With a red card to Arturo Vidal and two questionable goals from Cristiano Ronaldo, one could lay out a top five list of the most decisive decisions that went against Bayern Munich in their quarterfinals tie against Real Madrid. Post-match rants on Instagram can only be so cathartic to the reality of being knocked out of the Champions League in the quarterfinals. The usually stoic Carlo Ancelotti called for video technology replay after the loss, and he finds himself in the existential purgatory of leading a big club: Bayern Munich will most likely win the Bundesliga and are in the semis of the German Cup, as is the bare minimum expectations. But Ancelotti will not overachieve this season.
This is the first time since lifting the trophy in 2012 that Bayern Munich failed to reach the semifinals of the Champions League, and there is always extra emphasis placed on the competition after having dominated domestically in recent years. The 57-year-old Ancelotti has experience in the former department, winning two Champions League titles at Milan and bringing Real Madrid their 10th trophy in 2014. Ancelotti’s present day role is turning big clubs with big ambitions into European champions, which makes judging his year to year success relatively straightforward.
Yet there is more under the surface. Bayern find themselves in a transition period following the loss. Captain Philipp Lahm announced his retirement at the end of the season, as did Xabi Alonso. Franck Ribery is 34 years old; Arjen Robben is 33. If Ancelotti’s original responsibility was to see out the veteran voices’ final seasons with trophies, the equation may change as soon as next season. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge suggested a squad overhaul taking place “little by little”. A combination of Joshua Kimmich, Rafinha, and Thiago will take over Lahm and Alonso’s role next season with Kimmich especially emerging as a player the club can count on for the next decade. But 19-year-old Renato Sanches and 20-year-old Kingsley Coman have each struggled to showcase their dynamism.
Questionable refereeing decisions aside, the midfield is the simplest place to start in analyzing their quarterfinals loss. Arturo Vidal’s connective energy threw off a carefully balanced side, which the physical toll of playing a man down in extra time only deepened. Couple that with the mental x-factor of Zinedine Zidane’s side, and there was only one realistic result. Perhaps it was unfair to Alonso and Lahm to leave Europe in this manner, but winning matches with late goals fits overarching narrative of Real Madrid’s season.
In Carlo Ancelotti’s autobiography Quiet Leadership, he emphasizes the understanding one must have in managing a big club. There’s the honeymoon phase, when the staff, players, and owner are friendly and on the same page. This happiness lasts until the first bad loss: at Chelsea, it was a 4-2 home defeat to Manchester City that led Abramovich to call him into a 9 a.m. meeting the next day to explain the performance. At PSG, it was an ultimatum from sporting director and former friend Leonardo to beat Porto in a Champions League match or be fired. Those events lead to a loss of trust and a point of no return, and the one inevitable conclusion of being abruptly fired. Ancelotti calls this the “familiar arc.”
Zlatan Ibrahimovic acknowledged in the book that Ancelotti’s personality was perfect for the post-Mourinho era Madrid, that there needed to be “calm after the fighting.” There are similarities with Ancelotti taking over Bayern Munich from Pep Guardiola’s controlling vision as the two are polar opposites in personality and purpose. Ancelotti emphasized that he wanted to continue Guardiola’s work but with a little more verticality to their play, then returned the focus to his players in commenting on how he speaks different languages to accommodate the international locker room. Whereas Guardiola was obsessive about position and shape, Ancelotti’s greatest gift may be in cultivating the instincts of his most creative players. That freedom could devolve into chaos. But the rewards are in turning Thiago’s movement and vision into the most watchable center midfielder in Europe.
On the surface, Ancelotti may appear as a managerial mercenary: two seasons at Chelsea, two seasons at PSG, two seasons at Real Madrid, and now signed for three seasons at Bayern Munich. Yet this rapid movement between big clubs also demonstrates an understanding of a manager’s career in an age of soccer clubs as international brands. For the Italian, managing isn’t about shaping a club forever, but about the respect and relationship formed between player and manager. And when a large club inevitably struggles or fails to win every trophy imaginable (or in Real Madrid’s case, even when winning every important trophy), the manager is the first to go.
While we discussed Max Allegri’s devotion to a three player midfield, Ancelotti displays the same nose for tactical balance. His Champions League winning sides featured Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso, Massimo Ambrosini and Clarence Seedorf at Milan, and Luka Modric, Sami Khedira, and Angel Di Maria at Madrid (Khedira role as the x-factor in both Ancelotti and Allegri’s system stakes his claim as one of the most underappreciated players of this generation). The 4-3-2-1 “Christmas Tree” formation at Milan eschewed width for creativity down the middle. He switched between a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1 in his 2009 season at Chelsea, freeing Frank Lampard to score 22 goals in league play. The 4-3-3 formation is used primarily for possession, but no manager used it more effectively as a counter attacking shape over this past decade than Ancelotti did with Real Madrid in 2014. If we were to distill his vast career into stylistic characteristics, it would be this: a midfield balanced between control and running, and pace in attack. And of course, his communication with players.
Ancelotti said his final role would be as Italy manager, although not for at least another decade. He does have two more seasons left on his contract with the German side that won their last Champions League in 2013. That side, like this current side, was led by Robben, Ribery, Muller, Lahm, and Neuer, which illustrates the larger picture and Ancelotti’s challenge of leading the Bayern Munich to their next title. After Guardiola’s revolution came Ancelotti’s calm. What comes after Ancelotti can be shaped along by how the Italian manager turns over an aging German side that hasn’t faced this type of challenge in almost a decade.