Carlo Ancelotti is not *just* vibes but culture eats strategy for breakfast

Ryan Baldi
Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti
Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti

Let’s begin by dispelling a misconception: Carlo Ancelotti is not just a vibes coach.

This season alone, Ancelotti his flexed his tactical prowess to great effect. As his Real Madrid side straddle a transitional phase between Karim Benzema’s departure and the widely expected arrival of Kylian Mbappe this summer, he has devised a system that has led Los Blancos to the brink of a La Liga and Champions League double without the need for a recognised No.9 at the point of attack.

Madrid have often utilised a split-strikers approach, with Vinicius Jr and Rodrygo starting as the nominal forward pairing, but with the Brazilian duo pulling wide to create space for Jude Bellingham to surge from midfield. It’s a masterstroke that has not only seen Bellingham score 23 goals but also, with the way his pace has been unleashed as an off-ball runner in behind opposition defences, Vinicius has been unlocked to produce the best form of his career, with 23 goals of his own.

Ancelotti’s Madrid have displayed several tactical wrinkles associated with the highest planes of modern football thought, such as a 2-3-5 shape in the advanced build-up phase, with full-backs pushing high and wingers tucking inside. Or the deployment of a high backline to compress the pitch and ensure an easier recycling of possession.

The 14-time European champions drew criticism for their perceived negativity in their Champions League quarter-final triumph over Manchester City, but Ancelotti had devised a plan to absorb the Premier League side’s pressure and counter-punch effectively.

He might not be as neurotic a tactics obsessive as some of his peers at the elite end of the game, nor as consumed by the minutiae of counter-pressing and rigidly dictated ‘positionism’ as the generation of managers to come after him, but Ancelotti has tactical chops.

Sometimes, though, the vibes matter most. And he is the king of vibes.

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It’s why Ancelotti has – Everton aside – continually drawn the biggest managerial assignments in European football, from Juventus to Milan to Chelsea to Paris Saint-Germain to Bayern Munich and twice to Madrid. It’s also why he’s won titles in five different countries and is the only manager ever to win the Champions League four times. And it’s why, at age 64 and after more than a quarter of a century spent managing the biggest and best clubs in the game, he is as relevant, respected and successful as ever.

When it comes to the delicate art of managing a squad of players whose vastness of talent is matched only by the enormity of their egos, what Ancelotti brings to the table is far more crucial to succeeding than anything that can be conveyed on a tactics board.

His approach seems simple, yet it is surprisingly rare within the wound-tight world of football management. His success derives from his mastery – his wholly natural embodiment – of basic philosophies of avoiding confrontation, seeking harmony and finding simple solutions to on- and off-field matters that are too often wilfully overcomplicated by others.

With his perma-raised eyebrow and the carefree demeanour of a complaints handler a week from retirement and all out of f*cks left to give, he is effortlessly charismatic and cool, engaging and endearing.

A two-time European Cup winner during a playing career as a classy central midfielder for Roma and Milan, he can empathise with the plight of the ultra-gifted footballer. He also studied under Arrigo Sacchi early in his coaching career and, long before his subsequent success, he took his share of lumps while making his way in management in Serie A in the 1990s, when the Italian top flight was the most star-studded and competitive league in the world, so there is immeasurable ballast behind his wisdom.

From a Milan side replete with Andriy Shevchenko, Kaka, Clarence Seedorf, Paolo Maldini and Andrea Pirlo to the Madrid of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema and on to the current crop of Bellingham, Vinicius and co. – Ancelotti is trusted with such talent time and again because, put simply, he gets the best out of the best.

It was Zinedine Zidane’s greatest gift as a manager, too. He, like Ancelotti, was no tactical luddite. He was smart and adaptable. But it was Zidane’s combination of playing experience, reputational gravitas and unflappability that made him the perfect manager for Madrid in the era of Ronaldo, Modric and Sergio Ramos – all big characters, all thoroughly demanding in their own ways and all immensely successful under the Frenchman’s tailor-made charge.

Ancelotti is a different coach, a different character, to Zidane. He is not as intense and outwardly shows more humour and charisma. But he is no less perfect for Real Madrid, for the goldfish-bowl existence inside the Bernabeu and the unique demands of getting an array of galacticos to coalesce into a coherent constellation. The man quite literally wrote the book on quiet leadership.

Some selected Ancelotti-isms from that tome, creatively titled, you guessed it, Quiet Leadership:

‘My approach is born of the idea that a leader should not need to rant or rave or rule with an iron fist, but rather that their power should be implicit.’

‘People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.’

‘Find a solution, don’t waste time looking for the guilty.’

‘Respect is everything. It is a daily currency that can go up and down in direct relation to your behaviour and choices. Take it seriously.’

‘Aim to inspire greater performance in the moment and focus on showing that you really care about them as people and their professional growth.’

‘My opinion is that players do their best when they are comfortable, not when they are uncomfortable’

‘The only thing that makes me angry is when the attitude of the team is not right. Not the performance – the attitude.’

Ancelotti has punched his weight tactically this season in vanquishing Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel in the Champions League and finishing streets ahead of Xavi and Diego Simeone in La Liga. And he’ll be wanted by the biggest clubs in Europe for as long as he wants to be wanted, because his knack for getting big-name players to pull together, sacrifice and get along is second to none.

One last pearl of wisdom from the Sun Tzu of fostering footballing harmony:

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Ancelotti has been dining out on immaculate vibes for three decades.