“The quality of Madrid is not by chance or luck. They have a high level in everything.”
Was Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola just being polite in the aftermath of the first leg of their Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid?
City won a sensational game 4-3 and take that slender lead to the Bernabeu on Wednesday to meet a side that has since been crowned champions of Spain.
Winning La Liga sees Carlo Ancelotti become the first manager to win the title in Europe’s top five leagues – and should he claim the Champions League, he will become the first to win it four times, moving clear of Liverpool’s Bob Paisley and Real’s Zinedine Zidane.
But still, the Spanish giants are often accused of winning despite of the Italian rather than because of him.
What is their gameplan? How many times have individuals bailed them out?
Los Merengues are in the middle of a rebuild and while they may be significantly better managed financially than competitors Barcelona, they still cannot boast squad perfection.
They simply do not have much money to spare. There are stadium renovations to think of and the purchase of PSG striker Kylian Mbappe to fund, not just because of his talent but because his marketing potential will generate another revenue stream.
As such, the squad consists of ageing stars and developing kids but little else in between. Their net spend in the transfer market in the past decade, according to the Football Observatory, is lower than that of teams such as Leeds, Crystal Palace and Aston Villa. In the past two summers, Real have only paid money for one player, Eduardo Camavinga who arrived for £28m from Rennes.
Considering the squad’s deficiencies, Real president Florentino Perez was limited in his choices for a coach when he looked for a replacement for Zinedine Zidane in 2021. He needed a pragmatist, someone who made the best of what was already there as the club continued to rebuild.
In came Ancelotti for his second spell. The 62-year-old is a master at working with what he has and in putting the quality of the individual at the forefront of his plans but that wasn’t always how he did things.
He trained under the great Arrigo Sacchi and grew up learning the art of a great playing strategy. The system was so important to him that he famously did not want Roberto Baggio or Gianfranco Zola in his side because they did not suit the system.
His time at Juventus and training France legend Zidane as well as his ensuing experience made him learn to adapt and he has since become a pragmatist who puts the players first.
|Juventus||Intertoto Cup (1999)|
|AC Milan||Champions League (2002-03 & 2006-07), Serie A (2003-4), Coppa Italia (2002-03), Italian Super Cup (2004), Uefa Super Cup (2007), Club World Cup (2007)|
|Chelsea||Premier League (2009-10), FA Cup (2009-10), Community Shield (2009)|
|Paris St-Germain||Ligue 1 (2012-13)|
|Real Madrid||Champions League (2013-14), La Liga (2021-22), Copa del Rey (2013-14), Spanish Super Cup (2021-11), Uefa Super Cup (2014), Club World Cup (2014)|
|Bayern Munich||Bundesliga (2016-17), German Super Cup (2016,2017)|
Loyalty to the player means putting them in the ideal conditions to express their best. Let’s take forwards Vinicius Jr and Karim Benzema as an example.
Against Borussia Monchengladbach in last season’s Champions League, Benzema was caught on camera accusing Vinicius Jr of “playing against us”, telling team-mate Ferland Mendy to not pass the youngster the ball. The Brazilian’s inability to make the right decision under pressure was noted by many.
In December 2020, just a few weeks later, Spanish newspaper Marca asked their experts to explain why Real were not performing, especially in attack.
“There is a lack of a goalscorer to make the difference in matches. Cristiano [Ronaldo]’s departure has been more decisive than many thought,” said journalist Felipe Del Campo.
Fast forward 13 months from when that report was published and ESPN reminded us in January 2022 that “Real pair Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior have outscored the entire Barca squad thus far, having shared 36 goals between themselves as opposed to the 35 goals collectively amassed by the Catalans”.
Maybe Ancelotti just hugged them more, made them feel good?
Ancelotti always downplays how much he advises his players but clear data was collected and studied to help Vinicius Jr make better decisions and allow him to form a better partnership with Benzema.
Ballon d’Or and World Cup winner Fabio Cannavaro once explained just how vital Ancelotti was to his own development.
“What I remember the most from Ancelotti is learning zonal marking,” said the former Real, Juventus and Inter Milan defender. “I was accustomed to only tracking the man, but with him I learned the right movements and posture.”
As for Benzema, when he missed his first ever penalty for Real in January 2022, Ancelotti absorbed all the criticism and told everyone it was his fault and not his striker’s.
Allowing the individuals to shine is one thing but Ancelotti is also one of the finest readers of the game. He never stops working in a match, adjusting and forcing tactical changes that provoke mistakes from opponents while simultaneously putting his players in a better position to exploit.
Against Chelsea in the Champions League quarter-final, Real suffered deeply in the second leg. They were forced deeper and deeper but kept adjusting to increase the energy in midfield and maintain an attacking threat. The idea was to push Luka Modric closer to the attack and give him more opportunity to find a killer pass by bringing on Rodrygo. A goal was instantly achieved.
Against another great pragmatic strategist in Thomas Tuchel, Ancelotti’s adjustments and substitutions were key – along with a large slice of luck.
In an interview with L’Equipe, France left-back Lucas Digne explained that his former Everton boss Ancelotti “is the best strategist, he analyses his opponents very well, he reads games very well.
“In every game he tries to adapt to the players at his disposal. He can vary his system with one snap of his fingers.”
It would be remiss not to note how important it is for Real to have Antonio Pintus back as their fitness coach. How else would such a collection of ageing stars continue to perform at the optimum levels? Ancelotti takes care of their mentality and Pintus ensures perfect physical conditioning.
Make no mistake, Real deserve their La Liga title and to be contending for the Champions League final not only because of luck but because of clever strategies, attention to detail and the ability to convert fine individuals into great competitors.
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