There was no surprise when Carlo Ancelotti was dismissed by Real Madrid on Monday; rather just a sense of grim inevitability. This is the culture its president, Florentino Perez, has created.
Real Madrid may have only won one league title in the past seven years, but this is still a club at which the demand for success is an absolute and failure, however slight, brings dismissal. Had Sergio Ramos not headed an equalizer in injury time in last season’s Champions League final, allowing Real to eventually win in extra time, Ancelotti probably would not have made it into his second year at the club.
Nobody at Madrid, surely, could be surprised that Ancelotti brought a Champions League but no league title. In a 20-year managerial career, he has, after all, only ever won three league titles, a deeply ordinary record given that since 1998 he has consistently been in charge of giants. The flip side is that he is, with Bob Paisley, tied for the most success in Champions League history having coached teams to the title three times.
The reasons for that are not easily unpacked. Rafa Benitez, the man who seems likely to succeed him at the Bernabeu, also has a far more impressive record in European competition than domestically, seemingly because he is an expert at preparing his teams tactically for one-off games, and rather less good at maintaining a charge over the course of a full season (although it should be noted that only at Internazionale, in 2010-11, was he ever in charge of a side that was realistically expected to win the title; even his two championships at Valencia came as an outsider).
Ancelotti’s record against the top sides in domestic competition, though, is only mediocre; with him the issue seems to be that he is almost too normal to win league titles, that he lacks the monomaniacal zeal to drive his team through a full season. There is far more of a sense of lottery about the Champions League, which is why no side has retained the title since AC Milan in 1990. Ancelotti has consistently managed good sides in the final stages of the competition and been able to ride his luck to take three of them to the title.
But in a sense here, the issue isn’t Ancelotti and his capacities as a manager; it’s Real Madrid and Perez. Perez, after all, sacked Vicente del Bosque after a season in which Madrid had won the league and after a four-year reign that had brought two leagues and two Champions Leagues.
It’s a club that seems to demand not merely success but a particular type of success.
Perez himself refers back constantly to the glories of the late 1950s when a Madrid side that at various times included Alfredo di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Paco Gento and Raymond Kopa won five successive European Cups, and, more than that, carried a sense of untouchable power and glamor.
But the game has changed. It’s no longer enough for a club simply to accumulate the world’s best players. That will beat the weak and the mid-table, but it is not sufficient to beat the very best. There must also be tactical cohesion, and Madrid’s summer transfer policy surrendered that. Perez’s apologists will say that Angel Di Maria turned down a significantly improved contract offer; Di Maria’s people reply that he was undervalued because he is not considered marketable enough.
Either way, Madrid lost the player who had been man of the match in the Champions League final, the shuttler whose running allowed Cristiano Ronaldo to play, and failed to replace him.
Xabi Alonso’s sale was understandable in that he was 32, but equally he wasn’t replaced. James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos are very fine players, but neither fulfills the functions of Alonso and Di Maria: once again Perez has disregarded the more prosaic aspects of football and loaded his team with stars.
It’s true that injuries have hampered Real Madrid this season–Luka Modric and his astute tactical brain were particularly missed–but no club of Real Madrid’s stature should ever get itself into a position in which it ends up having to play Sergio Ramos in midfield in a Champions League semifinal for the want of a holding midfielder.
Ancelotti is culpable in as much as he has gone along with the presidential whim, but his capacity for diplomacy has always been both his greatest strength as a coach–it’s one of the reason he keeps landing plum jobs–and his greatest weakness–it’s perhaps why his teams so often feel like a compromise.
That compromise was enough to deliver la decima, the 10th Champions League title Real Madrid had craved since winning its ninth in 2002, but that wasn’t enough to allow another season with success. And so the churn of coaches goes on. Sooner or later, though, Perez’s own record is going to be called into serious question: three league titles and two Champions Leagues in 12 years as president is a dismal return for the richest club in the world.