With Real Madrid set to face Athletic Bilbao in the Supercopa de Espana final on Sunday, Oli Coates assesses how Carlo Ancelotti is faring on his return to Spain this season…
With a blur and a flurry at the start of June, Carlo Ancelotti was all of a sudden no longer the man to lead Everton towards a bright new future. Instead of taking charge of the Toffees as the Premier League side build their new stadium, the esteemed Italian coach was on his way back to the revamped Santiago Bernabeu for his second spell as Real Madrid coach.
Zinedine Zidane decided to end his own second spell in charge of Los Blancos at the end of last season, after claiming two La Liga titles and a hat-trick of Champions League crowns during his two stints in charge between January 2016 and May 2021. The French icon also landed two Spanish Super Cups, two UEFA Super Cups and two FIFA Club World Cups as Real coach.
However, Real lost their La Liga title to local rivals Atletico Madrid at the end of the 2020-21 campaign, and were comfortably knocked out of the Champions League by Chelsea at the semi-final stage. This prompted Zidane’s latest departure from the club, with Madrid president Florentino Perez turning to the reliable figure of Ancelotti to replace him.
The team that Ancelotti inherited was a shadow of the one he left in 2015, which the year before had landed La Decima in being crowned European champions for a 10th time. There’s no Cristiano Ronaldo to rely on anymore, while Gareth Bale’s powers have waned almost entirely compared to the player Ancelotti received a couple of months after taking over when Madrid broke the world transfer record to sign the Welshman during the summer of 2013.
Even more worrying was the state of Real’s defence. As well as conceding lots of goals through the early weeks of the season, Madrid were also letting their opponents have far too many chances in their games. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois had to make three times the number of saves as Atletico Madrid counterpart Jan Oblak through the opening eight matches of the campaign. Real conceded three goals away to Levante, two at home to Celta Vigo, and two more in their shock 2-1 defeat at home to Moldovan minnows Sheriff Tiraspol in the Champions League.
Those significant defensive struggles early in the season came in the wake of centre-back duo Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane leaving for Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United respectively during the summer. Add a new coach into the mix following the departure of Zidane, and a side that’s long been known for prioritising attack over defence was always going to struggle at the back.
Luckily for Los Blancos, they’ve been able to bang in the goals all season. They’ve hit the back of the net 45 times in their opening 21 league matches, 12 more than any other team. This has been the basis for Real opening up a five-point lead at the top of the table, as it stands. Only Sevilla are in touch with the capital club though, with Real Betis 15 points behind, defending champions Atletico 16 back and Barcelona trailing by 17 points, even if all those clubs have a game in hand over Madrid.
Veteran striker Karim Benzema has rattled in 17 La Liga goals already and 23 in all competitions, while Brazilian youngster Vinicius Junior is realising his potential after netting 12 times in 20 league appearances, and 15 in 27 overall. Both players were on target in the latest instalment of El Clasico in Wednesday’s Saudi Arabian Supercopa clash, while both netted braces in Madrid’s most recent La Liga fixture, a 4-1 victory over Valencia.
So, what has Ancelotti done to get his team firing going forward to the point where their defensive frailties haven’t prevented them from dominating La Liga and topping their Champions League group ahead of Serie A champions Inter?
The Italian tactician has always been known for putting square pegs in square holes. A significant part of his coaching philosophy revolves around playing his best players in their best positions. A famously good man-manager, Ancelotti has rarely been afraid to pick his best players based on merit, rather than name or reputation.
Indeed, back in October, the 62-year-old responded to a question surrounding the involvement of Eden Hazard, the club’s record signing, by stating: “Hazard’s problem is he has a coach who prefers another player. That can happen in a squad like Real Madrid’s.”
Despite showcasing his man-management skills by acknowledging the Belgian’s talent and leaving the door firmly open for Hazard to work his way back into the side, Ancelotti will only pick his starting XI and bring on substitutes based on performances in both games and training. Yet despite his age and experience, the former Juventus, Milan, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich and Napoli coach has shown that old dogs can learn new tricks.
Ancelotti continues to rely on the tried and trusted midfield trio of Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, and isn’t particularly renowned for his tactical acumen or innovation. Yet he has recognised the need to move with the times. He needs to get bodies forward to support his in-form attacking duo of Benzema and Vinicius, and has developed his style of play to feed his key men up top.
There has been adventure in the way Madrid have attacked, most notably through their use of underlapping full-backs and wingers who drift over to the opposite flank to join the man playing on the other side of the pitch. These tactics have enabled Real to create overloads that have produced numerous goals and chances, including in their 2-0 derby victory over Atletico in December – their 10th straight victory in all competitions at the time.
This feeds in to Ancelotti’s long-time tactical blueprint of prioritising his star men, but shows his ability to adapt to modern trends at a point in time where coaching philosophies, playing styles and patterns of play are a hotter topic than ever. For all that though, adding trophies to the cabinet remains the most important thing in football.
With that in mind, there doesn’t appear to be much standing in the way of Madrid claiming a record-extending 35th La Liga title this season. Rivals Atletico and Barcelona are struggling badly, and Sevilla don’t have anything like the squad depth compared to Real that’s likely to be required to stay in touch over the course of the campaign.
As such, Ancelotti’s return to Madrid will surely be judged an initial success. However, the true measure of success at Real Madrid centres around their European prosperity, and there’s an incredibly tough challenge in the first knockout stage of the 2021-22 Champions League. Ancelotti’s former club PSG await in the round of 16, complete with Madrid’s old foes Lionel Messi and Neymar, not to mention Kylian Mbappe, following the controversial re-draw that saw Real paired with the Ligue 1 giants instead of Portuguese outfit Benfica.
Before that, Ancelotti is focused on landing the first piece of silverware available this season. Real are hot favourites to see off Athletic Bilbao in the Supercopa de Espana final this weekend, with their coach hoping that will be the springboard to further success back in the Spanish capital over the coming months.