So Carlo Ancelotti is gone then. After two seasons in charge of Real Madrid, the Italian supercoach has been relieved of his duties at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu. On Monday evening, Florentino Perez announced that, despite securing Madrid’s coveted tenth European Cup last season, and setting the European record with 22 consecutive victories this season, Carlo’s time at Real Madrid was up. The immediate reaction amongst Madrid’s press and fans was a mix of disappointment and bafflement: the season before, Ancelotti had been poached from PSG – for a rather large buyout fee – with very explicit instructions from Perez: stabilize the fractured dressing room following Jose Mourinho’s third, highly confrontational and fratricidal season in charge of the Spanish club, and do so whilst playing a more attractive brand of football than Mourinho’s reactive, counterattacking-based style.
On the basis of evidence since 2013, Ancelotti seems to have passed that particular test with flying colours: unlike Mourinho, whose siege mentality of “you are either with me or against me” was immensely unpopular with Madrid’s hierarchy, players, media, and fans, Ancelotti is generally beloved by all of his players not named Sami Khedira. He also managed to take the attacker-laden, ludicrously unbalanced squad of players bestowed upon him by Perez’s Galacticos Mk. II transfer policy and fashion it into a slick, winning machine. He succeeded where so many had failed before in securing Real Madrid’s coveted tenth European Cup, won the Spanish Cup against Barcelona last season, and broke the European record with a 22-match unbeaten run in which his squad resembled a biblical plague more than a football team. Certainly, the end to this season has been disappointing: beaten in the Copa del Rey by Atletico Madrid, beaten to La Liga by Barcelona (with some frankly embarrassing results along the way), and knocked out of the Champions League Semifinals by one of their own academy graduates deemed surplus to requirements at the start of this season. But Ancelotti remained popular with his players and, judging from Twitter, his fans.
The decision is even more baffling when you consider the alternatives: sure, if there is a better manager available after a disappointing season, you jump at the opportunity. But there aren’t. By all accounts, Ancelotti will be succeeded by either Rafael Benitez (currently at Napoli) or club legend Zinedine Zidane (currently coaching the B team). Benitez is a very good manager – the last pre-Simeone coach to consistently challenge the Real-Barca duopoly, a capable tactician, and an astute manager of deep runs in multiple competitions – but he is not as good as Carlo Ancelotti. Zidane is a cult figure at the Bernabeu, yet his managerial skills at the highest level remain to be seen. The only other qualified managers are either former Real Madrid managers who Perez has previously fired, or ruled out by other factors: Jurgen Klopp is seen as too radical in his philosophy and too willing to sacrifice superstars for functional players; Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique are universally hated by Real Madrid fans; Jupp Heynckes is retired; Samuel
Allardyce Allardici is too good even for the Madrid job. When questioned by reporters as to why, with no superior alternatives available, Ancelotti was being fired, Perez responded “I don’t know” and then muttered something about the demands on coaches at Real Madrid.
So the decision to fire him makes no sense. And yet it does.
Pundits and commentators have speculated that Ancelotti’s dismissal was inevitable since February, with the rumblings beginning shortly after Real were demolished 4-0 in the Madrid Derby. Since then, this Real team have looked increasingly disjointed and exhausted, no moreso than in the second leg of their Champions League semifinal against Juventus: Toni Kroos looked absolutely gassed, while Luka Modric – probably the most crucial piece of Madrid’s midfield – has been repeatedly injured since December. There have been questions about Ancelotti’s fitness team, with rumours in MARCA and AS that Perez had demanded that a younger, more modern injury and physiotherapy crew be hired. Ancelotti’s decision to opt against squad rotation earlier in the season, part of the reason for their 22-match winning streak, has come under intense criticism as fatigue has set in; contrasted with the relative freshness, hunger, and energy of a rotated and rested Barcelona squad, this criticism has only escalated. In this regard, Ancelotti does deserve some of the criticism leveled against him: Sami Khedira has complained of being frozen out of the squad – despite being relatively fit – while Asier Illaramendi and Jese Rodriguez have struggled to get game time even when Kroos, Ronaldo, Bale, and Benzema have been either injured or exhausted.
Perez has fired coaches for far less: Manuel Pellegrini took Madrid to a record points total in 2009-10, yet was fired because he failed to beat the best Barcelona team in history. Vicente Del Bosque won two leagues and two Champions Leagues in four seasons, yet was dismissed in 2003 because he only won La Liga, reached the Champions League semifinals and lost to Pavel Nedved transforming into Godzilla for ninety minutes. Ancelotti was the ninth coach in Perez’s twelve years at the helm of Real Madrid, and the President has also burned through a half-dozen Sporting Directors and nearly $2 billion in transfer spending. So rather than being surprising, the decision to fire Ancelotti is entirely in keeping with the last decade of Madridian policy.
Moreover, when one starts to look more closely at the Real Madrid squad, the blame for Ancelotti quickly starts to move up the Madrid hierarchy towards Perez himself: Angel Di Maria and Xabi Alonso, two crucial pieces of Madrid’s midfield last season, were sold late in the transfer window. Both would have been vita in the homestretch this season: Xabi Alonso acts as a DM/point guard who is equally adept at attack and defense, while I pointed out last August that replacing Di Maria with James Rodriguez was the equivalent of selling your Ferrari’s engine in order to buy flashier rims. Alvaro Morata, their only source of depth in the forward line, was sold to Juventus in August, and duly rewarded his former employers by eliminating them from the Champions League. If Ancelotti played Toni Kroos and Luka Modric too much in the fall, it was largely out of necessity; Illaramendi wasn’t good enough, and the spine of his team was sold out from under him.
In February, Ancelotti insisted that, so long as they were fit, all three of Bale, Benzema, and Ronaldo would start. As Sid Lowe has pointed out on approximately 7,000 separate occasions, this routinely played havoc with Real’s balance and defense, yet it was stuck with nonetheless. The strong suspicion is that this was an edit from Perez: the President of Los Galacticos did not spend $1.5 billion in transfer fees on shirt-selling superstars only to have them sit on the bench. This, once again, bears echoes to the collapse of Perez’s first reign as Real Madrid president. In December 2004, then-coach Mariano Garcia Remon was asked who he thought he was to leave (Brazilian) Ronaldo on the bench in a match against Sevilla. He responded “I am the coach.” A week later, he was the ex-coach.
Rather than being baffling, everything about Perez’s decision echoes of the collapse of his first attempt at Los Galacticos: an avuncular, well-liked manager of a superstar-laden team is sacked with no semblance of continuity or succession plan; vital players are sold off and not adequately replaced; superstars are overplayed at the expense of on-pitch formation balance or off-pitch fitness; a President with a twitchy trigger-finger – one that rivals Roman Abramovich or Maurizio Zamparini in its willingness to fire coaches – becomes increasingly resolute in his belief in his own vision and superiority. The last time, Real Madrid went trophyless for three seasons, and Perez’s reign eventually collapsed as the press, players, and fans increasingly turned on him. If the last half-season is anything to go by, we may be seeing that cycle repeat itself.