It’s maybe a little disconcerting that Real Madrid—a players’ club if there ever was one; one where the 8th-biggest name on the team sheet likely holds more sway in the future direction of the club than any of the ever-changing coaches thrown aboard then unceremoniously shoved off the managerial merry-go-round after only a spin or two, left lying on the grass with the world spinning around them, unsure whether to be upset about getting kicked off before getting up to full speed or to be happy knowing that the sooner they got off, the quicker their brains would realign with the Earth’s natural rotation—had a locker room full of stars who repeatedly and without reservation vouched for their soon-to-be- (and yesterday, actually-) canned manager Carlo Ancelotti to no avail. But then, even the famed Galácticos in the squad are mere playthings in club president Florentino Pérez’s toy box, and all decisions the club makes are ultimately decided according to the vicissitudes of one man’s whims.
That, more than anything else, is the key takeaway from Ancelotti’s firing just a year after winning the biggest trophy in the world. Yes, one year after winning the Champions League, and just a handful of months since looking likely to repeat the feat thanks to, at the time, the most unstoppable brand of attacking soccer anywhere on the planet—there really were, as short-sighted as they might’ve been, discussions whether the four-titles-winning Real team of 2014 had bettered the Barcelona of Guardiola’s years—Ancelotti has been let go for, well, no good reason.
Was the team not playing well enough? That’s a more complicated question than it at first seems. Last year, Real did win the Copa del Rey by beating Barça in the final, then won the Champions League over fellow Madrileños Atlético, and then ran over any team that had the misfortune of lining up against them during the last few months of 2014 en route to a huge lead in La Liga and yet another trophy, the Club World Cup. That would seem to implicate that Ancelotti was doing a fantastic job and that getting rid of him was indefensible. To be fair, it’s not quite that simple.
Ancelotti was hired to change gears from the relatively reactive, counterattacking play and divisive you’re-with-us-or-against-us leadership style of his predecessor, José Mourinho. After mostly riding counter-attacks to European Cup glory in his first season, Ancelotti was able to incorporate the new, high-profile attacking additions to the squad and unleash nothing less than an expansive, attacking juggernaut. In the personnel department, he leavened what had been an incredibly tense and fractured dressing room and eventually got everyone liking each other and him. On those fronts, then, the manager was a success.
However, scoring nine goals against Granada won’t count for much if you don’t win the league, and sending a combined 5 past Schalke is much less impressive when they damn near come back to knock you out of the UCL in the first knockout round. Aesthetics are important, but at Real, never more so than results. Hence why you could argue Ancelotti underachieved a bit by failing to win La Liga against a physically- and emotionally-hollowed-out Barcelona and a special though still beatable Atlético in his first season while also going without a single significant hunk of silverware in his second, despite huge investment in the team.
Aha, but the simple counter to the argument that Ancelotti’s time as boss was an on-field failure was that Ancelotti didn’t really have too much say about what the play on the field was going to be in the first place. Ancelotti was on the record as being ambivalent at best about the additions of Gareth Bale and Javier Hernández, and the selling of Ángel Di María, Xabi Alonso, and Real’s eventual Champions League Grim Reaper, Álvaro Morata. As we’ve already pointed out, Pérez is the man who buys the players and, thanks to the transfer fees he happily pays and the wages he signs off on, basically picks who plays, too.
It was clear coming into the season that the Blancos would have serious defensive problems, seeing as the six starters ahead of the back four would all be attackers at heart. Even with this reality, Carletto transformed Toni Kroos into a world-class deep-lying playmaker comfortable sitting back and spraying passes hither and thither while remaining well-positioned to break up opposing attacks, and also turned natural number 10s like Isco and James Rodríguez into hardworking central- and wide-midfielders, depending on the game.
Real did manage to find balance in attack and defense, a proposition that was in no way a surety, and who knows how well they would’ve played next season with everyone more accustomed to their roles and with better injury luck (let’s not forget, they played almost all of 2015 without quite possibly the best central midfielder in the world, Luka Modrić). Ancelotti had basically no say in who made up his squad, was to some extent compelled to play all the big names every minute to maintain team harmony—they didn’t pay a world-record transfer fee for a supersub—and even then turned a nonsensically structured side into one of the three or four best in the world. That the flawed hand he was dealt remained flawed in the end seems like a stronger argument for ousting the man who crafted the team than the caretaker.
Again, though, all of this presupposes that there is an underlying rhyme or reason why crazy-ass Pérez does anything. He is little more than a tyrannical toddler who wants what he wants and wants it right now, right up until the moment he changes his mind in the opposite direction. The issues that have emerged as of late—buying flashy attackers with no concern for fit or team structure, wanting one kind of manager or style of play, then cutting bait right when the process starts and reversing tack—are perfectly in line with the greater trends of his tenure as club president.
Real suffered from this same lack of attack/defense balance during his first term when he ran off defensive-midfield great Claude Makélélé in favor or the umpteenth flairy attacker. Earlier, when he wasn’t satisfied with a successful manager who was a little too friendly with the players, media, and Barcelona, he got rid of him (Vicente del Bosque) in favor of a more fiery one (Carlos Queiroz). When, during the brief hiatus between his two stints as president, the club hired the pretty-playing nice-guy Manuel Pellegrini to get the most out of all those forwards he’d bought, Pérez got his old vacationing buddy and then-head of Marca—Spain’s biggest sports paper that’s long existed as the club’s mouthpiece—Eduardo Inda to smear the coach’s name on page after page of the paper until fans and club members alike started coming along to Pérez’s belief that the club needed a new direction. (Probably not coincidentally, Pérez recently floated Inda’s name as a possible choice to be the club’s new spokesman.) And far from continuing on the path they’d be set on there, he subbed out Pellegrini’s possession and passing game for Mourinho’s deep defenses and quick counters—all of which Pérez again threw away when he brought on Ancelotti to be the anti-Mourinho. In that way, the impending appointment of Rafa Benítez and his defensively-careful style will match exactly the club’s jerking switches between various extremes.
It’s actually quite stunning that Real have so little to show for themselves despite their standing in the sport. For as much damage as this endemic kookiness has wrought upon the club, it is still the biggest, most famous, richest one in the land. They can buy whomever they want, no matter the costs, can coach said players by the best and the brightest managers the game has to offer, and if only through sheer economic power can force their hands onto a title or two every few years. However, in this era of the unlimited goals of Cristiano Ronaldo, who will soon become Real’s all-time highest scorer and quite possibly will go down as their greatest player, they’ve managed only one La Liga title and a solitary European Cup in six seasons. All of this while Barcelona, run by their own assortment of corrupt idiots, have continued along their most successful run ever.
If Pérez’s underlying drive is, as common perception goes, for him to reconstruct the towering, unstoppable, globally-feared soccer giant of his youth, when the Franco-backed Real bought every big name in the world and demolished all challengers year after year after year, he has failed—and pretty miserably, at that. If, however, his true motive is to demonstrate his peerless domination of the club he’s always loved, proving that neither man, idea, nor institution can stand in his way towards his Football Manager-esque fantasy come to life, he has succeeded much beyond his wildest dreams. In that sense, even when his club loses, he gets a chance to show off how much he’s won.