Perhaps the best insight into how Carlo Ancelotti manages big games came as the final whistle blew at the Bernabeu this month, with Real Madrid leading Manchester City 2-1 and another 30 minutes in prospect.
While Pep Guardiola drew his players into a tight huddle, explaining exactly what he needed from them, Ancelotti calmly strolled over to Marcelo and Toni Kroos on the substitutes' bench and asked them who they thought he should bring on in extra-time. Because he wasn't really sure.
Of course if Real had lost that game and City qualified for the Champions League final, you could easily spin that anecdote into a tale about how a passive Ancelotti lost the plot, about how Guardiola's clear-headed game plan won the day. Ancelotti has seen and done it all at club level, and yet he is often the first to admit that the first secret of management is that you need a little luck.
Even so, there was something startlingly apostate to it: the pivotal point of a Champions League semi-final, and you decide to delegate your last big call to your senior players. The prevailing orthodoxy of modern coaching is control: control of the ball, control of the situation, high intensity and high stress. And yet in that moment Ancelotti relinquished control, handed over the keys to a decision for which he would ultimately be held responsible. “It describes him perfectly as a coach,” Kroos said afterwards.
Naturally this speaks to the popular caricature of Ancelotti as a manager from the laid-back, carefree school: the jolly cigar-smoking uncle, the sort of guy who can fix anything, a man who just instinctively knows how to work a barbecue. To a large extent that calmness is a façade, a persona as carefully crafted as the touchline thespianism embodied by so many of his contemporaries.
“For me, the toughest spell is the three or four hours before kick-off,” he said on Tuesday when asked to reflect on his experiences of Champions League finals. “It’s a physical malaise. I’ve struggled with it a bit more this season: increased sweating and an accelerated heart rate. Negative thoughts creep in. But fortunately, all that stops once the game starts.”
And so clearly there’s something else going here as well, and perhaps you only really glimpse it in the very biggest games, under the highest pressure. Ancelotti doesn’t just cherish his players and put an arm around their shoulder. He trusts them: not just to execute his game plan but to craft it, not just to assimilate his message but to pass it on and make it their own. Which, when you think about it, is no less courageous or daunting an approach than plotting and prescribing every last detail to the nth degree. It’s just a different form of courage: the courage of faith.
There is a story that Ancelotti relates from his days managing AC Milan, when he had the pleasant dilemma of trying to accommodate four world-class midfielders – Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf, Kaká and Rui Costa – in the same midfield. After speaking to all of them, Ancelotti said: "You have to work it out. Or one of you will be on the bench every game." And so in collaboration with Ancelotti, the quartet came up with the midfield diamond that would earn Kaká the Ballon d'Or and Milan the Champions League in 2007.
Perhaps this approach only really works at a club where the talent is as autonomous and gifted as that Milan squad, or Real now.
Certainly Ancelotti has been fortunate to inherit a core of senior international players who already know their roles and responsibilities, who are settled without being complacent. One of the things that most surprised Ancelotti when he returned to the Bernabeu for his second spell last summer, having previously managed them from 2013-2015, was how little players like Kroos, Marcelo, Casemiro and Luka Modric had changed, how little their hunger and attitude had waned from when they were young men.
And yet by the same token there is something remarkable about the way Ancelotti has managed to pacify and unite a club whose internal politics and external din have driven many of the world's top coaches to distraction. Recall the state Real were in when he took over: financially hampered, reviled the world over for its role in the European Super League project and in desperate need of a rebuild. Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane had gone and taken their 26 years of Madrid experience with them.
Much of the credit for Madrid's La Liga title and run to the Champions League final has gone to its stalwarts: Modric, Karim Benzema, Thibaut Courtois, all of whom have been excellent. But in fact Ancelotti has quietly overhauled the playing XI, rebuilding his frontline around the explosive Vinícius Júnior and Rodrygo (both 21), handing Éder Militão (24) a regular role in defence, trusting Fede Valverde (23) in midfield.
All of which looks elementary in retrospect, but Madrid is frequently a place where young talent goes to grow old and go on loan. Older players like Isco, Eden Hazard and Marcelo have quietly been eased to the margins, and yet still seem thoroughly buzzing to be there.
In large part this is the atmosphere that Ancelotti helps to create: one in which stress is a burden and not a prerequisite, one in which he doesn’t claim to have all the answers, one that simply accepts we are all just passing through, that life is too short for petty enmities. “I have been in football since 1977,” he said earlier this season. “I don’t have the time or the desire to fight.”
Likewise, you suspect that Ancelotti cares little for the legacy he has carved out for himself, for the many critics who over the years have derided him as a washed-up relic, an anachronism, a cup manager.
Well, Ancelotti has now won league titles in five countries, is beloved the world over and is on the verge of being the first coach to win four Champions Leagues. If this is obsolescence, there are plenty of young coaches out there who would love a bit of it. – Guardian