Carlo Ancelotti was his usual relaxed self in the pre-match press conference. “I don't think too much will change from the first leg,” he told reporters. “Bayern will not change its philosophy and we'll do something different, but not drastic.”
It was a throwaway line but it spoke volumes. The Champions League semi-final second leg between Bayern Munich and Real Madrid would pitch the doctrine of the philosopher against the flexible thinking of the pragmatist.
It wasn’t always that way for Ancelotti. The former Milan midfielder schooled in the beliefs of Arrigo Sacchi, under whom he won back-to-back European Cups, once turned down the chance to sign Roberto Baggio when in charge of Parma because he didn’t fit into the formation Ancelotti knew.
“I was young and didn't have the courage to throw myself into something that I didn't know well enough,” he recently admitted in an interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport. “I knew everything about the 4-4-2.” How things have changed.
Over a decade on, Ancelotti has a very different attitude. Asked about the formation he would play in Munich, he said: “A 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 does not change much the dynamic of the game. The system is not the most important. The most important is how we start the game.”
Real started the game so well that the contest was over midway through the first half. Sergio Ramos headed home two headers from set-piece situations to stun the Allianz Arena. From then on, the triple threat of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale ran riot on the break.
Guardiola somewhat disparagingly claimed that Real Madrid have always been a counter-attacking side for as long as he’s watched them. But that’s not true of Ancelotti. The Italian coached Milan in three Champions League finals – winning two – and they dominated possession each time.
But at the helm of this Real Madrid squad, he has adapted his thinking. “With players like Bale, Benzema and Cristiano it is more difficult to play possession football, we must look for spaces, and play the ball forward more quickly. Football is nice for that, as everyone has their own ideas.”
What’s really nice is that Ancelotti’s ideas are always flexible. Perhaps that has hampered his ability to win league titles – where the relentless drilling of a single style can help grind out victories – and instead made him the most effective of cup managers on the big stage. When faced with the choice between the formation, the philosophy and the personnel, Ancelotti opts for the latter.
An anecdote from earlier this season, highlights his attitude. Ancelotti’s assistant Paul Clement, quoted by ESPN, revealed the thinking behind a recent change of shape. “When Alonso came back fit we played with Alonso, Khedira and Modric and we think we found a nice blend of experience and qualities for those different positions. But Khedira got injured. What were we going to do?
“We had a real long discussion Carlo, Zidane and myself about it. Is the best thing now to slot a player into that position because the team have found some nice continuity now in that shape? Or do we change the formation again based on the players available? And we decided to change the formation to go with two central midfielders and to play Isco behind the striker.”
Changed the system
It’s a short anecdote in a long season. But the upshot of the debate was that Ancelotti changed the system to accommodate the talent. That’s a useful attitude to have when you’re in charge of a club determined to fit the star names into the line-up.
It was certainly no surprise to see Bale back in the team for the trip to Bayern. Ancelotti instinctively recognised that this tie could be won by scoring the away goal rather than playing for the goalless draw. He’d promised a different approach and he delivered one.
Real continued to defend with a compact shape and ensured Alonso and Modric provided protection for the back four, but there was a conscious effort to press the Bayern defence with their forward players. Manuel Neuer was even confronted by the B-B-C of Bale, Benzema and Cristiano on the edge of his 18-yard box from goal-kicks. Real really pressed Bayern.
Although the first two goals came from set-pieces, delve a little deeper and there was evidence of this pressing paying off. The move for the first goal began after impressive harrying by Angel Di Maria, while the second came after Modric burst out from midfield to dispossess Franck Ribery.
The eventual 4-0 scoreline on the night hardly flattered Real. Their much-fancied opponents failed to carve out a clear-cut opening in three hours of football over the two legs. As a result, much of the fall-out from this contest may well focus on the job that Guardiola has done in Bavaria.
If that is to overshadow the efforts of Ancelotti and his team then that will be pity. Philosophers such as Guardiola are bound to be a source of fascination with their beliefs on how the game should be played.
But the methods of the genial Italian – fashioning a series of fine sides, each one different from the last – are no less intriguing. It is Ancelotti, not Guardiola, who is now just one win away from a third Champions League triumph as a manager.