Although twelve seasons in the making, it was with the appointment of two-time European champion José Mourinho in 2010 that a renewed vigour was reassigned to Real Madrid’s desire for a tenth European/Champions Cup triumph – La Décima. That it would come to fruition partially on the back of Madrid’s staggering spending power was of little surprise; their ninth title in 2002 owed much to a similar strategy. Of greater intrigue however was the presence of the talismanic coach Carlo Ancelotti, and not the initial instigator of renewed hope Mourinho, as Madrid reaffirmed their status as Europe’s most prestigious footballing entity.
Since his departure from an eight year stint as manager of A.C. Milan in 2009, Ancelotti – be it with Chelsea, P.S.G. or now Real Madrid – has become a convenient combatant for aspiring clubs in need of a quick-fix of silverware. A beacon of astounding success in his own right – 2014’s Champions League triumph was Ancelotti’s third as a manager – Ancelotti stayed true to his charm as he clinched La Décima at the first time of asking. When departing the treble-winning Inter Milan in favour of the promised prosperity that awaited him in Madrid, Mourinho’s justification for leaving another position in which he had brought unimaginable success was rooted equally in status as it was in prospective wealth;
‘It’s a unique club and I believe that not to coach Real Madrid leaves a void in a coach’s career.’
To leave unconsidered the prospect of being the Real coach who would finally secure the long-awaited tenth European triumph would be disingenuous to the aspirant Mourinho. That Ancelotti would in fact deliver success after three years in which Mourinho had toiled so ruthlessly was without doubt an infuriating reality for the Portuguese to contemplate. That his most pertinent adversary of the Madrid years, Pep Guardiola, would find his Bayern Munich side so excruciatingly dismantled at the hands of Madrid en route to this triumph must have further enhanced demons unspeakable.
For Ancelotti, his recent inability to keep his feet under any managerial table for too long a time will now be tested to the absolute limit. Unlike the case of Mourinho’s successes at Porto and Inter Milan, Ferguson’s impossible dream becoming reality at Manchester United or the chronological achievements of Shankly through to Dalglish at Liverpool, Ancelotti’s tenure at Real Madrid was guided by a very specific task at hand. Despite Ancelotti being the wish fulfiller that he is, how soon does he have until La Undécima becomes the standard that the coach must meet?
For those who evolve it from an elusive oddity to a recurring habit, the pursuit of victory must surely be as enthralling as it is demanding, as fulfilling as it is vacuous. In the Champions League era, Ancelotti is the standard-bearer for success – only Liverpool’s Bob Paisley has an equal number of three European triumphs. Yet, only a few weeks into his second season with Madrid and already a number of changes in personnel have occurred that on the surface appear questionable. The murky waters in which Madrid’s policy of acquiring and dispensing with players is conducted does not allow for furtive speculation as to whether the movement of Toni Kroos, James Rodríguez, Javier Hernandez, Xabi Alonso and Angel Di Maria in particular were on Ancelotti’s orders. In sharp contrast to what is currently occurring at the new home of one of his old stars, little doubt is assumed when one considers who it was that sanctioned the recruitment of Alonso for Bayern Munich.
The departure of Alonso five years earlier from Liverpool left an indelible gap in what appeared to be a team on the precipice of greater success. Despite his turning 33 this November, Guardiola sees in Alonso the potential exponent of his vision for Bayern in action. Like Ancelotti, Alonso’s acquaintance with success has been a consistent point worthy of great admiration, not solely for the number of medals acquired, but, in the central role he has played in the teams that have acquired them. If Bayern are to realise their potential this season, the early performances of Alonso indicate a player who will be crucial in doing so. The question must then be posed as to why Ancelotti and Madrid allowed him to depart, as Liverpool did, with no heir apparent?
While the allure of Guardiola was an admitted reason for Alonso’s move to the Bundesliga champions, Madrid have consistently proven that when necessary, money talks. Given Bayern’s relative financial prudence when compared to the free-wheeling capabilities of an eager Real Madrid and Florentino Pérez, it is doubtful that Alonso’s move to Munich would have been sanctioned had Madrid been keen to hold onto him. While it is equally unlikely that a conscious effort was being made to reduce costs – the reported wages of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale alone present contrary intentions – Alonso’s doubts regarding consistent playing time may well have been the decisive factor for moving on. Cut from a similar, albeit not quite identical cloth as Paul Scholes – a player that even the ruthless Alex Ferguson cherished far beyond the age of 32 – Alonso would have been to all outside interpretations, a player around whom a series of further successes could have been enabled after last season’s triumph. This is certainly the view that Pep Guardiola shares. Spain, when they finally overcame their own ‘décima’ syndrome in claiming the European Championships in 2008 are a prime example of what a team without severe mental shackling can do with a winning formula in hand.
Yet, to Madrid’s apparent madness there does appear to be a loose line of logic. Countless clubs in their own specific realm of capability have forever proven that the acquisition of relative stars alone does not guarantee on-pitch success any more than it assures an off-pitch camaraderie. For Real Madrid however, this process is by now as fundamental a part of the club’s imprint as the benefits of La Masia appear to be for Barcelona.
Of course, the holier-than-thou opinion held by many who tout Barcelona’s ‘purer’ approach to success tends to overlook the subtler hundreds of millions that has been spent courting the same dreams that Real harbour. While Real’s own special brand of youthful prospects-cum-first-team regulars are fewer on the ground, their ambition for success is omnipresent. In dispensing with Alonso, it can be assumed that where once Manchester City’s perennial performer of the mid to late 2000’s Richard Dunne, was sacrificed due to Garry Cook’s judgement that Dunne’s name would not ‘roll off the tongue in Beijing’, so too is Xabi Alonso a fading force in a ruthless merchandising market. A player of far greater global acknowledgement than Dunne, one can nonetheless deduce that when in the business of selling a brand to an ever-expanding global market, a recently crowned World Cup winner and a star of the same competition, á la Kroos and Rodriguez, make for easier sells when compared to ageing star who has called to a halt his international career.
Whether Madrid’s policy will sit well with Ancelotti in the long-term is anyone’s guess. The likelihood of his being in charge this time next year, given the Madridista temperament, is about as predictable as the Grand National. What is strikingly disconcerting about this policy of transferring players to and fro is the fact that in a team of global superstars, a more centred group of domestic players is usually required to strike a winning balance. From his playing days as a competitive mercenary in an A.C. Milan team that Four Four Two magazine held up to be the second greatest of all time only after Cuyff’s Ajax, Ancelotti, more than most, knows this particular truth in its most compelling reality.