Something about Carlo Ancelotti’s return to Real Madrid last summer jarred quite heavily. It wasn’t that he left Everton behind, a swift look at the Premier League table shows the precarious situation he may well have walked into had he stayed, but the fact that it didn’t end well before.
Madrid is a place where loyalty does not live, and image is everything. That image is predicated on winning all the time, and when the winning stops, invariably so does the manager’s contract. In 2014, Ancelotti gave the club and their president Florentino Perez what they had obsessed over for many years, a 10th European trophy, but a year later, after failing to defend it or win the league title, with Barcelona winning both as part of a second treble in six years, he was gone.
Upon being asked why he was being sacked, Perez had no answer; there was no logic beyond the fact that he failed to win as Barcelona swept all before them. But the truth is it was all very short-sighted; Luis Enrique had been at war with Lionel Messi and on the brink of a full blown crisis mere months before achieving glory; the pressure is unique in Spain and it takes a certain type of personality to handle it, the type Ancelotti has proven he has in droves. Although Zinedine Zidane came in to replace Rafael Benitez, Ancelotti’s immediate successor, and had a similar impact to Luis Enrique by going on to win the Champions League three times in a row, there was a transitional period coming that they’d need Ancelotti to oversee. It never felt likely they’d ever cross paths again, though.
Ancelotti had spoken publicly about struggling with the cut-throat nature of Madrid, and by the time they did come calling, many believed he was done as a top-level coach. He’d been at Bayern Munich and his laid back approach to helping coax performances out of superstars at Juventus, Milan, Chelsea, PSG and Madrid over the years didn’t seem to work. Then followed Napoli and Everton, where his style wasn’t quite what was required.
With three of those clubs – Milan, Chelsea and PSG – he’d won the league in three major European countries. He did so at Bayern, too, proving their level of dominance in Germany. Even when things go wrong, they go right. He left a “project” on Merseyside, one that needed him to be much more hands on than he likes to be; Ancelotti works best by massaging the egos of superstar players and making key tactical decisions at the elite level. Everton were neither part of the elite, nor did they have superstars.
So it felt strange that he would step back into the very environment he had previously rallied against at a particularly low ebb. Madrid’s squad was ageing, finally beginning to show frailty, but with young players emerging and a transfer strategy built around scouring the free market for the best players – notably Kylian Mbappe – and paying good money for stars of tomorrow like Eduardo Camavinga, and before him Vinicius Junior. To the casual supporter, it may have seemed risky to leave the comfort of his Everton project to again work for the most ruthless boss in European football, with even less chance of winning. Cristiano Ronaldo had already gone years ago, and both Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane departed after his arrival. What did he have to work with?
As has transpired, it was perfect. There has been an acceptance, finally, that Madrid need new direction; a refresh and a reset. The job became about finding a balance between the remaining pillars of the side like Luka Modric, Karim Benzema and Toni Kroos, and the new breed of Vinicius and Camavinga. Finding balance is the key to Ancelotti’s success; this second spell has turned out brilliantly for the Italian as he roared back against the dissenting discourse that had begun to arise.
Benzema has had the season of his life, finally emerging out of Ronaldo’s shadow; Modric is as classy as ever. But where many expected him to get the most from flop signing Eden Hazard or forgotten man Gareth Bale, he has made Vinicius into one of the most dangerous wide forwards around, while Rodrygo, scorer of two goals against Manchester City this week as they reached the Champions League final against Liverpool, is continuing to forge a name for himself. Where in the past the cache of a name may have dictated Bale and Hazard would get chances at Real to both young Brazilians’ expense, now there is a new sense of possibility, and a new way that Ancelotti has proven himself. Gone are the days where he is under appreciated, as fleeting as they were; he lost the sort of recognition felt by the likes of Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp, but he may end up beating both by the end of the season.
In this, a season of transition and new beginnings, Carlo Ancelotti and Real Madrid are where they always wanted to be: winning. He is now the only manager to win all five top European leagues, and the 14th European Cup is in sight. That, too, would be his fourth. It has been quite a journey back from his first exit, but by the time he makes his next one, his legendary status will be ironclad.