On June 1, 2021, Real Madrid replaced a three-time Champions League-winning manager with another three-time champion. Zinedine Zidane had just left the club on his terms for the second time. Real Madrid explored options like Mauricio Pochettino, Antonio Conte, and Raul Gonzalez, but opted to return to a former hero.
Carlo Ancelotti’s appointment came in as a surprise, although, on paper, it was as simple as replacing a legendary manager with another. But Ancelotti’s time away from Real Madrid left room for skepticism. I, myself, have been an avid admirer of the old man for as long as I have known football. But even I could not evade the skepticism. We will get plenty of opportunities to scrutinize Ancelotti’s second stint at Real Madrid shortly. Ancelotti has managed sides from three different leagues while he was away and there were plenty of interesting things to observe while he was gone.
Ancelotti did not immediately get back into top-level management when he was sacked by Florentino Perez in the summer of 2015. He took a year-long sabbatical and returned in 2016-17. Bayern Munich hired Ancelotti after Pep Guardiola’s time at the German club came to an end. On paper, it was a no-brainer. Ancelotti had the European pedigree that Bayern craved but could not achieve under Pep. Ancelotti’s domestic record was rather ordinary but in 2016-17, Bayern was still dominating Bundesliga just like ever.
Bayern Munich did not allow an influx of new transfers in Ancelotti’s first season. Freshly crowned Euro Champion (of 2016) Renato Sanches arrived from Benfica and Matt Hummels arrived from arch-rivals Borussia Dortmund. Bayern let go of a lot of young players that summer. Mario Gotze and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg being some of the notable names to leave.
Ancelotti’s Bayern were dominant in the 2016-17 season. He used his favorite 4-3-3 formation that got him success at Real Madrid. Bayern played a defensive high-line with a solid back-four of Philip Lahm, Hummels, Jerome Boateng, David Alaba. They won the Bundesliga that season with the fewest goals conceded (22) among all the teams in Europe’s top 5 leagues. Bayern’s midfield engine was powered by Ancelotti’s old-mate Xabi Alonso. With the versatility of Vidal and the creative brain of Thiago, there were not too many better midfield-trios in Europe at that time.
On the front line, he had a goalscoring machine-like, Robert Lewandowski - again a familiar profile like the one of Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid. Lewandowski was supported by Bayern Munich legends - Thomas Muller, Arjen Robben, and Frank Ribery. Ancelotti’s first season in Germany ended with two titles - the Bundesliga and the DFL Supercup. They fell short at the semi-finals of the DFB pokal and crashed out against none other than Zidane’s Real Madrid at the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Cristiano Ronaldo scored five goals over the two legs in Munich and Madrid.
Ancelotti brought James Rodriguez to Bayern Munich from Real Madrid on loan at the beginning of the new season. His swan-song at Munich would soon come crashing down. An apparent inferior training methodology to that of former manager Pep Guardiola, several infamous selection decisions, and a 3-0 loss to PSG in the group stage of the 2017-18 season saw the end of Ancelotti’s Bayern Munich career. There were widespread reports about Arjen Robben publicly criticizing the Italian manager over his training methods. But Robben later denied those reports. However, Carlo Ancelotti’s son Davide Ancelotti gave some insight into his father’s methods in an interview with La Gazetta.
Davide said, “He’s somebody who delegates a lot, which means when you work for him you have a lot of responsibility. To be able to work with him is very educational for me since he, even if I may be biased, is the best in the world”.
Before going into Ancelotti’s stint at Napoli, we have to delve a little bit into his predecessor’s time at the club in order to better understand why Ancelotti was hired by Napoli in the first place.
Carlo Ancelotti was hired as Napoli’s manager for 2018-19 after President Aurelio De Laurentis sacked fan-favorite Maurizio Sarri, who was responsible for finishing second for two consecutive seasons. The Napoli president was obsessed with the Serie A title and saw Ancelotti as the right man to dethrone Juventus.
Sarri’s overwhelming brand of football was pleasing to the eyes and gave a certain identity to Napoli’s football. The short-passing build-up from the back to invite pressing from the opponents and constant movement of players to create space between the lines was the tactic that Sarri almost religiously followed. The attack was the best form of defense for Sarri. His team selection methods, however, did not have much room for rotation. This high-pressing and physically demanding style of play combined with Sarri’s refusal to rotate took a toll on the team - resulting in a noticeable dip in performances in the second half of the 2017-18 season.
Ancelotti was brought to provide a more sustainable style, incorporate rotation and eventually lead the team to the ever-so-elusive Serie-A title on which Juventus had an iron-claw grasp. Well, initially, Ancelotti seemed promising. He rotated more than Sarri and replaced the short-passing build-up with swift diagonals. Ancelotti inherited Sarri’s 4-3-3 formation but left room for easily morphing into a 4-4-2 formation. In addition to the fullbacks, the wide midfielders would often create a shape of 2-4-4 while in possession - to stretch the pitch wider. This would allow his players to play fast but with longer passes instead of Sarri’s short-passing and constantly-moving scheme.
In 2018-19, among the teams of Europe’s top 5 leagues, Ancelotti’s Napoli was fifth in xG-differential, fifth in Shots on target, first in Shots/90, first in shot-creating-actions, and sixth in the total number of through-balls. But Napoli fell short of Juventus once again - this time by 11 points.
Ancelotti’s dismissal at Napoli was rather surprising. Despite hovering doubts, his team made it into the knock-out phase of the Champions League by securing a 4-0 win over Genk on Matchday 6 of the group stage of 2019-20. Ancelotti was sacked by De Laurentis soon after the game.
Ancelotti’s return to the Premier League might have come as a surprise to many but in reality, it was not. Farhad Moshiri took over Everton as a majority investor in 2016. His primary goal was to bring on a world-class manager to make Everton a real force in the Premier League. His original plan fell through catastrophically when he had to sack Ronald Koeman in the middle of the season. Ancelotti had just been sacked by Bayern Munich at that time and was enjoying a relaxing time outside of the heat of football. Ancelotti’s entourage were approached by Everton and they were even impressed by the plans outlined by Moshiri. However, Ancelotti himself seemed reluctant to take over a team in the middle of the season. Ironically, that is exactly what he would do a couple of years later.
Ancelotti joined Everton in January of 2020 on a long-term contract and a hefty net salary of six million pounds. He was also given assurance of big-money signings. With eight wins in 19 Premier League games, Ancelotti’s Everton finished the season at 12th place in 2019-20. The summer before the 2020-21 season was about to get much more interesting for Carlo and Everton. Ancelotti brought former players James Rodriguez and Allan to the club. They were joined by Abdoulaye Doucouré. Everton’s midfield trio looked formidable.
Ancelotti went back to his 4-3-3 formation once again. Aided by the forward-thinking prowesses of Lucas Digne, the aerial threats of Richarlison, Calvert-Lewin, and Yerri Mina - Everton started to string a series of good results at the beginning of the Premier League season. At one point, they even led the table. But the second half of the season was far from ideal for Carlo Ancelotti’s side. At times, plagued by fitness problems and due to the lack of depth in the squad, Everton’s season collapsed. Their final hurrah of the season was perhaps the 2-0 win against Liverpool in the Merseyside derby but a 10th place finish made their season an ordinary one at the end.
Everton finished the season 15th in the PL in totals shots taken. Their ball progression also seemed stagnated as they finished outside / on the edge of the top half for progressive passes, passes into the final third, and passes into the penalty area. They were not an efficient pressing team either. Ancelotti’s Everton stint had the same pattern as Bayern and Napoli -- it showed promise at the beginning without showing any signs of significant progress in later phases.
Ancelotti is a three-time Champions League winner, a league title winner at multiple leagues across the top-five leagues, an absolute legend of the managerial world, and an adored character at Real Madrid. The circumstances of his return have not been exactly ideal but I found optimism in his work at Napoli. Ancelotti has been doubted in the past because of his lack of rotations and rigid gameplay. But he shook that off quite well in his first year at Napoli. Real Madrid are in dire need of a sustainable style of play that can help them find their authority back on the pitch. Is Ancelotti the right man for the job? Can he find his mojo back? Only time will tell.