In Carlo Ancelotti, his successor has already been confirmed. We will introduce the Italian in our portrait, work our way through his past, and have a sneak peek at the future.
Ancelotti is a very calm person, without the typical Guardiola emotional outbursts on the side-line; instead, he is said to be fairly calm and pragmatic. While Guardiola often seemed offended and failed to hit the right tone when dealing with the media, the future Bayern coach has rarely – if ever – had moments like that; he is a professional in working with the media. “Carletto”, as he’s sometimes called, doesn’t like being the centre of attention and doesn’t feel the need to put himself into the spotlight. Many of these attributes can be traced back to his career as an active player.
AC Milan’s strategist
Ancelotti was part of a team which, to this day, is heralded as one of the best and most successful of all times: AC Milan, the last club to defend the then European Cup, winning it in 1989 and 1990 under Arrigo Sacchi. Carlo Ancelotti had a very strategic position as a holding midfielder, and even though he played with some all-time greats like Gullit, van Basten, Maldini, or Rijkaard, Ancelotti was not forgotten. On the contrary, he played a pivotal part. Looking back at the team’s structure, there are several obvious parallels to the teams Ancelotti would go on to manage in his career as a coach.
While playing at Milan, Ancelotti was the perfect partner for his counterpart in defensive midfield, Frank Rijkaard. In a flat 4-4-2, they were the link between offense and defence: while Rijkaard was a very defensive holding midfield, though not without the necessary technical skills, Ancelotti was the strategist in Arrigo Sacchi’s formation. Typically, the Italian was placed quite deeply, where he distributed the balls and looked good even under pressure, or in tight spaces, and he was also involved in offensive plays. Sacchi was one of the most important figures in football’s tactical development, and to this day he, like no other, stands for the reduction of space for opposing teams. By constantly, compactly moving the team, the opponent was forced into making mistakes; making space tight around those players close to the ball. Before Sacchi, it was the common thing to focus on each player’s direct opponent; he, however, favoured compactness and his team focused on the ball rather than individual players. He and his team weren’t just ahead of the curve in terms of tactics, they also became role models for the way football was going to be played in the future, and on top of that, one of the most successful teams of all times. Ancelotti himself would remember and apply plenty of ideas from that time later on.
Starting strong, and an era at AC Milan
Ancelotti’s first position as coach was with the Italian national team, where he worked as assistant under his former coach Arrigo Sacchi between 1992 and 1995. At the 1994 World Cup, they reached the final together, but lost to Brazil on penalties. “Carletto” signed his first contract as head coach with AC Reggiana in Serie B in 1995 and led them into Serie A in his first season. After that, he moved on to AC Parma, where he continued his success and managed a surprising second place in the league in 1996/97. His time at Juventus Turin, where he took over from Marcello Lippi in February 1999, wasn’t as successful: although he managed to win the UEFA Intertoto Cup (UI Cup), he failed to win the league title twice and, after failing in the Champions League group stage in 2000/01 (against Hamburg, Panathinaikos, and La Coruña), he was replaced by his predecessor Marcello Lippi.
The biggest and most successful era of Carlo Ancelotti, however, was still to come: on November 7th in 2001, he replaced Fatih Terim as AC Milan’s head coach, and went on to build an era. He had never been known for complete team overhauls at his previous jobs, and he followed this line at Milan as well, trusting the team he had been handed. During the summer transfer periods, the purchases were all aimed at improving single positions, with good examples for this being Kaká, Ronaldo, and Cafu. In the beginning, though, things weren’t going too well for Ancelotti. He continued with Milan’s tactical formation at the time and played a tight 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond, with Pirlo who, at the time, was still positioning himself as a number 10 behind the two strikers. Dortmund fans might still remember the game on 4 April, 2002, when BVB beat Ancelotti’s Milan 4-0 at home, in the low point of a rather average season. Longer spells of possession and successful passing were non-existent, instead they trusted long balls. In the league, he only reached the fourth place in his first season. Despite this, Ancelotti went on to reach the Champions League final three times during his tenure at Milan.
„Carletto“ had to change some things in the 2002/03 season to keep his job. With the transfer of Clarence Seedorf he gained a player who could give his team more offensive momentum. He took over the position on the left in the midfield diamond next to Andrea Pirlo, whom Ancelotti moved deeper to act more as a strategist. These changes led to a more offensive style of play and, with that, much better solutions in midfield and longer periods of ball possession. The team became less dependent of its individual class and gained more control in midfield, while at the same time not forgetting their defence entirely. In the league, they couldn’t get further than third place, but they won both the Champions League and the Coppa Italia. In the Champions League semi-final, they beat Inter Milan and went on to beat Juventus Turin on penalties in the final. It was a very balanced final, which saw Ancelotti give up his diamond midfield in favour of a flat 4-4-2 with Pirlo and Gattuso in defensive midfield. It wasn’t a very pretty game, but a very contested one, with a lucky finish for AC Milan; it also made Ancelotti one of only 6 people who won the Champions League as a player and a coach, like Miguel Munoz, Giovanni Trapattoni, Johan Cruyff, Frank Rijkaard, and Pep Guardiola.
In 2003/04, Kaká joined the Champions League winner. The young Brazilian was supposed to turn into a regular behind Rui Costa, which he achieved much faster than anticipated, leading to his big breakthrough. Ancelotti and his team won not only the European Super Cup that season, but also the Scudetto, the Italian league title, for the first time. There were hardly any new tactical developments during that time, but then again, there was no need for them: Ancelotti’s system worked, and the team was successful. Even then it was becoming clear that he wasn’t going to make any major tactical changes during the course of a season. He was always focused on combining the individual class of his players in a way that put a successful team on the pitch. The very compact, but by all means still offensive AC Milan hardly changed during Ancelotti’s era and when it did, it was only slightly. Pirlo and Kaká were the major players in the centre, with the Italian starting off behind the strikers and later moving to the more strategic position in defensive midfield. At first, Rui Costa moved into the 10 position after Pirlo, later Kaká would have many successful years there. Inzaghi, Gattuso, and Maldini were other big names in the system, and it was this flexibility in midfield, brought on by so many different types of players, that decided many games in Ancelotti’s favour.
He was part of probably the most spectacular Champions League final in history: In 2005, Liverpool and AC Milan were facing off in Istanbul, and the Italians’ first half has to be one of the best football that the 2000-10 decade had to offer. Liverpool was completely overwhelmed and down 3-0 at half-time. Putting two players into both defensive and offensive midfield who could control and steer a game put the English into a difficult situation: they could take out either Kaká or Pirlo, but hardly ever did they manage to eliminate both, due to the special constellation and the players’ individual class. When Pirlo was under attack, other team-members in the half spaces could channel the game towards Kaká, who in turn could use the newly-created space behind the opponent when moving forward. If Liverpool sat back deeper, Pirlo was able to use the empty space around him and become dangerous. The two players were the pivotal element in Ancelotti’s team, and it took Rafa Benítez until half-time to find a solution against them: after the break, he switched to a back three, which created bigger presence in midfield, consequently bringing his team back into the game. Ancelotti didn’t have much to counter this with and waited too long to adjust his own system; by the time he switched to a back three as well, the game was already at 3-3. The team looked shocked and had completely lost their grip on the game, going on to lose it all on penalties. The strongest 45 minutes in Ancelotti’s era ended with absolute horror, and the loss lay heavily on the Italian coach’s shoulders after reacting too late.
After 2005/06 brought no titles at all, both teams faced each other again in the Champions League final in 2007. Ancelotti had gone through against Bayern in the quarter-final with a 2-0 in the second leg, after drawing 2-2 in Milan, followed by a 5-3 on aggregate against Manchester United in the semi-final. And then, the final: revenge against Liverpool. Ancelotti gave up his usual midfield diamond and positioned Kaká even more offensively, to give the Brazilian even more freedom. Pirlo and Ambrosini were the holding midfielders, while Seedorf and Gattuso occupied the wings and half spaces, aiming at countering Liverpool’s massive central presence with Alonso, Gerrard, and Mascherano.
However, the English team seemed to cope well with these tactical changes, and were threatening to decide this game in their favour, too. Liverpool dominated from the get-go and left no doubts about who was the better team, until a lucky goal by Inzaghi just before the half-time whistle changed the course of the game. After going up 1-0, Ancelotti changed his game plan completely and discarded his offensive positioning, choosing to defend the result and focus on counterattacks instead. Liverpool couldn’t create any more good chances, and Inzaghi even scored again to make it 2-0. Kuyt managed to get one back just before the end of the game, but in the end, Ancelotti could celebrate his second triumph as a coach in the Champions League after 2003.
Ever since that success, Ancelotti had ascended to be one of the most successful coaches of our time. He went on to add the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup to his collection before ending his era at AC Milan, which will remain unforgettable. While he didn’t revolutionise football there, he always managed to get the maximum out of his – fairly old – team, and often made the right decision at the right time. His biggest strength was putting the right players into the right positions, giving them the opportunity to make the best of their individual strengths. The young Kaká had his best time under Ancelotti, and he had significant influence on Pirlo’s development; however, he kept using the same players over and over, and through the years missed the chance to rejuvenate the team.