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Ken Early: Effortlessly elegant Ancelotti deservedly considered among the world’s best

Real Madrid manager has talked openly about his lack of philosophy and the adaptability which has allowed him to flourish

Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti. Photograph: Angel Martinez/Getty Images

It’s three years to the day since Carlo Ancelotti announced he was leaving Everton for a new challenge at the club of his heart, Real Madrid.

Ancelotti’s return to the biggest club in the world happened by accident. Zinedine Zidane had resigned and Florentino Perez, stunned by the rejection of his Super League scheme the previous month, decided he needed a safe pair of hands.

At the time, many expected Ancelotti to be a placeholder until Perez found somebody more exciting to take over. Since leading Madrid to their 10th Champions League title in 2014, the Italian’s career had gone into decline. He had undistinguished spells at Bayern (a Bundesliga title notwithstanding) and Napoli before winding up at Goodison in 2019.

Instead, Ancelotti’s second coming has been a sustained coaching masterclass that has established a genuine case for him to be considered the best in the world.

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Earlier this month Madrid celebrated their second league title in three years, but the thing they are most proud of is that they are succeeding while rebuilding the team around a new generation of players. The losses of key players like Karim Benzema and Casemiro were hardly noticed.

Success has brought an uncharacteristic stability. If Ancelotti stays in the job one more week, he will become Madrid’s longest-serving coach since Vicente del Bosque, who left the club in 2003. Another six months will make him the longest-serving coach of the last 50 years, second only to Miguel Muñoz.

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Victory against Dortmund at Wembley on Saturday would be his seventh Champions League or European Cup title: two as a player with Milan, two as a coach with Milan, and three as a coach with Real Madrid. He would surpass Francisco Gento to become the most successful figure in the history of this competition.

Ancelotti’s dwindling band of critics have argued that, for a guy who has usually been managing one of the richest teams in the division, he hasn’t won enough league titles. He undoubtedly had great social skills, equally adept managing footballers and billionaire owners, but did he have the rigour and the football insight of the very best coaches? In an age when the game had come to be dominated by ideologists like Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, it was an indictment of Ancelotti that his teams lacked a clear identity.

Lately, though, you can feel a growing disillusionment with systems, a weariness with obsessive coaches who think they should be trying to control every detail. Ancelotti’s flexible, player-oriented approach has come to feel liberating. Cruising to Champions League finals while radiating sprezzatura, the Italian art of effortless elegance, he is making his rivals look like try-hards.

Carlo Ancelotti's second stint as Real Madrid manager has put him into the conversation for the world's best coach. Photograph: Josep Lago/AFP via Getty Images

If idea-coaches are like the hedgehog who knows one big thing, Ancelotti is the fox who knows many things. In recent times he has talked more and more openly about how his philosophy is not to have a philosophy.

In his view, the teams that do have one are predictable. After Madrid beat Liverpool in the 2022 final: “I think it helped that Liverpool were easier to decipher than the others, because they have a very clear identity and we could prepare the way that we did. We knew what strategy to take — don’t give them space behind the defence to run into . . .”

He reiterated the value of flexibility before Madrid knocked out Bayern last month: “I adapt. The fact that my teams don’t have a clear identity is a merit not a fault. It’s not a limit, it’s a quality.”

As Jude Bellingham explained after Madrid defeated Manchester City in the quarter-finals: “Our biggest strength is he finds a way to let a lot of boys play with freedom. We’re so off the cuff. As a man he fills you with calmness and confidence. I caught him yawning and he said to go out and excite him.”

Of course, it’s easier to trust your players with freedom when those players are Toni Kroos and Luka Modric and Jude Bellingham and Vinicius Jr. Not many were raving about Ancelotti’s non-philosophy philosophy when it was being expressed by Yerry Mina and Michael Keane at Everton.

His counterpart at Borussia Dortmund, Edin Terzic, took a more roundabout route to the top. A lower-league pro in Germany and then a scout at Dortmund, he got his big break into the coaching game when he wrote an opponent analysis of Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland for Croatia coach Slaven Bilic ahead of Euro 2012. Croatia thrashed Ireland and Bilic was so impressed with Terzic that he appointed him to his coaching staff at Besiktas and then at West Ham.

In 2018 Terzic returned to Dortmund to work as assistant to Lucien Favre, and since then he has been head coach, technical director, and then head coach again. His short managerial career has already encompassed one of the most gut-wrenching disappointments in Dortmund’s history, when they lost the 2023 title on the last day of the season by failing to beat Mainz at home.

That failure was worse than painful, it was ridiculous. Recovering from that humiliation to reach a Champions League final 12 months later shows that Terzic knows a thing or two about team spirit.

If Dortmund are going to beat Madrid in the Champions League final, they are going to have to man the barricades again. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA Wire

Philosophically, he’s had his doubters. The 35-year old centre-back Mats Hummels gave an extraordinary interview during the week, claiming that the way Dortmund played in a couple of matches earlier this season made him ashamed to wear the shirt.

“I was furious because I was of the opinion that Borussia Dortmund shouldn’t play like that - against any opponent in the world. So submissive, so inferior in footballing terms . . . barricading with 11 men in the box.”

Dortmund had improved in the second half of the season, Hummels said, largely thanks to coaches Nuri Sahin and Sven Bender joining the staff in December.

Terzic could point out to Hummels that barricading with 11 men in the box got Dortmund through the semi-final second leg against PSG - a night when Hummels himself scored the only goal from a set-piece.

If they are going to beat Madrid, Dortmund will have to man the barricades again.