable and, typically, Ancelotti responded. "Cristiano needs to play in the position that he wants to," the Real boss told AS. "I will not change his position because he is comfortable in his usual position. He is the one who has to choose where he plays on the pitch." Tellingly, he added: "I think we'll be working out a system which will bring out the best characteristics of both players. You need to field the top players where they feel comfortable."
After briefly returning to a 4-2-3-1 reminiscent of last season's formation, Ancelotti has now truly unleashed Ronaldo and Gareth Bale in a 4-3-3 formation that allows them total freedom to express themselves in the final third. With Angel di Maria also thriving in a deeper role and Karim Benzema responding unselfishly to the support around him, Ancelotti is making it work.
"With Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, the best system is 4-3-3," he told La Gazzetta dello Sport. "Bale took a while to arrive, so at the start I sought a 4-4-2 for greater balance. With Bale I went back to the initial idea and now we need to find that balance." Although Real are in the thick of a three-way title battle, it's largely worked with Ronaldo and Bale already having contributed more than 60 goals between them so far this season.
But if they should fall short in La Liga it would be no huge surprise. After all, Ancelotti is a manager who won more international honours in charge of Milan than he's won domestic trophies in his entire coaching career. In a way, it's logical. To thrive week-in week-out without slip-ups perhaps requires a well-drilled structure with everyone instinctively knowing their jobs.
Ancelotti's methods now lend themselves towards peaks and troughs - a by-product of placing individuals at the centre of his thinking. It doesn't mean he isn't a coach to admire. In fact, he has become a key voice for young coaches. Just ask Ryan Giggs, touted as a future candidate for the Manchester United job, and a player currently studying for the UEFA Pro Licence. It was Ancelotti's words, when interviewed by FA head of coaching John Peacock, that struck a chord with him.
"I think what this course does teach you is that there is no right or wrong way, so I might have a philosophy but you have to be adaptable as well," said Giggs, quoted in The Guardian. "Maybe you haven't got the players to play that way, which was what Carlo Ancelotti was saying. I found that really interesting, it was similar to me, growing up on 4-4-2 really. He didn't sign Baggio because he didn't fit into his philosophy time. So you have to be adaptable and maybe not be: 'I'm going to play like this.' You evolve really."
Ancelotti's continues to evolve as he seeks to get the best out of his players. And that makes his Real Madrid side perhaps the most intriguing rival out there to the Bayern Munich of Pep Guardiola with his passionately-held beliefs about the right way to set up a football team. In the race for European glory this season, don't be too surprised if Carlo Ancelotti's way comes out on top.