Brendan Crossan: Carlo Ancelotti keeping it simple and making Real Madrid a treat to watch

Football scientists need to take a leaf out of Ancelotti’s book

Carlo Ancelotti is nervous ahead of Real Madrid’s clash with Manchester City
Carlo Ancelotti has been a serial winner since he stepped into management (Martin Rickett/PA)

AS a kid, I absolutely adored Emilio Butragueno. Everything about the Real Madrid and Spanish international striker I loved: his poaching instincts, his one-touch play, his craftiness in the penalty box, everything he did on the pitch had artistic merit.

My first memory of him was during the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico.

Denmark had taken the early rounds of the tournament by storm, which included a 6-1 hammering of South American tough nuts Uruguay.

Michael Laudrup, Preben Elkjaer, Jesper Olsen and Morten Olsen were exceptional – until they ran into Spain in the knock-out stages.

With Danish dynamite in their boots, they were expected to put the Spanish to the sword and go deeper into the tournament.

Butragueno - affectionately known as ‘The Vulture’ - ruined all that by scoring four goals in a 5-1 thrashing of the Danes.

From that day on, everyone knew Butragueno.

This was a time before satellite dishes were drilled to the sides of our houses and when we didn’t see these football superstars from one World Cup to the next.

And sometimes we never saw them again. The romantic pull of a World Cup in those days was special.

At the ‘86 World Cup finals, there were plenty of crude tackles but football was in the kind of head space where it was still tactically loose enough for individuals to flourish.

Butragueno, Diego Maradona, Jorge Burruchaga, Elkjaer, Laudrup, Michel Platini, Careca, Josimar, Enzo Francescoli, Rudi Voller, Jean Tigana, Manuel Amoros and Jan Ceulemans were all game-changers in their teams.

Football has become more sophisticated over the years but there have been many casualties along the game’s trajectory.

“It’s true now that there aren’t bad players any more,” said Juanma Lillo, a former assistant of Pep Guardiola’s.

“But there are no exceptional players either. In trying to kill the bad guys, we’ve killed the good guys, too.”

Those of us of a certain vintage can still recall great players of bygone World Cups - and yet we’d struggle to name a handful of stars from, say, the 2018 World Cup finals.

What does that tell us about the modern game? Systems are king and the individual is being squeezed to the periphery.

Back in the 1980s, when one World Cup finished, we yearned for the next to one come around.

Between the four-year cycles we’d be lucky to catch a 30-second clip of a Maradona free-kick for Napoli or a Hugo Sanchez scissor-kick for Real Madrid on the terrestrial offerings of Midweek Sports Special or Sportsnight.

Madrid’s Sanchez and Butragueno were one of the best strike partnerships in world football during the 1980s and, for a time, looked primed to win a couple of European Cups - until little-known Italian Arrigo Sacchi had a different notion of how the game should be played and produced a high-pressing AC Milan side.

They absolutely annihilated Madrid over two legs in the 1989 European Cup semi-finals, drawing 1-1 in Madrid and winning 5-0 in Milan.

“I’ve spent my whole life at Real,” said Butragueno. “I’ve never seen a team come to the Bernabeu and be as dominant as Milan were.”

Arrigo Sacchi was ahead of the curve and simply found a more effective way of winning football matches. It was much more prescriptive way too, albeit made easier by having greats at his disposal.

Carlo Ancelotti was one of Sacchi’s disciples in that brilliant Milan team. Despite suffering serious knee problems, Sacchi signed Ancelotti from Roma because he needed “a brain in the middle of the pitch” to develop the Rossoneri revolution.

Sacchi was a football scientist, a very successful one as it turned out – and one of the first coaches to become better known than some of his players.

The game was changing and the cult of the manager was born.

Carlo Ancelotti and Pep Guardiola had to settle for a draw
Carlo Ancelotti and Pep Guardiola (Nick Potts/PA)

Sacchi would go on to influence so many aspiring coaches – including Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola.

A narcissistic thread began to emerge among modern-day managers and the trickle-down effect is discernible nearly every day we watch a game.

You see them everywhere; even at kids’ football, where the coach wants his team to play like Pep’s: play out from the back, beat the press - even though a lot of kids don’t have the requisite technique or skillset to play that way.

And the kid’s game descends into a weekly vanity pursuit of the coach’s.

We had Jose Mourinho professing to the world that he was the ‘Special One’ – the kind of coach that sharing the dancefloor with his players was an anathema to him.

But there are some refreshing examples to the contrary.

Spool forward to Wednesday night’s dramatic Champions League semi-final win for Real Madrid over Bayern Munich and the quiet leadership of Carlo Ancelotti won the day.

The affable Italian doesn’t do sanctimony or back-handed compliments to himself in press conferences and doesn’t engage in animated tactical lessons and bombast to his players as they walk off the pitch knowing that the television cameras are on them.

No, Ancelotti is different. More understated. Pushes the players front and centre.

Cut from a different cloth, even though he’s played under Sacchi.

There has never been any deep scientific enquiry or books written into how the wily Italian goes about his business even though he’s been a serial winner since he went into management.

“A player among players,” former AC Milan star Andriy Shevchenko said of Ancelotti in his autobiography.

“No topic of conversation was forbidden. He would tell jokes and muck around, and if you had a problem, you knew that he would listen. That he would help you solve it.”

Man-management skills are at the core of his philosophy and his greatest strength.

In the immediate aftermath of Madrid’s quarter-final win over Man City, Jude Bellingham said: “Our biggest strength is he (manager Carlo Ancelotti) finds a way to let a lot of boys play with freedom. We’re so off the cuff…

“As a man he fills you with calmness and confidence. I caught him yawning and he said to go out and excite him.”

No wonder Real Madrid remain the most exciting, most “off the cuff” team to watch in world football today.

Carlo Ancelotti creates this impression that he’s been enjoying espresso and cannoli all his life while his peers have been sitting in joyless labs trying to find another way to win.