English Premier League European Football

On Carlo Ancelotti’s Return to Real Madrid

*long, disappointed sigh*

Before we recorded our podcast episode yesterday (which you will hear later), I saw some reports out of Spain that Everton manager Carlo Ancelotti was seriously being considered for the Real Madrid opening following Zinedine Zidane’s resignation. I did not necessarily think much of it, and while I acknowledge on the podcast that it had potential of happening, I did not think it truly would. It just did not make a whole lot of sense to me.

And now, basically 12 hours later, Ancelotti is returning to Los Blancos. And the more I wrap my head around it, the more I see at least some sense in the move, but the more questions it brings and the more disappointed I become.

Real Madrid are not ran like many other clubs in the world. Zidane’s departure, specifically what he mentions in his open letter as reasons for departure, shows that. They are a club with very, very powerful executives who can control a narrative or influence outsiders, and now they seek stability and calmness during a time of severe turbulence both on and off the pitch and during a time when the club seemingly needs massive change. Turbulence and rapid change is not good for business, and it is not good for club president Florentino Pérez. With the economic effects of COVID and the elongated battle for the Super League off the pitch paired with the upheaval from Zidane and (likely) Sergio Ramos’ departure on the pitch (paired with Atlético Madrid winning the league and Los Blancos going without a trophy in a season for the first time since 2010), getting a stability candidate does make sense. Reports from Spain indicated Real Madrid wanted someone who gets the identity of the club, someone who understands Real Madrid and how they should be achieving success. Carlo Ancelotti, a former Real Madrid manager, is certainly someone who fits that requirement.

But I genuinely do not believe that is truly what Real Madrid are after. They want stability, yes, but I am very certain that getting someone who will not rock the boat or cause more problems for Pérez was a big priority, otherwise Antonio Conte would have already been named Real Madrid manager. Carlo is the safe choice, the political choice, the one that, despite issues he had previously in Madrid, would be the one that keeps the regime the most protected from whatever outside forces of change are pulling on the club while also being a calming force on the pitch. Pérez is king in Madrid, and he wants nothing else to challenge his power. Antonio Conte, fresh off a fairly-public feud with Inter chairman Steven Zhang, would potentially cause issues for Pérez that Ancelotti, the soft-spoken grandfather of Italian football, would not.

And even if the motives for this move are not necessarily with the club in mind, making a safe move like this does make logical sense. If we assume (this might be a bold assumption, but here me out) that Real Madrid’s ultimate goal is for either Raúl (current Real Madrid Castilla manager) or Xabi Alonso (current Real Sociedad Sanse manager and former Real Madrid U14 manager) to be senior manager, then allowing them to enter this role during the most ideal moment is in the best interest of the club and the managers, especially since both are still fairly inexperienced. Given the current state of Real Madrid’s finances, their Super League debacle, and the potential for upheaval in the squad and departures of key players over the next few years, that ideal moment is clearly not right now, and bringing in Raúl or Xabi Alonso right now might be damaging for their careers and for the club as a whole.

Ancelotti offers a smoother transitional option. He is a vastly experienced manager, one that understands the operational structure and culture of Real Madrid while being someone who can get the players onside and still potentially compete for major honors. He was originally a calming influence at the club, someone who settled the cauldron of tension that he inherited when he first took the Real Madrid job following Jose Mourinho’s departure in 2013. He might be tasked with some of the “rebuild/revolution” needs, such as potentially incorporating the likes of Martin Ødegaard into the first team, but his main goal is to see Real Madrid through this turbulence and set the stage well for the long-term successor. That is something he could do fairly well. Los Blancos will likely not be competing for the Champions League next season, but they did very nearly win the league. They will likely contend for the title next season, even with the potential departures of Ramos and Raphaël Varane, and a stable and experienced manager of Ancelotti’s caliber can help them contend.

Now, I could be reading too much into this, and there could be no plan at all. Pérez could just be using this to shield him from outside pressure and delay inevitable calls for a “revolution” in the team, which should disappoint Real Madrid fans, because this team clearly needs a revolution. Yes, they very nearly won the league this season, and yes, they did get to the semifinals of the Champions League, but we have seen that this Real Madrid team are far away from winning another Champions League. Yes, they took Atléti’s title challenge to the final day, but that should be a sign that shows just how much Diego Simeone’s team have caught up to their cross-capital rivals (do not forget that Atléti have finished ahead of Real Madrid in three of the last four seasons).

The great generation of players that were largely responsible for Real Madrid’s European successes the last half decade are now aging or gone. Aside from Ferland Mendy and maybe Federico Valverde and Vinicius, they are still very reliant on those same players that were a part of those Champions League successes. Their two most important and most relied-upon players are still Sergio Ramos and Karim Benzema. Ramos will likely leave this summer and Benzema might leave next summer, and they are very unprepared for both of those events happening. They need a refresh, a complete revolution that transitions this team away from the previous generation and into a new one, and Carlo Ancelotti will not do that for you. He is very much a continuity guy, the same or similar to what they have gotten the last few years. Yes, I get there is some logic in allowing him to see out the turmoil before putting in a new guy, but delaying the inevitable will only work more in favor of Barcelona and Atlético Madrid. Real Madrid are facing the consequences of their own actions, and while I tried to pick out the positives of this move, it is hard to trust the long-term planning of a club that has gotten themselves into this position through poor long-term planning.

And from the Everton perspective this is, well, disappointing to say the least. As a fan it does feel like we were stabbed in the back a bit. Ancelotti came in marveling about Everton being the “People’s Club” and saying how much he loved the city and community and how committed he was to the long-term Everton project and seeing the Toffees into the new Bramley-Moore Dock Stadium. Everton took him after maybe the lowest point in his career, following his failures with Bayern and Napoli, and gave him the keys to the rebuild and the trust that others were not willing to give him. A year and a half later, there were some issues but there was also potential. Wins away at Arsenal, Liverpool, and Tottenham for the first time in ages showed that progress, however slight, was being made. And instead of sticking to his word about being committed to the rebuild, Ancelotti bolts at the first chance, leaving the Everton board in shock and fans enraged. Everton have made a habit of messing things up for themselves over the last few years, and they fully deserved to be in the position they were in when Ancelotti took the job back in 2019, but for the first time in a long time, something happened that is not their fault. But for the sixth time since 2013, Everton will be changing managers.

And it is seemingly the most disappointing outcome. Every year, Everton try to outdo themselves when it comes to disappointment, and this year is no different even if it ultimately is not their fault. The first time that there is any semblance of progress, the manager bolts to take another job, even taking a significant pay cut just to be away from us. It is yet another false dawn, a feeling that Everton fans are all too familiar with. Even dating back to David Moyes’ tenure as manager, the life of an Evertonian has boiled down to endless cycles of hope and disappointment, seemingly playing out every season like a twisted version of Groundhog Day.

And now we find ourselves once again sitting here perplexed by how this awful sport duped us into believing and hoping and dreaming, wondering if we will ever see our beloved Toffees win a trophy, something that has not happened in my nearly 25 years of time on this Earth. Older fans will remember the glory days, like the Holy Trinity of Colin Harvey, Alan Ball, and Howard Kendall. Or the 1985 team that vanquished Bayern Munich at Goodison, won the Cup Winners’ Cup, and should have won the European Cup a year later. Or when Joe Royle’s Dogs of War out-fought and out-clawed Manchester United to win the FA Cup in 1995. They will think back to the old days and wonder if they will ever see their once glorious and world-conquering football club reach those heights ever again.

It is truly disappointing as a fan, especially when you actually did begin to hope that this would work out. But enough of my emotional ranting, let me look at this objectively…

How is this going to impact Everton as a team? Well, it is not ideal. Any time you lose a manager, you sort of reset a bit of the overall rebuild, and when you lose six managers in eight years, then there are a lot of lingering players who were brought in by a variety of different people for a variety of different reasons. This was going to be a problem regardless of Ancelotti’s departure, with the club desperately needing to move on from the likes of Gylfi Sigurdsson, Mason Holgate, and André Gomes, to name a few. But do the potential list of departing players expand with Ancelotti leaving? Will players like Allan and James Rodríguez want to stick around when the man who brought them to the club is gone? Will Richarlison, Lucas Digne, or Dominic Calvert-Lewin want to stay and deal with yet another manager and yet another rebuild, seemingly only getting further away from playing in continental competitions? Could Ancelotti have enough influence at Real Madrid to pry Calvert-Lewin away from Everton, using the Englishman as a potential out-of-left-field replacement for Benzema?

It was already going to be a very important summer for Everton, and now that has only gotten more severe. The Euros and Copa America will likely buy them some time, but they need to find a replacement manager very quickly. It is hard to blame them if they were not prepared for this situation, again, this is finally not their fault, but it is incredibly important that they get this hire right. And I am very concerned that they will not. There are seemingly three routes I could see this going.

First, they try to land a big name, someone that can take them across the finish line, so to speak. This would apply for an Everton with the mentality that they are close to a European place. They were knocking on the door of Europe last season when Ancelotti was mere months into his reign. They were second in the league on Boxing Day this season. Surely they just need that one final push, right? This Everton could, with potential relaxing of Financial Fair Play and Premier League Profit and Sustainability rules, be big spenders once again this summer. They could parlay the profit from the sale of Moise Kean and some surplus to requirement players into key signings, ideally a starting-caliber right winger and right back. A top manager that can come in and fit the team into a system that supports Calvert-Lewin up top, gets into Richarlison’s head and has him playing at his best again, and does not put the entire creative burden on James Rodríguez could guide the Toffees at minimum into the Europa League. But is that manager available? Would a manager of that caliber want the Everton job? Are Everton actually this close to breaking into the European places? It is a potential reality that begs more questions than answers.

Which leads us to reality number two, where Everton fully realize that this team needs a rebuild, a real one. They realize that they are not close to sustaining a European places challenge and decide to hit the reset button. Key players will leave if the right offer comes in, and the club will hand full reigns to sporting director Marcel Brands to work with the new manager and decide the route that the club want to go down. This manager is someone who is likely younger but has experience and is a great football mind with a solid philosophy and desire to usher in a more free-flowing, attacking style with a core of younger players. Someone like Brighton’s Graham Potter is an example of a candidate that should be looked at if this is the route Everton go down. This will require quite a bit of patience, but after a few years of mid-table mediocrity allow the manager to move out the dead wood and build the team he wants, Everton will be able to challenge for Europe and beyond. But will the fans have enough patience for this? Remember, Everton fans were at the throat of Roberto Martínez, Ronald Koeman, and Marco Silva alike the moment things started going wrong. The tenure of Everton managers has only gotten shorter ever since Martínez was sacked, and six managers in eight years is not exactly sign of a club that relishes stability and will provide time for new managers. Regardless of whether it was the right decision to sack those three, it is not something that inspires potential managers with hope. Why would someone like Potter take this job when he thinks he could be sacked the moment things go wrong? Why would he take this job if he also does not feel he will be fully financially backed in that short time, and that he might struggle to offload the plethora of surplus players in this team? Do we actually trust Everton as a club and fanbase to embrace the thought of a rebuild and give the new guy time? Again, more questions.

Which takes us to route three: where Everton hire a mediocre manager, continue to struggle, and either remain in mid-table mediocrity for the next few seasons or potentially risk relegation to the Championship, something they flirted with twice in the last few seasons. You can consider this reality in action should the club hire someone like Eddie Howe, who has been linked with the Everton job multiple times over the last few years. This is the reality I fear, one that seems the most “Everton”-like possibility, the one that seemingly embraces the mediocre mentality and mediocre status that Everton, objectively one of the biggest and most successful clubs in English football, now find themselves stuck with.

Ultimately, this could be a good thing. I do not think Ancelotti was the perfect candidate, and while he was showing signs of progress, there were fairly noticeable issues in his tactics and player selection. It is possible that Everton are able to land a better candidate, one that can be the person that finally gets it right, but it is also something that could go very wrong very quickly. And with other clubs around them beginning to overtake them and Arsenal and Tottenham beginning rebuilds, Everton need to get this hire right if they really want to be a consistent top six team. I have very little faith in them getting it right, but it is possible that they do.

And now, let me touch on this move from Ancelotti’s perspective, because this is where I really have a lot of questions and no answers. Why? Genuinely, why would he make this move? When I say I do not understand this, it is mainly from Ancelotti’s perspective.

Now, yes, this does sound like me being a salty fan. I do get that, at the end of the day, Everton are Everton and Real Madrid are Real Madrid. There is a hierarchy in world football, and Real Madrid are still at or near the top. If you are offered the chance to manage Los Blancos, it is very hard to say no. But it is not like this is a fresh appointment. Ancelotti has history in Madrid, and it is not necessarily a lot of great history. Real Madrid had their share of domestic struggles under Ancelotti, and the pressure was fairly prevalent from the get go. Yes, he did win the Champions League, but that was in the same season where he finished third behind Barcelona and historic league champion Atlético Madrid. Had Sergio Ramos not scored that famous late equalizing goal against Atléti in the Champions League Final, it is very likely that Ancelotti would have lost his job after one season. His position was so tenuous despite helping Real Madrid achieve La Decima that he was eventually sacked a year later. His past relationship with Florentino Pérez is not necessarily that great, though to be fair it is not bad. Zidane publicly exposed a lot of the scheming that the Real Madrid hierarchy does with the media to put pressure on unpopular managers. So why go back? What does he accomplish with this?

And unless Pérez is so deluded that he really does not think Real Madrid need the sweeping changes many are calling for, he likely envisions Ancelotti as a transitional manager. In that case, why would he sign on for that role? I get that Real Madrid is Real Madrid, but he will likely not have much in the way of influence when it comes to the overall direction of this team should the hierarchy not envision him at the club long term. He might not have a lot of money to spend in the transfer market either, given the current state of Real Madrid’s finances. He certainly will not have the influence that he had at Everton, and he will likely only be the scapegoat for potential future failures instead of the hero of potential future successes. So why walk away from Everton? Why burn as many bridges as you did? Did he lose faith in the Everton project? Did he have a falling out with Brands or owner Farhad Moshiri? Did he never care about the Everton project to begin with? It reflects quite poorly on Ancelotti, doesn’t it?

Well, as mad as I could be, as much as I do not understand it, it has not stopped it from happening. Carlo Ancelotti is Real Madrid’s next manager, confirmed and signed and sealed. A turning point moment for Real Madrid and a turning point moment for Everton, one of many big moves that will likely happen this summer. Here we go, I guess…

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