History tells us that it’s the way Real Madrid works with managers. Italian manager Carlo Ancelotti is at the helm of the world’s richest club and is currently subjected to rumours about his sacking. Miran Saric explores if there is any substance that causes these rumours to pop up.
To say that serving as the manager of Real Madrid is akin to working in a pressure cooker is an insult to pressure cookers all around the world. It’s not enough to win, but one must win big and in style at a consistency that might not be demanded at any other club in the world. Of course, having a roster of stars and a seemingly open checkbook helps, but recent history has shown us that past successes are quickly forgotten if recent results aren’t up to par.
On March 12, club president Florentino Perez, no stranger to drama and managerial turnover, took to the podium to face reporters from around the world and defend Carlo Ancelotti after local press ran stories that Perez has given Ancelotti an ultimatum: win El Clasico at all costs and salvage the season or start looking for a new job. Usually press conferences like these, ones in which a manager or player is defended, is a clear sign that someone’s head will roll but is there actual, legitimate reason for Carlo Ancelotti to worry? Is this club truly ready to let go of someone who took it back to the top of the world summit in his first season at the helm?
Despite four trophies and 78 victories in his first 100 games, including title-winning victories over Barcelona and Atletico de Madrid and overcoming Madrid’s German curse, Ancelotti’s job is all but secure. However, there is no logical reason it should be. Last season, he had to navigate a midfield which was without the services of Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira for the better part of the first half of the season while integrating several new faces. He turned Angel di Maria from an inconsistent winger to a central midfield dynamo while developing Isco into arguably one of the two or three finest young midfielders in the game. He molded the team into an impressive defensive unit when Cristiano Ronaldo went down with injury as the formation shifted from a gung-ho offensive juggernaut into a more balanced 4-4-2 machine.
This season he guided a side with no starting defensive midfielder (Asier Illarramendi remains glued to the bench) to 22 straight victories following a loss to Atleti in September. He lost both of his starting centerbacks, arguably the best central midfielder in Luka Modric and one of the best attacking midfielders in James Rodriguez to injury while only having two reliable fullbacks. Additionally, he’s had to conform to pressure, explicit or not, to start club captain Iker Casillas even when his form has drastically dropped from glorious days past. Yes, the club has struggled as of late but they are still fully in contention to win the league and, despite a glaring hiccup against Schalke, are in the quarterfinals of the Champions League with players returning from injury. Aside from Bayern Munich, no top-tier club has faced such an injury crisis and yet he’s still kept them in the running for domestic and European glory.
Perhaps Ancelotti’s biggest saving grace is that despite turmoil on the pitch and shaky results, there have been zero reports of locker room dissention and quite the opposite is taking place, players are coming out in full support of someone widely considered the finest man manager in the game. This is in stark contrast to the man he took over from, Jose Mourinho, who, despite his brilliance as a football manager, often butted heads with the ever-present press and club officials. Not so with Ancelotti, whose genial disposition and constant reassurance that everything will be alright serves as a breath of fresh air to such a hectic organization. Perhaps this is best exemplified by something Pepe, a man who served as Mourinho’s bulldog but is now one of the cleanest defenders in the league, said recently when questioned about Ancelotti’s future and toughness.
“I think there is very little doubt that Ancelotti should stay in Real Madrid,” Pepe said. “He has brought a lot of joy to Real Madrid in a very short period of time, and we must believe he will continue to do so. I don’t miss Mourinho, I can assure you Ancelotti is not soft. He has an impressive CV and he demands a lot. We work with more intensity with Ancelotti than we did with Mourinho.”
Of course, that’s not to say that Ancelotti should be free of criticism. His Madrid side held a seemingly airtight lead in the league last season only to be lapped by both rivals in Barcelona and Atletico de Madrid on the way to a third place finish. His tactics, while sublime in the obliteration of Bayern Munich in the Champions League semifinal, came under fire as it was individual brilliance from Gareth Bale and Sergio Ramos which won Madrid its two titles. This season, the critical voices have grown louder and larger in number as Ancelotti has flat-out refused to rotate his starting 11 on any kind of regular basis while adhering to his 4-3-3 in attack, 4-4-2 on defense without much tactical flexibility. A four point lead over Barcelona in the league is now a one point deficit with a Clasico on the road coming up and the defense was exposed like a raw wound against Schalke. Perhaps the long-term prognosis isn’t as bad as it seems, but at the moment the critics are well armed to take shots at the man in charge.
So maybe Ancelotti will be fired at the conclusion of the season despite a trophy in his hands. It’s no secret that club legend Zinedine Zidane is being groomed to take over the first team someday, but is that takeover poised to be next season? Zidane has less than one year of managerial experience and that’s running the Castilla side, a side which was relegated last season and really shouldn’t be playing in a division below its talent level. He’s been credited with getting the most out of certain senior players such as Karim Benzema but one year of managing the youth team is simply not enough. Jurgen Klopp has been mentioned as well but he seems content at Dortmund and has expressed interest in managing in England, not Spain. Jose Mourinho isn’t coming back nor is Pep Guardiola going to be considered so that severely limits Madrid’s options. This is a club chasing glory at all costs so secondary managers such as Unai Emery and Nuno Espírito Santo aren’t likely to be picked either. That leaves and incredibly thin pool of potential successors for a man who brought this club what it craved most and what it wasn’t able to accomplish under such names as Manuel Pellegrini and Mourinho: the coveted 10th European championship. If that isn’t enough to buy Ancelotti one more year of management, nothing is and all potential replacements should be wary of taking this glamorous, yet highly volatile, position.
Written by Miran Saric