Carlo Ancelotti: Football’s Greatest Unsung Coach?

The stare. The brow. The outfit. Everything about Carlo Ancelotti is iconic to its core. He is a man that exemplifies class, and his accolades as both player and coach take him to a stratosphere that even the most revered in the game would struggle to contemplate. He is, in many ways, an enigma that manages to evade the adoration and relentless discussion that his talent deserves. Why is it, after so many years in the game and so many trophies won, that we fail to place Ancelotti in the category that so many managers with less success are put in with ease?

Carlo Ancelotti Real Madrid Italy Coach Manager Legend Europe Champions League
Art by Charbak Dipta

In the era of Klopp and Guardiola, and Mourinho before them, Ancelotti’s temperament and coaching style has failed to draw the attention that many of his contemporaries have enjoyed. He hasn’t revolutionised the game of football from a tactical perspective, nor has he created a media aura around himself as a result of brash ridicule or unwavering enthusiasm. He is, by all metrics, a pragmatist: his style of football on the pitch is as steady and assured as his behaviour off it. Organisation and work rate are the most apparent features of an Ancelotti side, yet the quality and individual brilliance of the players he has coached has always been able to shine through. From Schevchenko to Pirlo, Modrić to Cannavaro, he is a coach that has managed to get the best out of his players from a tactical and disciplined point of view, without compromising their technical flair and creative spark.  

This marriage of technique and organisation, so evident in the style of his teams, was also a hallmark of Ancelotti’s playing career. His tactical know-how and command of the play around him allowed him to be deployed effectively in a number of midfield roles, and even as a winger during his time at Roma. Yet, despite winning three Scudettos, four Copa Italia titles and two European Cups in a career spanning sixteen years, Ancelotti’s managerial achievements dwarf those of his playing days. As a coach, he holds more Champions league titles than any other manager and is the only person to win every title across Europe’s top five leagues. This road to greatness even comes with some bumps along the way, having been axed by Abramovich at Chelsea barely a year after winning an historic double for the club, as well as being relieved of his duties as Real Madrid head coach by the demanding and often impulsive Florentino Pérez. Ancelotti’s tenure at Bayern Munich could even be deemed a soft failure, having failed to deliver the Champions League trophy that the fans and board desired so much, as well as losing the dressing room in the process. 

What followed were positions that few could have anticipated, given his reputation and admiration among fans and those closely tied to the sport. Ancelotti’s time at Napoli was lacklustre, primarily due to issues off the pitch out of his control; his period at Everton showed so much promise initially, particularly when he was able to bring in players of the calibre you would expect to see in a Champions League side, but results started to wane despite a strong start to the 2020-21 campaign. This period, atypical of a career filled with remarkable milestones, is perhaps part of the reason why football fans forget to put him on the pedestal that the likes of Guardiola and Mourinho get to stand on. It was the smallest of blemishes on a career that was otherwise pretty much perfect, causing those to believe that he was a coach of antiquity, a window into a past that few could reconcile with the present tactical landscape. 

Perhaps Ancelotti’s greatest achievement, however, is his ability to continue his success across different eras of football: he has never felt the need to redefine himself, always having complete faith in his principles and footballing philosophy. While many have revolutionised the game during his time as a coach and placed a huge emphasis on creative ways to control the game in and out of possession, Ancelotti has tweaked and modified the age-old fundamentals to suit the modern age. While tactically similar managers such as Mourinho have fallen by the wayside, Ancelotti has kept up with the changing tide of football in truly mesmeric and unique fashion, adapting so seamlessly that it is hard to imagine he began his career as a coach in a bygone era. 

His second spell at Real Madrid is evidence of why Ancelotti is a genius that should be respected as much as any coach who’s ever lived. He has brought through a new generation of talent, including the likes of Vinicius Junior and Federico Valverde, that can prolong Los Blancos’ unrelenting success for many more years. However, his greatest achievement in his second stint thus far has been his ability to give Benzema a lease of life he never seemed to have while in the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo. Now a focal point rather than a supporting act, the striker is quickly cementing himself as one of the greatest forwards the game has ever witnessed, bringing Real’s youngsters along for the ride. Ancelotti, as much a father figure to the junior playing staff as to members of the team who many felt were resigned to football’s past, is the architect of Real Madrid’s unfaltering European dominance, and their 5-2 victory over Liverpool at Anfield last month is proof that his approach to the game undoubtedly still has its place.

The status of the clubs Ancelotti has managed, alongside his remarkable trophy cabinet, is more than enough to suggest that he could easily be considered the greatest of all time. He is the self-proclaimed ‘record man’ – a term he coined after last year’s Champions League victory – yet for many he may be more akin to that of a cult hero. While his football may not inspire the way others’ does, and while not every position he’s held has gone swimmingly over the past 10 years, he deserves admiration for what he has been able to do over an extraordinarily long period of time. Despite football going through several evolutions and revolutions since his managerial debut in 1995, Ancellotti’s philosophies have remained completely relevant and there may still be more to come.

Ed Pracy

Sports writer from the UK with a strong interest in English, Iberian and Latin American football.