The Word: Xabi Alonso on why he owed Carlo Ancelotti a European Cup

After being sacked by Bayern Munich, there’s some debate about whether or not Carlo Ancelotti is, in fact, a good manager.

It’s a strange debate to have about a man who has won three European Cups with two different clubs, but it arises from the fact that the Italian coach, in almost 20 years at the top of European football, and managing some of the world’s top clubs, has only managed to win four league titles. Only the four, then. It doesn’t sound too shabby at all, but given he’s managed Juventus, AC Milan, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, you might have legitimately expected more.

Ancelotti’s autobiography, entitled ‘I Prefer the Cup’, probably gives an insight into why this might be the case: the Italian coach is clearly a cup manager, not one to keep the league in mind.

The usual reason advanced to explain this is his jovial nature. Ancelotti is, by all accounts, so laid-back as to be fully horizontal. And perhaps that’s true: taking over from Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid saw the Italian enter a divided dressing room which had been left in turmoil by the now-Manchester United coach who had left after seemingly breaking down relationships with everyone.

Taking over from Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich was a different story, though. There, he entered a dressing room of players who each knew their job down to the letter, thanks to Pep’s meticulousness. Their coaching sessions would have been more intense, the amount of actual tactical and technical coaching much greater than with Mourinho or Ancelotti himself, whose more laid back style is about making the players believe that they can beat anyone. When you’re talking about the calibre of player he coaches, though, they should believe that.

That’s the crux of the debate, and it’s why Ancelotti is currently getting the short end of the stick. Indeed, he often gets praised for it in better times.

Back in 2014, Real Madrid won their first European Cup since 2002. It was La Decima, an emotionally important victory for a side whose name is synonymous with European glory. They had enlisted Mourinho to stop Barcelona and bring home the European trophy, but he couldn’t. Within one season, Ancelotti had done it and had also set in motion a team who would go on to win three out of four. All he had done, it seemed, was give the players a bit of a break.

Breathing space, was the almost-unanimous conclusion, it appeared. Ancelotti was the perfect manager for a team like Real Madrid, they said, just as they said the opposite thing about his Madrid replacement Rafael Benitez. The theory was that the Italian coach was simply a politician, making sure everyone was happy and relaxed, which in turn allowed the elite players at the Bernabeu – quite obviously one of the best squads in the world – to go out and play their normal game, which was sufficient to beat every other team in Europe.

Clearly management – at the top levels – wasn’t about coaching, it was just about having a man with a personality like Ancelotti. Why was, for example, Pep Guardiola making everything so complicated when all Real Madrid needed to do was turn up and they’d win?

The equal and opposite reaction has happened to Ancelotti’s latest departure from a club. At Bayern, he was accused of being out of time, being a poor manager for not winning enough league titles, and that was because he simply didn’t provide the players with enough coaching. Perhaps if he’d been more like Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp he’d have done better with that squad of players.

The truth is probably somewhere in between. And when it comes to appraising Ancelotti’s career to date, the same is probably true.

Yes, he probably should have more league titles in his personal medal collection given the players he’s worked with, but in fact, he could also have won a fourth European Cup. In fact, he should have.

In Istanbul in 2005, his side were 3-0 up at half time. You know the story, of course. There’s no point in going into that. Everyone knows it by now. But to lose on penalties in a Champions League final is surely heartbreaking, and all the moreso when you’ve got the game all but won at half time. They should have won.

Maybe a fourth European Cup as a manager would have changed the opinion. Perhaps that one extra trophy would have settled the debate once and for all. That’s doubtful, but Liverpool and Xabi Alonso are very important in this story.

The demands of modern football wouldn’t really allow that debate to be settled. Football is incessant, it doesn’t stop and it doesn’t allow you to let up for a minute. And right now, that could be why Ancelotti’s side struggled. He likes his players to be as laid back as he is, as though the happiest cows give the creamiest milk. If that’s the case, he can build up the tension when it’s needed, but it’s only really necessary before a big European night. Maybe that’s why they struggled in the lesser games.

At Bayern, though, that’s surprising. Despite having the sorts of games in the Bundesliga, that he could write off from week to week as easy wins given the players at his disposal, Ancelotti didn’t manage to. And it got him the sack pretty quickly, all things considered.

To put it into context, Bayern are still second in the Bundesliga, and were fewer points behind leaders Dortmund when the Italian coach was sacked than they are now, having drawn their first game since his departure. They lost fairly humiliatingly to Paris Saint-Germain in Europe, and that was the final straw, possibly because it seemed as though he was failing too badly to keep on, and possibly because the Bayern board felt that they were left behind by the likes of PSG in the transfer market. Were they worried a humping meant they were being left behind by them on the pitch too?

But the context shouldn’t be too damning: Bayern are still on course for second place at the very least, despite the challenge from Celtic. They should still go through, and surely it’s about progression at this stage, not all out victory in every game: indeed, Real Madrid came second in their group stage last season and still won their second CL in a row, an unprecedented feat.

So maybe we have to go back to Istanbul over a decade ago and revisit Xabi Alonso’s comments about Ancelotti in 2013. The revelation about his former manager is proof that, when Ancelotti first arrived at Madrid – and if Alonso’s story is true – then it’s clear what happened next: Ancelotti’s side just liked the man and played for the manager.

There are plenty of managerial flaws to pinpoint when it comes to Ancelotti, but his European Cup record is second to none and shouldn’t be treated as though he’s been lucky three times. The truth is, he’s been unlucky too, probably just as often. But as Xabi Alonso alluded to, in a way he owed his former manager a European Cup: if Ancelotti had won in 2005, would he be spared the current debate?