These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts — are now a regular thing. All previous editions can be found here.
News moves on fast in football, often intentionally. Zinedine Zidane put pen to ink on a letter that hit hard on Monday. We reacted. On Tuesday, Real Madrid announced the signing of Carlo Ancelotti as Real Madrid’s head coach. A fresh news cycle was birthed; an old one forgotten. David Alaba was signed five years ago by the sheer law of attention span. Zidane resigned sometime in 2003.
When Carlo Ancelotti was sacked at the end of the 2014 - 2015 season, president Florentino Perez called for a press conference to announce the news. When asked about his reasoning regarding the decision, he said “I don’t know”. Florentino also said in that same presser that the club needed something new. That new something was Rafa Benitez — a manager who wildly contrasted Ancelotti’s ideologies — who was asked to do better with a squad that was built for electric football. The ‘better’ was to 1-up Carlo’s Champions League semi-final exit in a season where Ancelotti figured out how to re-invent players to accommodate an injury crisis and a poorly-constructed squad. Rafa tanked. Thankfully for the club, Zidane snipped the anchor and resurfaced the ship.
Ancelotti wasn’t thrilled about losing Xabi Alonso in 2014, which meant he headed into the following season with virtually no defensive midfielder, unless you count the crippled Sami Khedira. He also wouldn’t have wanted to lose Angel Di Maria — the man with three lungs who defended and attacked with purpose and pumped oxygen into midfield. Those two left after Toni Kroos and James Rodrguez were signed. The latter two made their debuts in the European Super Cup vs Sevilla. Kroos looked like he was playing for Real Madrid since he was six — he fit like a glove. But losing Xabi meant Kroos had to hold down the anchor role for large stretches of the season. Still, Ancelotti made it work.
Ancelotti’s 2014 - 2015 Real Madrid went on a tear in Autumn, winning 22 straight games over the span of four separate competitions. Along the way, he beat Barcelona at home 3 - 1, and won 0 - 3 away at Anfield against Liverpool. Kroos and Modric’s double-pivot, headed by James and Isco in midfield, suffocated opponents with high-pressing and quick passing triangles. It was difficult to play against.
But then Luka Modric suffered a hamstring injury in November, and didn’t return until March. The team ran out of gas, and was played into the ground. They started to fail their big tests. Ancelotti’s men were bounced out of the Copa del Rey by Atletico, and were also eviscerated by Diego Simeone’s side 4 - 0 in the league. They followed that up by going winless in their three most difficult games in the winter stretch, against Villarreal, Athletic, and Barcelona.
Those games, those failed big tests, hurt them, and picking up 28 of the remaining 30 points against lesser opponents was not enough. What buried them the most: Modric’s anticipated return in March was sucker-punched when the Croatian suffered a knee injury in April. Kroos had just put his head above water with Modric’s return. When Modric went down again, Kroos drowned.
Real Madrid, as an institution, saw the unravelling first hand. Ancelotti is not a manager without flaws. His domestic track record is not great. He keeps an extremely tight rotation, with little interest in incorporating fringe players. His lack of proper training routines have been publicly exposed. But the club also witnessed the process of that trophyless season. Ancelotti endured heavy injuries and the departure of his only defensive midfielder. He got the team to the Champions League semi-finals despite it all, and the fans liked his brand of football. The sacking seemed short-sighted, especially when you weigh Rafa as the alternative.
None of the players wanted Ancelotti to leave. His margin of error: If Real Madrid don’t lose to Juventus in the semi-final, he may have not been sacked. Results over process. “Nothing is sufficient here,” Florentino said after Real Madrid’s exit to Juventus. “That’s the law that Madrid’s history lays down”. Some would say it’s good to have those high standards. The counter is that things don’t always get better with change, and there are long-term consequences for short-sighted triggers.
Now Florentino comes back full-circle to Carlo Ancelotti. The press conference, scheduled for Wednesday, will likely not feature an “I don’t know.” — but it will feature the usual honeymoon praise for any new manager. What Florentino likely won’t reveal, though, is that Carlo was the easy choice — the most comfortable path.
Ancelotti provides little resistance or opposition. He had every right to complain during his tenure, and didn’t. Even upon leaving, he praised everyone, and said he’d come back if called upon.
He was also, in many ways, the fans’ choice. He is looked at fondly in the Madridista family. But now the tests will come, and Ancelotti will have to absorb the heat, and probably the blame, in what will likely be a turbulent 2020 - 2021 season with little-to-no squad rejuvenation to look forward to.
The squad will likely not be revolutionized. The new manager was always going to have to bring in a rejuvenation of ideas and tactics, not players. Raul was going to connect with the young players and have a more aggressive pressing scheme; Conte would’ve brought a three-at-the-back blueprint and a reliable domestic track record (and so forth, along with their flaws). It’s unclear whether Ancelotti can bring something fresh, and if he is to keep a tight rotation, there is worry that he’ll put his trust in older players that need to be phased out.
Any nostalgia that lingers from Carlo Ancelotti being thrown into the air on the night of La Decima; or of Marcelo, Ramos, Pepe and others invading his post-game presser with champagne should be stored in the brain properly — filed away without connecting that historic night with what’s happening at Real Madrid now. Legends are gone, or on their last legs — with maybe two of them considered to be in their peak. Ancelotti grilled Gareth Bale in 2019 after he left Real Madrid. (Bale possibly returning remains in some sadistic way, hilarious to me, especially when you consider how much Ancelotti and Florentino disagreed over the use of the Welshman.) Ancelotti’s BBC is replaced with B??. Will Ancelotti incorporate Martin Odegaard the way he did with James Rodriguez? Will he unearth Isco? Ancelotti has become flexible enough with his tactics over the years to tweak them around his best players. I’m not sure who he’ll value as his best players next season.
(Worth mentioning only because fans are bringing it up: Ancelotti, in his book, famously called Martin Odegaard a ‘PR stunt’. But that comment was made in 2016, and I don’t think what Ancelotti said about the Norwegian in his book would reflect on how he values him today.)
While many fans love the idea of Carlo returning, many also felt the club should’ve let the ship sail, and ushered in something fresh instead. That’s valid.
There are many questions that need to be answered. It’s a bit lame to say this, because it would’ve applied to any manager, but: I’m especially interested to see what Ancelotti’s team looks like by December, and what the team’s morale will look like. In 2014, Ancelotti had the perfect cocktail of players to work with. Rebuilding anything close to that aura is beyond challenging. For better or worse, this current Real Madrid team is deep in multiple positions. Even the striker position, which looks thin, now has a very good Borja Mayoral, along with Luka Jovic, to drawn upon as Benzema’s back-up. The wings are loaded. I expect some grumblings by Christmas if Ancelotti is playing the same lineup over and over again. (Though, I have some optimism in that he did rotate more at Napoli, and as Om, Matt, and Sid discussed on yesterday’s Managing Madrid podcast, he had to deal with injuries in Everton’s depth chart.)
In 2015, it made sense keeping Carlo. in 2021, after he’s struggled in every stint since leave Madrid, the feeling is different. But it’s also clear whatever Real Madrid decided to do would’ve been risky. The options were limited. The timing with Massimiliano Allegri and Mauricio Pochettino didn’t quite work; but the club didn’t seem inclined to make the timing work either — something that wouldn’t have been difficult to do if the desire was there. Allegri also wanted to stay in Turin where his family was. Pochettino has had a rough two seasons consecutively. Conte has his own baggage, Raul is raw.
Real Madrid also have comfort knowing Raul will ‘always be there’. Raul will be available in December if Ancelotti — who’s struggled getting Everton where they need to be this season, particularly in the second half of it — fails.
It’s worth noting that having Raul as your plan B has its drawbacks. If Raul gets promoted mid-season, he’ll be taking over a ship that Carlo has built. If he gets the job now, he’ll plan ahead in the pre-season, likely incorporating players like Miguel Gutierrez, and maybe Antonio Blanco and Sergio Arribas. He also gets more time fine-tuning his scheme. Getting thrown into the volcano mid-season is basically walking into cross-fire, and those martyrs usually get unfairly evaluated by the end of a season they couldn’t save.
Choosing Real Madrid’s manager was going to be difficult. Real Madrid made it easy. For Carlo, it won’t be.