When Carlo Ancelotti returned to the Spanish club’s Valdebebas training base for his unveiling as Real Madrid manager earlier this month, he was confronted by his own face which adorns one of the complex’s corridors. That picture depicts the Italian coach lifting the Champions League trophy back in 2014 – Real Madrid’s historic ‘Decima.’
Few know their way around Real Madrid, both literally and figuratively, like Ancelotti does. His face won’t be the only thing the 62-year-old will be confronted by in his second stint as Los Blancos boss. Indeed, everything Ancelotti does at Real Madrid from this point on will be measured against his own legacy.
While Zinedine Zidane’s exit at the end of last season was expected in some quarters, Ancelotti’s return was not. The 62-year-old was facing questions over his future after an underwhelming season any Everton when Real Madrid gave him a call. Florentino Perez believes his experience and know-how is what his club needs right now.
But how will Ancelotti change Real Madrid on the pitch? Under Zidane, Los Blancos never really had a distinctive philosophy or style of play. The Frenchman tailored and adapted his approach depending on the situation. Ancelotti, who has a track record of shifting between formations, will most likely do similar.
In his first stint at Real Madrid, Ancelotti used a 4-2-3-1 shape that frequently shifted into a 4-3-3. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he picks up where he left off by adopting a similar approach such is the balance of the squad he has inherited. From a tactical standpoint, Real Madrid’s players might not notice much of a difference between Ancelotti and Zidane.
Ancelotti’s appointment could be good news for a number of forgotten figures at the Santiago Bernabeu. Isco, who previously looked to be on his way out of Real Madrid, could be one such player. Gareth Bale is another having thrived under Ancelotti in his first managerial stint in the Spanish capital.
Martin Odegaard is almost certain to be given another opportunity to make his mark at his parent club following a loan spell at Arsenal last season. The Gunners had hoped to sign the Norwegian permanently this summer, but Ancelotti would be foolish to let a player of such talent and potential leave without ever giving him a run in the first team.
To integrate Odegaard, Ancelotti will have to make some bold decisions. Will Toni Kroos or Luka Modric make way? Would a midfield diamond allow Ancelotti to field Casemiro, Kroos, Modric and Odegaard in the same team? Zidane tried that, albeit fleetingly, and didn’t enjoy much success.
In many ways, Real Madrid are simply treading water at the moment. Laden with close to $1 billion of debt, in part due to the costly redevelopment of the Santiago Bernabeu, the club needs the Covid-19 pandemic to pass before it can recover. Any signings made over the last 12 months or so have been free transfers (see David Alaba).
Real Madrid are also biding their time in their pursuit of Kylian Mbappe. The last player to be trailed by the Spanish giants over such a prolonged period of time was Cristiano Ronaldo and there is a sense Mbappe will form the core of a new Galacticos era for the club.
Therefore, Ancelotti will largely have to work with what he already has. The addition of Alaba as a free agent will give Real Madrid a variety of new tactical options, while Bale and Odegaard’s return to their parent club might also prove useful, but the Italian coach will face many of the same problems his predecessor experienced.
Eden Hazard is one of those problems. Signed for around $100m, the Belgian has barely been fit enough to play a full 90 minutes for Real Madrid over the last two seasons. Ancelotti, however, might already have a plan in mind to get the best out of Hazard, with renowned fitness coach Antonio Pintus also back at the Santiago Bernabeu.
It’s not just Hazard who will expected to be leaner and fit for the start of next season. According to reports, Ancelotti wants his team as a whole to press higher and play with greater intensity. Pintus’ return to oversee a new fitness regime is a sign of this intention. Real Madrid, not just Hazard, must be fitter and sharper in 2021-22.
There is the individual talent at the Santiago Bernabeu for Ancelotti to point the capital club in the right direction again, but doubts persist over whether the Italian is the force he was only a few years ago. The same thing could be said of Real Madrid. In that sense, the pair are the perfect match.