In the classic trope of mentor vs understudy, we were witness to an epic quarter-final tie in the UEFA Champions League. What can only be classified as a storybook affair, two of the tournaments legends, as both players and managers, were pitted against one another in what many wished would have been the matchup for the final.
Former Real Madrid Mister, Carlo Ancelotti, was welcomed back to the Bernabeu warmly by both fans and players. He'd been away for almost two full years, and was now in charge of Bundesliga titans, Bayern Munich. He left an indelible impression during his tenure, and many were significantly disappointed when he was sacked.
Zinedine Zidane, current head coach of soon-to-be record-setting 7-time champions league semi-finalists, and La Liga league leaders, stood only a few feet away attempting to continue breaking new records. Since Zizou took the reins after a brief stint from Rafa Benitez, he won the Champions League after only a few months in charge, finished a close second in 2015/2016 La Liga title race, and has kept his boys in 1st for almost the entire 2016/2017 season.
So as I watched the mighty eyebrow pace imperiously in front of one bench, and gazed at the always elegant, unflappable current maestro in front of the other, I was struck by what this mentor and understudy had in common, but just how different they are.
An entire book could be written on their storied histories, tactics and acumen, but for the sake of this column, I'll focus on just a couple glaring items.
I think any Madrid fan would agree that this obvious, but vital similarity is the easiest to lead off with. Particularly with a club chock full of stars like Real Madrid, managing the men is almost priority number one. Yet so few managers are actually very good at it.
With the likes of some of the worlds greatest footballers donning the royal white, such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Marcelo, Benzeman, Kroos, Modric, et al, being able to consistently elicit the best from these superstars is quite a feat.
I think we were all doubly impressed with Carlo as Morinho's successor - I mean it's kind of hard not to look good after that tumultuous drama-queen, but nonetheless, over two year's time Ancelloti managed to keep the squad aligned and largely focused and driven.
I think Zidane has taken Carlo's baton and run even further with it. At times, particularly during Ancelotti's second year, the team seemed to drift just a bit. But somehow Zidane keeps his squad fired up and passionate to win. How many times this season have we gone down a goal only to hunker down and fight it out? It takes guts to pull that off, and the drive of this squad to win is palpable.
All the while, we've seen tighter cohesion and overall team comradery than I can recall.
Another similarity between Carlo Ancelotti and Zinedine Zidane is their grace under pressure. In fact, up until the recent, and uncharacteristic post-match comments from Ancelotti complaining about the quarter-final refereeing, I can't recall a single instance that both coaches hadn't remained level-headed and calm. Whether on the sidelines or in a presser, their poise and consistency are remarkable.
The thing I like more about Zizou's calm, is that his carries with it more personality and, for lack of a better way to describe it, mischievous joy. Maybe it's youth, maybe it's unbridled passion, but we routinely are witness to an open, wry-meets-pure-happiness smile from Zidane, and I think that's part of his appeal to both players and fans.
I really should have pulled Om and Kiyan into this section for their wicked-good tactical analysis skills, but I'll have to keep it higher level.
Originally I had this differences section broken down into tactics and rotations, but I decided to combine the two as I feel they are vital to the comparison and totally inter-related for these two coaches.
First, it's almost a given that a coach with start his Once de gala whenever given the chance. If you have an ideal starting 11, most often that ideal 11 is going to perform, well, ideally.
That being said, I think that there are two elements of rotations that should be mentioned as differences. The first is utilizing the same 11 for every scenario. Carlo was far more rigid when it came to his "undroppables." He kept playing the same 11 for every game, regardless, and I believe that's why the team ran out of gas in the final stretch of the 2014/2015 season. Aside from just needing a rest when playing multiple times per week, particularly at the tail end of the season, Ancelotti played the same lineup and the same tactics against every single team. Another detrimental result of this, I believe, was Carlo's poor record against the top teams.
In contrast, we've seen ZZ far exceed Carlo in his ability to adjust. For a while he was adjusting so frequently that the more cynical fanbase referred to him as a tactical banana. While many of us didn't always understand, let alone agree with his decisions, we can't deny the outcomes. His absolute master-class against Atleti away is a perfect example. He utterly altered our style of play for the situation and absolutely shocked and dominated our cross-town rivals.
The second element of rotations, is, I believe, what really sets the two apart. As previously mentioned, Carlo almost never rotated unless forced to by injury. We rarely saw substitutions, and when we did, it was for the closing few minutes of a match. Aside from the aforementioned downfalls of not giving players a rest, Carlo had, or at least demonstrated, almost no faith in his bench. And it showed in the lack of confidence when players came on the pitch, and it doubly showed in the lack of cohesion when regular starters found themselves in game-time situations with squad players with whom they only practiced with.
While it could be argued that our squad this year has one or two more shiny objects in it, I firmly believe that Zizou's faith in his youngsters, consistent, thoughtful rotations, and more overall game-time for subs has created a massively deeper, richer, more cohesive squad. I'd argue that some of our prettiest football since the winter break has come from when Asensio, Isco, Kova, James, Vazquez et al are all in the lineup together. That they have the confidence to step up and deliver, not just against smaller clubs when playing together, but against top clubs in high-pressure situations when paired with regular starters, to me is the stuff on which legacies are built.
I will always think of Anceletti as one of my favorite Real Madrid coaches. I still don't think he should have been sacked. He brought us La Decima, much needed calm, and a thrilling period in this clubs history. And while he and his former assistant coach and understudy, Zinedine Zidane share some terrific similarities, I think that in this storybook scenario, the apprentice has out-done his master in more ways than one. Only time, and the way they write the history books will tell, but for me, Zidane is the better of the two, and I can't wait to see how this season's chapter, and many more future chapters unfold.