Carlo Ancelotti deserved his cigar. He had just won the Spanish league title and became the first man to win championships in what is widely regarded as Europe’s top five leagues. If his Real Madrid can overcome a 4-3 first leg deficit at home to Manchester City on Wednesday and then beat Liverpool in Paris later this month, he will become the first manager to win four Champions League titles. These are remarkable achievements, and yet one gets the feeling that Ancelotti is seen less as an elite manager and more as a manager of elite players.

It’s partly a matter of style. Ancelotti is not an ideologue. It is very difficult to say what an Ancelotti team looks like. He never took over a club and turned it into an avatar of his vision of football like, say, Pep Guardiola or Jürgen Klopp. He impressed at Parma, and his time at Everton looks rather better in retrospect than it did then, but what he’s good at is taking over a big club and bring players to their best form.

That gamers tend to like it is beyond doubt. This photo of him with the cigar is from Vinicius Junior’s Twitter account and was captioned “The BOSS”.

Sure, it may be true that, as Steve Archibald once observed, team spirit is a pipe dream glimpsed at the moment of victory, but everything about this photo suggests players who genuinely love their manager. . And why wouldn’t you? Ancelotti is affable and fun, rarely loses his temper and, when he does, has a habit of apologizing afterwards. Journalists love him too, as do club managers. Ancelotti worked relatively smoothly with owners as difficult or unstable as Silvio Berlusconi, Roman Abramovich and Nasser Al-Khelaifi before joining Florentino Pérez at real Madrid.

But there are times when he’s been accused of being too nice. When Bayern Munich sacked Ancelotti in September after winning the league, it was because he felt there had been a major drop in intensity compared to his predecessor, Guardiola. In its first season, this was seen as a welcome respite; from the second, some players had begun to feel that they were retreating, both physically and tactically. He is also one of only three managers to have been in charge at the end of a season in which Paris Saint-Germain have failed to win the league since taking over Qatar in 2011 (although , like Mauricio Pochettino, he took over halfway through). season; the other example came under another Champions League semi-finalist this season, Unai Emery, who oversaw the entire 16-17 second-place campaign).

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It’s also no secret that Ancelotti was essentially an emergency pick for Madrid last summer. Zinedine Zidane had quit, and with the club in transition amid the chaos of the pandemic and the fallout from the failed attempt to launch a Super League, it felt like a pair of safe hands was needed. And that is exactly what Ancelotti is. He won’t make demands of owners and he won’t fall out with players. On the contrary, in the short term at least, it will relax them and boost confidence.

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And that made him perfect for this Real Madrid team. It’s aging. It’s not as star-studded as it has been throughout the club’s post-war history. He can only play spells and depends on a few exceptional talents to get him out of tough spots. And yet, he also has an unrelenting sense of his own history that breeds self-confidence. Ancelotti favored this.

The contrast last Tuesday, even with the score at 2-0 for Manchester City, between his apparent relaxation on the bench and the nervous hyperactivity of Guardiola in the technical areas was striking. It’s not that there’s a good or bad – it may be that over the course of a season Guardiola’s intensity keeps his players at a more consistent higher level – but at this precise moment, a Madrid player staring at the bench might have felt reassured that his manager didn’t seem overly concerned. Conversely, a City player might have thought his team’s control was less secure than it was at the time.

Is Ancelotti a great coach? His record is truly indisputable, although his best days may be in the past. But, unusually in the modern game, he’s a pragmatist, not an ideologue, adapting to his team rather than his team to himself, and that means there’s not much point that he changed the game or shaped a side to his will. But in a club like Real Madrid, as it is now, that’s exactly what is needed. Greatness in football can take many forms.

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