Here’s one way to start an argument among Real Madrid fans: ask them who is the club’s greatest ever coach.
Is it Miguel Munoz, the former player who managed Madrid longer than anyone, winning 14 trophies in 15 years? How about Jose Mourinho, who restored their pride and went toe-to-toe with Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona? Is it Vicente del Bosque, the club man who coached Madrid three times, winning the Champions League twice? Or Zinedine Zidane, who won a record-breaking three Champions Leagues in a row between 2016 and 2018?
Here’s the case for Carlo Ancelotti. Real Madrid’s current coach has won 10 trophies in four seasons at the Santiago Bernabeu. Four of them came in his first spell, from 2013 to 2015, and six of them since returning in 2021. This month brought the latest silverware, the 2023 Copa del Rey. Another trophy will be in touching distance if Madrid can overcome Manchester City in Wednesday’s Champions League semifinal second leg.
Mathematically, it’s straightforward. Ancelotti has taken charge of 230 Real Madrid games. That’s an average of a trophy every 23 matches. At a club that values winning above all else — forget a playing style or philosophy, Madrid’s identity is built on its stacked trophy cabinet — surely that puts him top of the list?
By that metric, Ancelotti is the most successful coach that Madrid have ever had. So why, with a contract that runs until June 2024, has he faced so many questions on whether he expects to be in charge next season? How tempted is he by overt interest from the Brazil national team? And will the outcome in this season’s Champions League be decisive?
Coaches don’t last long at Real Madrid. Expectations are nigh impossible to meet, and the scrutiny from a demanding fan base and nonstop media coverage is exhausting.
The longest-serving manager of recent years — in a single spell — was Mourinho, who lasted from 2010 until 2013. Before him it was Del Bosque, in charge for three-and-a-half years from 1999 to 2003. The club’s eras are defined by all-powerful presidents — Santiago Bernabeu from the 1940s to the 1970s, and Florentino Perez’s two spells at the helm — not managers. As Ancelotti himself remarked on his return in June 2021, with a wry smile: “The only thing that changes at Madrid are the coaches.”
Being a club legend or a beloved figure might not protect you from being cast aside, or forced to walk away. Del Bosque was fired in 2003 just hours after clinching the league title, bringing an end to 36 years as a Madrid player, academy coach and manager. His players were so angry that they threatened to boycott the club’s own title celebrations.
Even Zidane, the scorer of the most famous goal in Real Madrid’s history — that volley to win the 2002 Champions League final — and a staggeringly successful coach, felt mistreated when he departed for a second time in 2021.
“I’d have liked my relationship with the club and the president to have been a little bit different,” he wrote in an angry, open letter in Diario AS. “It hurt me a lot when I read in the press that I was going to be fired if I didn’t win the next game. Those messages, intentionally leaked to the media, interfered negatively with the squad.”
As for Ancelotti, he already has been fired once by Real Madrid. That departure in May 2015 wasn’t quite as openly acrimonious as Zidane’s, but it wasn’t exactly amicable.
After an outstanding debut 2013-14 season ended with the club’s long-awaited 10th European Cup win — beating Atletico Madrid 4-1 after extra time in Lisbon to win La Decima — a 2014-15 campaign that began with a record-breaking 22-game winning streak fizzled out. Finishing second in LaLiga and being eliminated in the Champions League semifinals wasn’t good enough, and Perez decided to let Ancelotti go, replacing him with Rafa Benitez.
There was a feeling Ancelotti was too soft on the players and a more disciplined, tactically rigorous approach was required. The Italian was hurt, feeling previous accomplishments had been too quickly forgotten.
Why, then, was Ancelotti back in charge six years later?
Vinicius Jr. ‘believes’ Ancelotti wants to manage Brazil
Vinicius Jr. speaks about the rumours linking Carlo Ancelotti to the vacant managerial role with Brazil.
Madrid had been caught off guard by Zidane’s sudden resignation in May 2021. The timing wasn’t helpful. One long-term priority managerial target, Mauricio Pochettino, had taken over at Paris Saint-Germain just four months earlier. Another old Perez favourite, Massimiliano Allegri, chose to return to Juventus instead. Club legend and reserve team coach Raul Gonzalez wasn’t viewed as quite ready for the job.
Ancelotti, who had managed Bayern Munich, Napoli and Everton since he was last at Madrid, was a last-minute, left-field alternative. The opportunity was unexpected — for everybody — but when the possibility was floated, he didn’t hesitate. At this late stage in his career, it was too good a job to turn down. For the club, he was viewed as a safe, well-liked option, if a little uninspired.
What followed in 2021-22 was arguably the best season in Real Madrid’s illustrious history. For all their success, Madrid have done a league and European Cup double only four times: way back in 1957 and 1958, in 2016-17 with Zidane, and in 2022 with Ancelotti. Otherwise, balancing domestic and European success has proved impossible.
Not this time. Madrid finished a comfortable 13 points above Barcelona in LaLiga, while putting together a Champions League run that Hollywood couldn’t script: beating PSG, Chelsea, Manchester City — all in improbable, late comebacks in front of an ecstatic Bernabeu crowd — and Liverpool on the way to the trophy.
Ancelotti delivered, in every department. The team’s defence was tightened up. Veterans Karim Benzema, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos were expertly managed. Rising stars Vinicius Junior, Federico Valverde, Rodrygo Goes and Eduardo Camavinga were moulded into match winners.
Carlo Ancelotti is the Real Madrid manager with the most Champions League wins in history 🐐 pic.twitter.com/BevM5m6Tpn
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) April 13, 2023
At most clubs, a season like that would mean a manager was untouchable for a season or two at least. But not at Real Madrid. In 2022-23, Barcelona’s drastic improvement under Xavi has seen Ancelotti’s Madrid — whose own performance has dropped off a little — left behind. At the time of writing, Madrid are 14 points behind newly crowned champions Barca.
Trophies have still been won: the UEFA Super Cup against Eintracht Frankfurt, the FIFA Club World Cup, the Copa del Rey final against Osasuna. But those trophies aren’t considered substantial enough to tip the balance. The Champions League has kept Madrid’s season alive, with convincing knockout stage wins against Liverpool and Chelsea. Ancelotti’s season will be judged on the semifinal with City — a tight first leg finished 1-1 last week — and a possible final.
Criticism from inside the club has remained consistent throughout Ancelotti’s two seasons back in Madrid. One claim, sources told ESPN, is that the team has lacked a “plan B” in certain, awkward games during the league campaign, with an inability to make impactful, in-game changes to tactics and personnel. Another complaint is that the coach is reluctant to embrace the academy and bring homegrown players into the first team.
Ancelotti’s riposte is that he has been handed an incomplete squad, without the necessary depth to challenge in all competitions, and a lack of cover in key positions. Just look at the overreliance — and consequent injuries — on Benzema, 35, with no adequate backup in the squad.
Just as in 2015, Ancelotti feels his achievements have been underrated. As yet another prematch news conference drew to a close last month — ahead of the Champions League first leg with Chelsea — he chose to reveal some of that irritation. “For me, managing this squad is straightforward. I manage it very well,” he was saying, when he paused, as if weighing up whether to continue, or leave it there.
As the club’s press officer moved to wrap up, Ancelotti made his decision. “Wait,” he said. “Everybody recognises that I’m fantastic at [man] management. But there are other things too. This team is well coached. If we win the Copa del Rey, we’ll have won every trophy possible in two seasons. Some teams don’t do that in a lifetime.”
The implication was: don’t my coaching staff and I deserve some credit?
Real Madrid did look at possible managerial alternatives earlier this season, sources have told ESPN, in case the campaign truly did go off the rails. They weren’t really convinced by any of them. The favourite is Xabi Alonso, the former Liverpool, Madrid and Spain midfielder who began coaching at Madrid’s academy before taking over Real Sociedad B and is now excelling at Bayer Leverkusen. But even so, it’s too soon. The logical move — not that logic always wins out at Madrid — would be for Ancelotti to stay for one more year, with Alonso then best positioned as his successor.
A complicating factor has been Ancelotti’s public courting by the Brazilian football federation (CBF) as it looks to replace Tite after Brazil’s quarterfinal exit at the 2022 World Cup. Months have passed, and the vacancy remains unfilled.
Is Carlo Ancelotti the greatest manager of all time?
Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens discuss the success of Carlo Ancelotti after he became the first manager ever to win the Champions League four times.
CBF president Ednaldo Rodrigues described Ancelotti as “unanimously respected” and “a top coach” in March. This month he went even further. “We’ve got a plan A,” he told beIN Sports. “There’s no point in hiding this. Ancelotti is our favourite.”
But Ancelotti has a job. Sources told ESPN that he is flattered and appreciative of Brazil’s interest. The appeal of coaching Brazil, football’s most iconic international team, is obvious. He is also happy in Madrid and grateful to the club for allowing him this late managerial renaissance when many assumed he was past his best. And he would like to respect his contract, as he has said repeatedly. “My future is clear,” he said ahead of the Copa del Rey final. “My contract ends on June 30, 2024.”
A change in that contractual situation — if Madrid disappoint against City on Wednesday, and the club decides that a new direction is, in fact, required — would see Ancelotti available to head to Brazil for the latest stage of a near 30-year managerial career.
Otherwise, he’ll be back in Madrid next season plotting the recapture of the LaLiga title and the completion of the transition from one generation of Real Madrid players to the next.
Real Madrid, with Brazil as an enticing alternative. If anyone deserves to be in such an enviable position, it’s Ancelotti.