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Raised Eyebrows and Shrugged Shoulders

The Casual Flexibility of Carlo Ancelotti

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It really was all about the eyebrow. No matter the scoreline, no matter how his Chelsea were performing, you could always count on the raised left eyebrow as an oddly calming, ever-present constant.

His eyebrow, arched and regal as it was, always seemed to suggest that Carlo Ancelotti was above whatever fray was transpiring before him. This is not to propose that Ancelotti appeared aloof or that he gave off a smug air of superiority. No, Ancelotti’s gloriously arched eyebrow just made it exquisitely clear that he didn’t have time for nonsense. And if Ancelotti was presented with nonsense, well, he wasn’t going to get himself too worked up over it.

Ancelotti’s ability to roll with the proverbial punches could perhaps be his finest trait as a manager. Quick: what was Ancelotti’s first-choice formation during Chelsea’s historic double winning campaign in 2009-10? It’s a bit of a trick question.

Chelsea started the season playing a 4-4-2 diamond formation with Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka up top in a fearsome strike partnership. In January, the Africa Cup of Nations deprived Chelsea of Drogba (and Salomon Kalou), which caused Ancelotti to reprise something resembling the ‘Christmas Tree’ (4-3-2-1) formation he had made famous at AC Milan, with Anelka as the lone striker. Then, as the season was winding down with Chelsea on the verge of claiming both league and FA Cup glory, Ancelotti even deployed a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 setup which put the menacing attacking quadrant of Drogba, Anelka, Kalou and Florent Malouda all in the starting lineup together.

Chelsea v Wigan Athletic - Premier League Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

When looking back on Ancelotti’s success in 2009-10 the flexibility of the man with the majestic eyebrow stands out. The Blues’ two most recent league title winning teams were each synonymous with a specific formation – 4-2-3-1 for Jose Mourinho’s 2014-15 team and 3-4-3 for Antonio Conte’s 2016-17 team. But a lack of formational consistency didn’t trouble, and perhaps even benefited, Ancelotti’s triumphant Chelsea.

It’s especially interesting to compare the adaptability of Ancelotti’s shape-shifting double winners with managers who, this season, have possessed a seemingly self-sabotaging dogma. Did the stubborn conservatism Jose Mourinho exhibited while overseeing a team bursting with elite attacking players contribute to his downfall at Manchester United? At Real Madrid, did Julen Lopetegui’s insistence on playing a possession-based, positional-play-oriented system doom him to failure with a team that had previously found unprecedented success playing in a more direct fashion under Zinedine Zidane? How much sense does it make for a manager to remain unflappably committed to a particular style or system when the players at his disposal seem so ill suited to playing in that manner?

The system versus personnel debate has certainly engulfed Chelsea fans the world over. Maurizio Sarri has had much ire directed his way for his reluctance to alter the tactical principles that brought him to prominence at Napoli, even when his Chelsea side has looked ponderous this season. Sarri’s current iteration of Chelsea likely line up in a 4-3-3 formation even when queuing for their post-match meal. Unlike Ancelotti, Sarri has not allowed his available playing squad to significantly influence his approach. But to be fair to Sarri, it would be odd for Roman Abramovich to bring the ex-Napoli manager to Chelsea to implement anything other than Sarri-ball. After all, it was the high-octane, vertical tiki-taka Sarri’s Napoli teams played not the trophies they won (or, uh, didn’t win) that garnered attention and all the plaudits.

Though Abramovich rarely speaks to the press, it’s been widely accepted that he’s always desired for Chelsea to play an attractive, definitive style of football. “I want to find a manager that gives my team an identity,” is what Ancelotti said Abramovich told him according to Michael Cox’s The Mixer. “When I see Barcelona or Manchester United, I find an identity in the team, but when I watch Chelsea, I cannot.” When Abramovich hired Ancelotti to manage Chelsea in June 2009 it’s possible he had the attacking football Ancelotti’s Milan were associated with at the forefront of his mind. Or it may have been two Champions League titles Ancelotti had won with the Rossoneri. Circa 2009, if there was one thing Abramovich cared more about than Chelsea playing attractive football, it was Chelsea winning the Champions League.

Chelsea Training Session & Press Conference Photo by Tom Shaw/Getty Images

Ancelotti didn’t win the Champions League while at Chelsea, but his Chelsea are remembered for exhibiting a certain degree of style. The gaudiness of some of the score lines from Ancelotti’s title-winning team contribute to the memory that persists of the team being a ruthless, swaggering, attacking juggernaut. And they certainly could be. Ask Sunderland, Aston Villa, Stoke City, and Wigan, who were defeated 7-2, 7-1, 7-0, and 8-0, respectively. Prior to world-renowned hooded cardigan-wearer Pep Guardiola’s 2017-18 Manchester City team netting 106 goals, Ancelotti’s 2009-10 Chelsea held the record for most goals scored in a Premier League season with 103. Despite this reputation however, Ancelotti’s teams defy simple categorization. Equally important to Chelsea’s title victory were the nervy, hard-fought 1-0 and 2-1 wins over closest challengers Manchester United. Under Ancelotti, Chelsea could play with both eye-catching verve and fist-clenching toughness.

Balance has been a critical component of Ancelotti’s most successful teams, and they’ve achieved it despite having deployed starting lineups that often featured a potentially lopsided abundance of attacking talent. While at Milan, with a squad containing traditional number 10s Rui Costa, Clarence Seedorf and Andrea Pirlo, Ancelotti was able to get all three on the pitch simultaneously without jeopardizing the team’s overall stability. Notably, this involved playing Pirlo as a deep-lying midfielder.

The idea of playing Pirlo as a number six as opposed to a number 10 didn’t come from Ancelotti. In January 2001, Pirlo was loaned from Inter Milan to Brescia where manager Carlo Mazzone made the paradoxical decision to play the pass-first Pirlo in a defensive midfield role. Surprisingly, Mazzone’s idea worked, and the benefits of having Pirlo’s long-range passing ability in deeper areas quickly became apparent as Pirlo formed a lethal connection with forward and legendary rattail proponent Roberto Baggio.

As effective as Pirlo was in his new role at Brescia, he ultimately only played in ten matches during his loan spell with the northern Italy club and Inter didn’t see sufficient reason to retain him. Ahead of the 2001-02 season Pirlo was sold to rivals AC Milan where Ancelotti would soon take over as manager. When faced with the classic super team predicament of having more forward-thinking players than available forward positions for them to play in, Ancelotti, despite harboring doubts, took Pirlo’s suggestion, and played the future wine-maker directly in front of Milan’s backline. ”I listened to him and gave it a try,” Ancelotti wrote of the decision in his memoir. “I was astonished. He started playing with beautiful simplicity, and he became an unrivalled player.”

Pirlo was able to function freely as a deep-lying playmaker thanks to the super-human work-rate of Gennaro Gattuso, who intimidatingly patrolled the midfield alongside his more creatively inclined teammate. Milan won the Champions League in 2003 and then conquered Serie A in 2004, but after a 3-0 lead in the 2005 Champions League final was embarrassingly surrendered to Liverpool, Ancelotti knew his side needed an adjustment in midfield to avoid being overmatched by more technical teams.

UEFA Champions League Final: Liverpool v AC Milan Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Holding midfielder Massimo Ambrosini was subsequently inserted to play with Pirlo and Gattuso in central midfield. This fortified the center of the pitch in front of the elite center back pairing of Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta. Seedorf — who had previously been playing in the deeper midfield role now occupied by Ambrosini — was pushed further forward to help aid creative wizard Kaka and lethal striker Filippo Inzaghi. Milan’s resulting lineup was a frightening blend of attacking potency and defensive nous, and in 2007’s Champions League final, Milan were able to avenge their prior defeat to Liverpool and lift their second European Cup in five seasons under Ancelotti.

Throughout his time in Milan, Ancelotti showed willingness to experiment and exhibited enough humility to change direction when his original plans grew stale. On the subject of humility, it’s worth emphasizing that the crucial decision that ignited Milan’s run of success (the decision to play Pirlo as a deep midfielder) wasn’t one that Ancelotti came to on his own, but one that was arrived at via a suggestion from the player himself. That Ancelotti is willing to sit back and let his intelligent, world-class players figure out the solutions to problems on their own could be (and has been) used to disparage the Italian manager’s overall tactical acumen. However, contrast the image of an affable Ancelotti shrugging his shoulders and allowing Pirlo to play where he wants with that of a scowling Mourinho questionably chastising the effervescent Paul Pogba for daring to venture too far forward, and the positive aspects of Ancelotti’s approach become apparent.

Chelsea v Portsmouth - FA Cup Final Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

The autonomy Ancelotti afforded to Pirlo definitely wasn’t unique. According to Ancelotti’s former assistant Paul Clement, Ancelotti began his team talk the night before Chelsea’s 2010 FA Cup final match against Portsmouth by saying “This is the last game of the season. We know what we’re able to do and we know the opposition. What do you think the tactics should be?”

Clement said Ancelotti’s question was initially met with silence. Was a manager as decorated as Ancelotti really going to let his players decide the tactics for a match as important as the FA Cup final? Gradually though, the players raised their hands, offered their thoughts, and eventually a trophy-winning game plan was established. “Sometimes coaches are scared of that – of all that responsibility but ultimately that’s what it’s all about. When the game goes on, how much can a coach influence what’s happening in a stadium that’s full…and you can’t get the information to the players, so the players need to be able to make those decisions in split second moments,” Clement said.

As much as tactical flexibility and an openness to try different ideas have benefited Ancelotti throughout his career, he faced pointed accusations of his Chelsea team detrimentally lacking a defined direction during a truly bizarre 2010-11 season. How bizarre? Chelsea won their first match of the campaign 6-0 against Roberto Di Matteo’s West Bromwich Albion. It’s likely most individuals of a Chelsea persuasion found nothing wrong with a performance that saw the defending champions kick off their title defense by knocking in a half dozen goals. And yet, Ancelotti said he was summoned to Abramovich’s house after the match to receive a ‘dressing down’ for how Chelsea had played.

While it’s scarcely believable for an owner to harshly criticize the manager of his football club after a 6-0 victory, there may have, oddly, been an element of truth to Abramovich’s tirade. Eventually, there would be no arguing the poor nature of Chelsea’s performances and results. After 2-1 win against Blackburn Rovers on October 30th, Chelsea failed to score more than a solitary goal in a Premier League match until an immensely infuriating 3-3 home draw to Aston Villa on January 2nd, collecting just nine out of a possible 27 league points during that stretch. A 1-0 defeat at Wolverhampton on January 5th left Chelsea 5th in the league standings. The Blues had been first in the table from the conclusion of the season’s first week through the middle of November.

Chelsea Press Conference to announce new signing Fernando Torres Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Chelsea attempted to fix their misfiring attack by breaking the world record for a transfer fee to acquire Fernando Torres from Liverpool. Torres’ first Chelsea appearance came on February 6th when the Blues hosted his former club, but El Nino wouldn’t net his first Chelsea goal until … April 23rd. To be blunt: Torres wasn’t the electrifying, game-changing striker Chelsea thought they had acquired. At least for the second half of the 2010-11 season, he wasn’t even a decent striker. And it’s possible Ancelotti’s efforts to accommodate the club’s expensive new signing did Chelsea’s overall attacking rhythm more harm than good.

Still, despite the muck of adversity the team had found itself in, Ancelotti was able to mix and match lineups and formations throughout the campaign’s second half and Chelsea ascended from the ignominy of a Europa League position in the league table all the way to a respectable second. Chelsea were 15 points behind first place Manchester United when the two sides met at Stamford Bridge on March 1st. A 2-1 Chelsea victory closed the gap to 12 points, and when the teams met again at Old Trafford on May 8th the Blues had further reduced the deficit to just 3 points. United’s 2-1 victory that day ended any hopes of what would have been an extremely remarkable Chelsea Premier League championship, but the way Ancelotti dragged his team from the brink of disaster (missing out on Champions League qualification would have certainly been seen as a disaster at this stage of the Abramovich era) back into the title conversation provided further proof of his capacity to adjust his strategies based on the circumstances he’s presented with.

The Blues’ fight-back in the 2010-11 title race didn’t, though, provide Abramovich with sufficient proof that Ancelotti was the right manager for his football club. Ancelotti was informed that he was being relieved of his duties as Chelsea manager by chief executive Ron Gourlay in a Goodison Park corridor following Chelsea’s defeat to Everton on the final match day of the season. Chelsea’s dismissal of Ancelotti is still seen as one of the harsher sackings of Abramovich’s ownership. How could a manager lose his job after delivering a league and cup double in his first season and a narrow second place league finish in his second? Ancelotti’s replacement as Chelsea manager perhaps provides some insight as to why that controversial decision was made.

Chelsea Training Session & Press Conference Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Andre Villas Boas was confirmed as Chelsea’s new manager in June 2011, and he arrived in SW6 with a fraction of the managerial experience of his predecessor. What AVB had done in his short time as a professional football manager, however, was associate his name with a distinctly progressive brand of football. In his one wildly successful season as manager of Porto, not only did AVB not lose a single Portuguese Primeira Liga match, his kinetic, high pressing approach led to his team scoring a robust 73 goals across 30 league games. AVB’s Porto won the league, the Europa League and the Taca de Portugal, but as far as his appointment as manager of Chelsea was concerned, style may have mattered more than substance. Chelsea were resilient in Ancelotti’s second season, but they were formless. They lacked the panache that Abramovich has supposedly craved. AVB’s hiring was going to not only bring success, but a definitive flair as well.

Of course, AVB ended up bringing neither success nor flair to Chelsea. Chelsea’s squad was woefully incompatible with the kind of football the young manager wanted to play. AVB was dismissed midway through the season, and under his replacement Roberto Di Matteo, Chelsea would go on to win the Champions League and FA Cup with a notable lack of pizazz. And even though the club achieved its greatest ever triumph in a highly unfashionable manner, flash still seems to be a priority at Chelsea. It’s difficult to pinpoint a single reason for Antonio Conte’s departure, but the dour reputation his football became saddled with, particularly in his second Chelsea season, feels significant. That Chelsea would replace Conte with Sarri, a manager exhaustively lauded for the attractive football he oversaw at Napoli, contributes to that feeling.

Interestingly, the manager tasked with replacing Sarri at Napoli? That would be Ancelotti. Prior to the campaign kicking off, one didn’t have to look too hard to find a Napoli season preview lamenting the backwards step many were expecting the club to take under their new manager. At a quick glance, this seems odd. Sarri has zero trophies to his name and Ancelotti has won leagues in Italy, England, France and Germany to go along with his three Champions League titles. But how were those trophies won? How did those teams play? There’s no catchphrase or buzzword to easily describe the manner in which Ancelotti has stuffed his trophy cabinet. A term as succinct as Sarri-ball certainly doesn’t exist to describe Ancelotti’s teams. He’s basically just gotten his players to play successful football, and he’s gotten them to do it in a variety of different ways, repeatedly.Gushing documentary films typically aren’t made to honor businesslike flexibility.

History often celebrates and places greater emphasis on the style – more than the results – achieved by teams. The Clockwork Orange Dutch national team of 1974 is remembered far better and more fondly than the mutedly efficient West Germany team that defeated them in that year’s World Cup final, for example. So, an argument could be made that the ever-changing nature of Ancelotti’s teams is a hindrance to his overall legacy. It’s impossible to say, but it seems likely that Ancelotti would raise his eyebrow at you if you were to direct that argument his way. Sometimes, when confronted, the best possible response is a raised eyebrow and a pair of shrugged shoulders.

Chelsea Training Session & Press Conference Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
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