FootballPremier League

Ancelotti is a champion but there are plenty of reasons Premier League clubs should be wary

December 12, 2019

ON Tuesday night, as Napoli sacked Carlo Ancelotti about an hour after he’d led them into the last 16 of the Champions League, ears pricked up across the Premier League.

Could he be the man to stop the rot at Arsenal? Would he fancy the challenge of Everton? Even at West Ham, where Manuel Pellegrini’s departure hasn’t actually happened yet, there must have been a thought that the former Chelsea boss could be just the man to usher in bolder new era.

Yet Ancelotti is a baffling manager. He is, with Bob Paisley and Zinedine Zidane, one of only three men to have won the European Cup/Champions League three times. He has a relaxed and easy manner and that makes him popular. He is, in a way some of the more intensely driven football managers aren’t, very likeable. And yet over the past 20 years he has spent 16 complete seasons at elite clubs and has won only four league titles.

He is the man whose Paris Saint-Germain was pipped to the title by Montpellier, whose Real Madrid was pipped to the title by Atletico. For somebody who has enjoyed such advantages, who has consistently been given plum jobs, that is an unremarkable record.

His experience at Bayern was emblematic of his whole career. He replaced Pep Guardiola in 2016 and inherited a squad that had begun to tire of his predecessor’s intensity and obsession with detail. There was, initially, a sense of relief and relaxation. For a few weeks, Bayern played good football and the players seemed happy. But before long it became apparent that training sessions were extremely laidback. There was none of the focus and drive of Guardiola. Results began to drift. Players in the end wanted him gone because they realised they needed to be driven harder.

Ancelotti is very good at calming players down, at preparing them mentally for specific games. His calm personality means he is adept at handling the politics of difficult clubs – although even that couldn’t save him from the civil wars at Napoli.

After a figure as demanding as Guardiola he is of undoubted short-term benefit. Chelsea similarly appreciated the change of tone after the abrasiveness of Luiz Felipe Scolari. But he is not somebody who is going to build a team from ruins, nor a coach with the drive to squeeze the maximum out of his players every week.

Football has changed. Even 15 years ago, it was possible to achieve success essentially by getting the players in the right frame of mind. With good players and a fair wind, as Zidane’s career has proved, that’s possible in knockout competitions even now. But for sustained success in a league competition, as has been enjoyed by Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp, there must be precise tactical planning, particularly when it comes to transitions and breaking down a packed defence.

So the question Arsenal – or Everton or West Ham – have to ask themselves, is what do they think they need. If they want somebody who can come in, soothe egos and let the players play without burdening them with reams of tactical instruction, then Ancelotti is the ideal choice. And given how toxic the situation at Arsenal has become or the extent to which West Ham are performing below the apparent level of their squad, perhaps Ancelotti would be a useful short-term salve.

But directors and fans should not be seduced by the idea that he is somebody to rebuild the club from scratch, somebody who could shape a squad, improve unpolished talent, and mould them to match his philosophy. Ancelotti simply doesn’t have the energy or the edge to do that – which is, perhaps, one of the reasons why he always seems so pleasant. He doesn’t have that drive that leads other managers to become balls of raging fury on the touchline.

That’s not to say Ancelotti is a poor manager, or that he is a busted flush – although it may be that his ideas have not kept pace with the very cutting edge of the game. It’s not even to say that Ancelotti would be the wrong choice for Arsenal or Everton or West Ham.

But he is a manager at his best in very specific circumstances and for a specific role. It’s not clear those circumstances exist at any Premier League club at the moment.