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Carlo Ancelotti Still Has It

It’s January and the Italian coach of a German team stocked with players from nine different countries is sitting on the terrace of a Swiss hotel in Qatar talking about his past clubs in France, Spain and England, as well as more esoteric stuff, like the Japanese restaurant he’s taking the staff to that evening, how to cook Pacific salmon and the bears he met in Canada.

Globalization, eh?

These particular bears — Coola and Grinder — weigh nearly a ton between them and live in Grouse Mountain, near Vancouver, where Carlo Ancelotti spent much of the 2015-16 season.

“They go to sleep in late autumn in a special hibernation den and they don’t wake up until the spring,” Ancelotti says. “Their metabolism slows down, their daily patterns change and they just fall asleep! And when they wake again, it’s front page news in the local papers!” he says, eyes wide, with the excitement of a little boy dying to tell you about something really cool he learned in school that day.

It almost reminds you of Tony Soprano feeding the ducks.

That sense of wonder is alive and well in Ancelotti, even after nearly 1500 games as a player and manager. It would resurface several times during a long conversation in Doha, where Bayern are holding their winter training camp.

Sometimes, he lights up when talking about great players he’s worked with or seen, sometimes about places he’s visited, people he’s met. And, on one occasion, when members of Bayern’s 60-strong expedition (including chefs, assistants and security) wander by in team kit, the wonder materializes, only to turn melancholy.

“They’re getting ready for the staff game this afternoon,” he says. “I want to play so badly. But I can’t. My knees are shot. Totally destroyed.”

It’s maybe the only time in several hours of conversation that Ancelotti turns gloomy.

He replaced perhaps the most coveted manager in world football when he agreed to take over Bayern Munich, a guy who won the domestic Double twice in three seasons.

But Pep Guardiola is more than that. He’s in that very narrow group of managers who haven’t just delivered results, but have also been credited with changing the game and how we think about it. A bit like Ancelotti’s footballing mentor, Arrigo Sacchi, 30 years ago.

“I think it’s actually more difficult to come to a club where everything is going great and everyone is happy,” Ancelotti says. “When you take over from a guy who has been sacked because things weren’t going well, it’s more straight-forward. Everyone, from the players to the club officials expects change. And it’s vital for you to go and make sweeping changed. Plus, people will be patient, because rebuilding takes time.

“So it’s not just about Pep being a hard act to follow,” he adds. “It’s about knowing what to change and tweak. It’s a question of details. And realising that you don’t necessarily change things because you think they’re wrong or because you think they can be improved. But rather changing details to fit into the way you work. It’s not easy, because this team had such a clear identity under Pep.”

Even for a guy like Ancelotti, schooled in Sacchi’s pressing game but also the architect of a Champions League-winning Milan side featuring Andrea Pirlo, Rui Costa and Clarence Seedorf (and thus not averse to the possession game), identifying and executing the changes hasn’t been an overnight job.

It’s like a world champion race car driver whose team have put together the near-perfect car. When it comes time to replace him, you need to figure out what alterations to make to suit the new driver in terms of style, size and preferences, but without slowing the car down too much.

“The main change is we press a bit more intermittently and we try to play more directly, more vertically,” Ancelotti says. “It’s taking a while, but I’m encouraged by the players’ reactions too. I think it’s motivating them, the challenge of winning in a new way, learning a new approach. They’ve taken to it well.”

Sacchi drilled Ancelotti in the ways of the pressing game and he won two European Cups that way, but it must feel strange to see so many sides, especially in Germany, pressing with such intensity, much like Bayern did under Guardiola last year.

“Look, it’s a formidable defensive system, but it’s not something you can do for 90 minutes I think,” he says. “I think it’s only worth doing when you’re in the right position to do it, otherwise you’ll be open at the back and your defenders will be out of position. And, in fact, today it’s much harder to do than in the past, because of the way the offside rule has changed. You can’t rely on the offside trap as you did before.”

In some ways, Guardiola is facing similar challenges at Manchester City. In 22 Premier League games he has already suffered five defeats, as many as he endured in his first 66 matches at Bayern.

“But he has different players now and people sometimes underestimates what this means,” Ancelotti says. “Whatever problems he may have I think stem from the adjustment of working with guys he has never worked with before, getting them to come around to his way of thinking and getting to the point where they really get the full benefit of his approach. That takes time.

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“I think that’s much more of an issue than him having to adapt to the Premier League,” he adds. “To get the benefit of Guardiola players have to adapt to him. It’s the same for me here at Bayern. The players have to get used to me and it has cost us at times. When I think back to some of the goals we’ve given up on the break… why, it’s enough to drive you insane.”

So much for the conceit that English football is some kind of different animal that requires a long period of adjustment. Ancelotti doesn’t buy this. Numbers back him up. Of the six foreign managers who have won the Premier League, four — including Ancelotti — did so in their first full season in charge.

The manager at the top of the Premier League now, Antonio Conte, is also a debutant. Some managers, of course, are easier to adapt to than others. But, always, it’s about the players getting used to the new boss, not the other way around.

That said, when you think back to what Guardiola said after City’s December defeat at Leicester — “The main thing in English football is controlling the second ball. Without that you cannot survive.” — you wonder if it’s quite that simple. Second balls become crucially important when a team decides to press, particularly when they do it as much as Guardiola’s sides.

“The formula to beat the press is simple, it’s the execution that’s tough,” Ancelotti explains. “If you have the quality to do so, you pass your way through it. And if you don’t, you just boot it over the top. And then it becomes a game of winning ‘second balls’. English clubs pretty much wrote the book on this, having the mentality and the ability to go and win those second balls.”

Guardiola made headlines recently when he said that he got more satisfaction from performance than results.

“The result is an empty thing; the result is [that] I’m happy for the next two days and I get less criticism and more time to improve my team,” he told NBC Sports. “But what satisfies me the most in my job is to feel emotions, the way we play… the process is the reason.”

It’s quite a statement and one that that leaves no doubt where he stands on the spectrum of managers who value outcomes versus how they’re achieved. Ancelotti agrees.

“Sure he’s right,” he says. “And I’ll go further. The only thing a manager can’t control is the result. Seriously, when it comes to our clubs, when you reach a certain level, we have almost total control. But this is an unpredictable sport; it’s a low-scoring sport where individual episodes have an outsized influence. And a manager can’t really control that. There are good managers and there bad ones, sure, but nobody can control outcomes. All you can do is give yourself a better chance to succeed and you do it by working well and performing well. Of course, good performances are correlated with good results, but only in the long term, not in a month of games and sometimes not in a whole season.”

Ancelotti knows all about this. He lost a league title at Juventus when his side were defeated by a team with nothing to play for in a downpour on the last day of the season. He lost another the following season when Edwin Van der Sar fumbled Hidetoshi Nakata’s shot in injury time, allowing Roma to grab a late equalizer.

And then, of course, there was Milan’s 2005 defeat to Liverpool in Istanbul. He wrote in his biography that, of the four Champions League finals in which he was been involved, this was his team’s best performance by far. And it ended in heartbreak after one of the most incredible comebacks in history.

It works the other way around as well. If Sergio Ramos jumps a split-second earlier or later or half an inch to either side, then there is no Decima for Real Madrid in 2013-14. And if the linesman’s flag doesn’t stay down at Manchester United in 2009-10, Ancelotti doesn’t win the Premier League at Chelsea.

“That’s the irony though isn’t it?” he says. “You as a manager are judged on results and not on the work you do and the performance of the team. Imagine paying a guy a huge amount of money and then judging him not on the things he can control, but on those he can’t.”

Ancelotti is very clear on the fact that managers earn their pay on the training pitch and that, once the players are out there, it’s out of your hands. You’re reminded of the archer in “On Children,” a poem by Khalil Gibran: You can aim the most stable of bows, but once you let go, it’s out of your hands.

“The fact is on match days there’s very little a manager can do,” Ancelotti says. “You do your work during the week. Even before a game, there’s only so much you can add that you haven’t already said. As for reading the game and adjusting… I don’t know. First of all, you don’t see the game well from the dugout. When I watch our games back, I spot plenty of things I missed the first time around because I have a different vantage point. And anyway, most of the changes a manager will make are common sense, playing the percentages. Or things that you had already planned ahead for, based on game situations.”

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Where a manager can make a difference is in preparing a team, man-managing a squad and giving them a tactical and footballing identity. The Bayern Ancelotti inherited was based on Guardiola’s precepts, which generally involved tactical organisation and positioning in defence and midfield and greater freedom in the final third, as explained by Thierry Henry, who played for Guardiola in Barcelona.

“There’s no question Guardiola gives a lot of freedom to his players in the final third,” Ancelotti says. And it’s something I’ve tried to maintain. Where I’m a bit different maybe is when not in possession and in the buildup.”

It’s a slightly different vision from that of his compatriot, Conte. The Chelsea boss once said that, speaking from his own experience as a hard-tackling midfielder, tactical systems help less gifted players because they don’t have to think as much, they know where their teammates are going to be and thus they don’t have to think as much. Instead, they can devote time and mental energy to controlling and passing the ball.

“I think it’s true, but applies in defence and midfield,” Ancelotti says. “Those are areas where you can be schematic and rely on tactics and repetition because you usually have a numbers advantage in those parts of the pitch. So if you’re organised even an ordinary player can do very well because he’ll have options and he’ll know where they are and how to find them. But when you get to the final third, everything changes. That’s where you need creativity and freedom because without it you only have sterile possession. Especially if your opponent’s defence is organised and has been paying attention.”

In the final third, unshackled talent begets unpredictability. And that trumps scheme. It’s the advice Ancelotti would give his younger self, if he could.

“I think I’m far more pragmatic and flexible today than I was in the past,” he says. “Before I was fixated on a certain philosophy, I was very influenced by Sacchi and I thought his version of 4-4-2 was the winning formula. When I was at Parma, the club reached a deal to sign Roberto Baggio. I vetoed it, because he didn’t fit my system. Today, I realize there is no such thing as a winning formula. There are many. Today, if the club bought me a Roberto Baggio, trust me, I’d find room for him in my starting XI.”

Indeed, Baggio went on to score 23 goals in that 1997-98 season for Bologna, while Ancelotti was sacked at the end of the year. He had said “no” because Baggio wanted to play in the hole and be guaranteed a starting spot. Ancelotti was a quick study. In his next job, at Juventus, he ran into Zinedine Zidane, who also wanted to play in the hole and for whom benching was out of the question. And so the manager made it work.

However a manager chooses to work, one quality makes things a whole lot easier: getting respect. And you get it whichever way you can. Sir Alex Ferguson used to say that it was important for the manager to be the highest-paid employee at a club because it showed the ownership valued him.

“I don’t think it’s conceivable today that a manager would earn more than the players,” Ancelotti says. “And maybe it’s right that way. The fact of the matter is the players are more important than the manager. People don’t come to watch Bayern because of me, they come to see [Robert] Lewandowski or [Arturo] Vidal or simply because they are fans and this is their club.”

We have the perception that, because most players at top clubs are all millionaires many times over, they don’t really care about wages, except for those who we describe as greedy. But that’s not the case.

“Of course most players pay attention to how much they earn and how much teammates earn,” Ancelotti says. “For many, it’s a way of keeping score. It’s not a coincidence that clubs are very careful about this, they go out of their way to avoid discrepancies or imbalances. Sometimes it’s easy, you expect [Cristiano] Ronaldo or [Lionel] Messi to earn more than the others because the others aren’t Ronaldo or Messi. The question is when you go beyond that. How do you keep the balance?”

Today’s footballers operate in an unusual sphere. One contract means you’re set for life, many times over. And yet there is still enough pride and professionalism that they don’t mail it in. They’ve been bred to compete.

“[Motivating] players has never really been a problem for me, especially at the type of clubs I’ve been at,” Ancelotti says. “There’s a hunger and a desire in guys like Xabi Alonso and Pepe, to name but two, that means they are never satisfied, they never settle, they always want more.

“And obviously Ronaldo is the ultimate example of this,” he adds. “His belly is never full. People had told he was like this before I went to Real Madrid. But until you actually work with him every day, you don’t realize to what degree he takes it. He is hugely professional and he works as hard as anybody out there. From recovery to diet, he takes care of every detail, ensuring everything is optimal. When I compare it to my playing days, there is no comparison; players today are far more professional across the board. But Ronaldo takes it to another level.”

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Moving to Bayern has meant discovering a whole new set of players since, other than Xabi Alonso, Ancelotti had never coached any of his current squad. Hearing him talk about his footballers — eyes widening enthusiastically — reminds you of the kid who’s still raving about his Christmas present in late January, mainly because he’s discovering new ways to play with his toys.

“For me [David Alaba] is an exceptional central defender,” he says. “Though he doesn’t play there much, he has all the qualities to do it. He excels at both passive defending, where the defence holds its position and makes the opponent play around them. And he can do active defending, where you advance, retreat and adjust based on the situation. Most players are better one way or another. Not him. He’s equally excellent.”

Then there’s Philipp Lahm, 33 years old and having played nearly 750 competitive games for club and country. Some wonder whether Bayern ought to be planning for life without him, not least because he has been coy about his future.

“Lahm is not on the decline,” Ancelotti says, his voice rising ever so slightly. “Absolutely not. I think what happens when players get older is the sheer number of games they have to play can create problems in terms of consistency. And so maybe instead of quantity you emphasise quality. Maybe he only plays in certain games, the bigger ones, where he can be a difference maker. Or maybe in certain games he plays midfield rather than out wide, in a role that requires a different kind of stamina and athleticism. But I have no doubt that he can keep playing at a very high level for a long time.”

Ancelotti has probably played with and coached more than 1000 players in his career and, after 40 years in the game, you don’t expect surprises, players unlike any other. But then he met Thomas Muller.

“He’s atypical because he’s a great forward with a totally unorthodox skill set,” Ancelotti says. “We expect great forwards to be outstanding in terms of athleticism, technique or creativity. Those aren’t his strengths, instead his strength is tactical. He reads the game; he has an ability to fill the right space at the right time. You don’t associate that kind of tactical intelligence and awareness with attacking players, certainly not at this level. Sometimes you’ll see it in defenders and midfielders. But for an attacking player it’s hugely rare.

“When a coach notices a youngster with that tactical intelligence he generally moves him into the back line or midfield, because that’s where tactical understanding matters more,” he adds. “With Muller I guess that never happened. He played up front and he stayed up front.”

And that unlocks a world of untapped potential. It’s a question of how to best use him.

“I know it’s a cliche, but he really can play anywhere,” Ancelotti says. “Mueller will just do it in his own way and reinvent the position. It’s funny, they criticised me in Germany because I played him out wide. The media said, ‘Oh, but he’s not a winger!'”

“Gee, really? I’m not stupid. I can see that he’s not going to play wide in the way that Arjen Robben or Douglas Costa play wide. And I’m not going to ask him to try to imitate Robben or Costa. What he can do is use his intelligence to find the right positions on the pitch at the right time, starting from out wide. And that creates mismatches and helps the team.”

It’s obvious Ancelotti has a soft spot for Muller who, after a poor Euro 2016, has made a lacklustre start to the 2016-17 campaign with just four goals in all competitions so far; at this stage last year he had 21. But his manager is not concerned.

“I have no concerns whatsoever,” Ancelotti says. “Mentally, he’s very strong. He’s a winner, he never gets depressed, he’s hugely positive and confident in what he does. And he can laugh at himself too.”

Muller is just one of the men, who will help determine whether Ancelotti succeeds at Bayern. Guardiola’s domestic record of three Bundesliga titles in as many years cannot be bettered, only matched. The elephant in the room, though, is the Champions League, just as it was in Madrid.

No manager has won it more often and yet, if you paid attention earlier in this piece, you’ll know that he’s the first to recognize that no manager — even if he delivers in terms of performance — can guarantee results. Especially in a knockout competition.

What you can be pretty sure of is that Ancelotti will have fun trying. For few are so blessed that they can derive similar joy from their day job as they do from simple things. Like checking up on Coola and Grinder via webcam.


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