Carlo Ancelotti – The Wise Italian
AC Milan under Carlo Ancelotti were a side to be marvelled at. The team went through a lot of tactical deviations due to Ancelotti’s eagerness to follow the upcoming trends of football. However, his unique approach payed off. During his tenure, he managed to win:
- Two Champions League trophies – 2002-03, 2006-07
- Two UEFA Super Cup trophies– 2003, 2007
- One FIFA Club World Cup – 2007
- One Serie A title– 2003-04
- One Coppa Italia – 2002-03
- One Supercoppa Italiana – 2004
His team blurred the lines between football and art, due to the mathematically calculated yet abstract, artistic structure of his team. His overwhelming success lied in:
- Midfield Control:
Ancelotti’s craving for midfield control originates from Arrigo Sacchi. He played for him Milan itself between 1987 and 1991, before serving as his assistant at Italy’s national team between 1992 and 1995.
Ancelotti realised under Sacchi that the results of a game hinged heavily on the amount of control a team had, on the game, on the ball, and on their opponents. He brought the same simple reasoning over to his managerial career. The opponent can never score if they don’t have the ball. Sacchi had a great impact on Carlo’s managerial career. He played a huge part in making him the persona he is today. Like he said, Carlo was, is, and always will be his “genial pupil”.
- Carlo Mazzone and Andera Pirlo
Carlo Mazzone is a manager that Ancelotti, and Italy in general need to pay their due respects to. The manager of Brescia was pivotal in changing the role of “The Heir of Baggio”, Andrea Pirlo. Originally regarded as an attacking midfielder who could create and score goals, Pirlo was dropped further down the pitch by Mazzone to allow his side to make the most of his long-range passing ability. He was entrusted with controlling the tempo and dictating the play. This role change altered the future of Italian football itself, and, more importantly, in this context, played right into the hands of Ancelotti. Pirlo was another golden piece in the golden puzzle, allowing Carlo to play the type of football that he’d fallen in love with years ago.
Ancelotti always preferred lining up in narrow formations at Milan. It reflected his craving for midfield control, since it was the only part of his playing style that would remain prevalent during his tactical evolutions.
He began with a static back four at the beginning of his managerial career. As was the norm at that time, they didn’t contribute much to the attacking exploits of the team (although, that will change in a few years once the modernisation of the wing back positions were introduced in Italy). In front of them was Pirlo, who, after his development, dictated the play in his newfound deep-lying playmaker role with his unparalleled passing range and awareness of space. In front of him were Seedorf and Gattuso, two midfielders known for their all-round, tanklike playing style. Occasionally, they were asked to drift wide, dragging their markers with them to create space for Pirlo and Rui Costa to operate in. However, one of the greatest highlights of this side was the duo of Shevchenko and Inzaghi, who were, arguably, one of the best striker partnerships that the world has ever seen. Shevchenko was feared by defenders, and his movements often created space for Inzaghi to move into. When Shevchenko didn’t score them, he played an integral role in creating the chances. The duo dominated Italy and Europe for many years.
- Buying into New Trends
When most teams would prefer relaxing after winning a Champions League trophy, Milan went out, used Berlusconi’s riches, and signed a relatively unknown Brazilian, Kaka from Sao Paulo. In a few years, under the favourable tactics of Ancelotti, Kaka would establish himself as one of the best in the world.
Mere mortals like us cannot describe Kaka’s role and importance in the midfield. In fact, Kaka was the midfield for Milan. He brought to Italy a level of skill rarely found in Europe. He won millions over with his silky dribbling and natural goalscoring capabilities. As Ronaldinho said –
“At AC Milan, Kaka was the best player in the world for two or three seasons. There was nothing that he couldn’t do.”
Unfortunately, Kaka’s arrival to Milan coincided with the injury of Inzaghi, which meant that he was out for most of the campaign. Fortunately, this allowed Ancelotti to continue his love story with his midfielders. Milan fielded Kaka, Rui Costa, Seedorf, Pirlo and Gattuso in central midfield, with Shevchenko playing as a lone striker. This created a formidable attacking threat. The creativity of Pirlo, Rui Costa, and Kaka, with the defensive prowess of Gattuso and Seedorf, created a stable, yet highly dangerous midfield that struck fear in the hearts of their opponents.
But the Italian wasn’t done yet. Ancelotti bought into (literally) the emerging “attacking full back” position by signing the one of the best in the world – Cafu. The Brazilian’s well-rounded playing style was the best insurance any team could have on the right flank. His tireless nature, strength, defensive and attacking prowess allowed the Gattuso and Seedorf to stay central, in the positions that were appropriate for their abilities. Yet another golden piece in the golden puzzle.
- Avenging Istanbul
Milan fans, rejoice.
This seemed like the best place to end my piece, as it was the culmination of Ancelotti’s reign, over the course of ninety minutes, his side took revenge, and won back what was rightly theirs. The Champions League was the final piece in the golden puzzle.
Istanbul was a horrendous game for Milan, but in hindsight, it was just a timely exposure of cracks that were present in their foundations as a team. An excess of midfield players, especially those with attacking mentalities, meant that the defence was often stretched, making them easy prey for the opposition.
Spotting their chance, Liverpool took the game by the scruff of its neck – the rapid shift of momentum left the Milan side in a state of shock, ultimately leading to their untimely and undeserved demise. But, as fate might have it, the two teams were united once again in 2007 – with Milan calling for blood.
Milan lined up with Ancelotti playing his favoured 4-3-2-1 –which, coincidentally, was revamped by Kaka. The boundless talent that he possessed effectively relieved Gattuso and Seedorf of their marathon duties. They didn’t need to run to create space for him. He could do it all himself. Therefore, the midfield was repurposed to suit Ancelotti’s needs – in this case, he instructed them to look for control, as he’d already seen the dangers of having a lack of it. During the game, he adjusted to a 4-4-2 to deter Liverpool’s defend-and-counter-attack playing style.
Seedorf and Gattuso played out on the wing again, placing traffic which prevented the likes of Pennant and Zenden from breaking down the line. Pirlo and Ambrosini passed the ball around to defuse Steven Gerrard’s maniacal pressing. Kaka attacked with force, breaking down Liverpool’s Mascherano – Alonso pivot with the help of Seedorf, who pushed forward once his side were attacking.
The golden puzzle was complete with timeless pieces – Milan took the lead through a Pirlo free kick, Ancelotti’s attacking full backs put pressure on Liverpool, Kaka played brilliantly, and lastly, Inzaghi used his clinical finishing to put the game to bed. This game was truly a coming together of all the things that Ancelotti had worked so hard to achieve. Tactics that were deployed from the start of his stint, combined with transfers and evolution of the team, had won him the most coveted trophy in the world. Ancelotti went out with a bang.
Sacchi was the teacher for many, and Ancelotti was one of his studious pupils. They created European and tactical history, while ensuring that AC Milan went down in history as one of the best teams in the world. Milan has a legacy that can never be achieved by most teams, and they achieved that in style, thanks to the work of a “nobody” and his pupil.