As pep Guardiola sat down to start work on the ‘Johan Cruyff box’ that Erling Haaland has only continued to liberate in recent weeks, one of the Catalan’s main concerns has been equating the Norwegian movement with maintaining control in the Champions League. They don’t always seem to match.
Even though he’s now blessed with the world’s top goalscorer, “maintaining control in the Champions League” has ruled Guardiola’s thinking on almost everything, and has been for the last few seasons. The Catalan would of course not admit that publicly as he feels it feeds into an unhelpful public narrative about his ‘obsession’ with the competition.
That’s exactly how high-ranking numbers are Manchester City However, I have described it privately, and some say it goes further. They not only believe that Guardiola wants a third Champions League. They believe he wants the record for most in history, as befits someone regarded as perhaps the greatest coach of all time. It’s also how much emotional energy he put into it. You only have to watch the footage of him theatrically falling to the ground as Real Madrid’s Vinicius Junior rips his wing off after a minor slip in last season’s semi-finals.
There’s a significant amount of ego involved, of course, but that’s not meant as a criticism. The intensity of the work means that elite managers must, almost by definition, be self-absorbed. It’s almost a requirement to get to the top and stay there. An innate pride is why so many coaches stick with a style even as the broader game passes them by, because it’s a matter of proving they still have it.
It happened to Arsene Wenger. It happened to Jose Mourinho. It’s happened to almost everyone except the character whose record Guardiola is actually chasing. Carlo Ancelotti Coincidentally, the manager also stands in the Catalan’s way.
The Italian is aiming to extend his record with a fifth Champions League title while Guardiola searches for a long-awaited third place. You can understand a certain frustration, since everything seems to be so easy for Ancelotti, while Guardiola is going through so many long nights of soul in the Champions League. Last season’s semifinals were different.
The real Madrid Coach is often asked the secret by footballers and the answer is revealing.
“You can’t have an ego,” says Ancelotti. “Listen to your players, ask their opinion, trust them.”
Even that seems to contradict much of the systems-driven management that fostered the Guardiola era. It’s not the only way Ancelotti defies the supposedly defining trends of the modern game. Far from hampering managers like Guardiola, the Italian should be made obsolete.
It’s not just tactical theorizing, either. It seemed to be the reality of their recent roles, particularly at Bayern Munich. When Ancelotti succeeded Guardiola at the German club in 2016, players were stunned by the drop in intensity and preparation. It all seemed so lax and without tactical ideas. The stitches began to unravel, leading to Ancelotti’s early sacking.
That was the way the game went. The system prevailed, all the more so when it was used intensively. If you wanted to go to a higher level, you needed an idea that would amplify the whole thing. All the stars had to submit to it.
Ancelotti instead appeared to be following many other managers from the previous era and retiring from the top of the game. His jobs showed that. He went from the final stages of the Champions League to trying to break into the competition at Napoli and then hovering around in midfield with Everton.
And yet here he is at the top again, with a historic Champions League record that Guardiola wants so badly, as well as the trophy itself. It all came without wanting to leave a major mark on the game. All Ancelotti wants to do, like how they got past City last year, is to come through to ensure he has four Champions Leagues and Guardiola still only has two.
It makes it clear that they are not both dividing lines in football history, but rather opposite approaches in a game that still has many blurred lines.
That goes for the jobs they both last entered. They weren’t the same. The current city football project was specially built for Guardiola according to his ideals. For him, it’s almost the perfect football backdrop. There would be football symmetry if he won the Champions League again, finalizing the most modern side with ‘the box’ that Barcelona won their first European Cup in 1992.
In Ancelotti’s last appointment, there was none of that lofty philosophizing. There was certainly a great project when the Madrid hierarchy decided to play 4-3-3 for the next decade. However, Ancelotti was far from perfect as he was brought back when club president Florentino Perez could no longer get anyone. It was little more than a compromise.
While City were made for Guardiola, Madrid had to settle for Ancelotti.
It just so happened that he was able to work very well within those limitations. He was excellent at adapting to what he was given, which was one of the best young teams in the world.
This is another area where the picture is clouded. It’s not entirely wrong to say that Ancelotti looked left behind. He didn’t excel at either Napoli or Everton. But he didn’t have what he has in Madrid now.
It points to one of many contrasts in this game, one that can decide where the Champions League ends. It stands idealist against pragmatist, as well as collective control against individual moments. While Guardiola sets the whole identity of a club, Ancelotti makes him feel better. The 4-3-3 wasn’t his idea, so he’s just working on improving it when needed. He knows how to talk to players, empower them and make sure they always feel involved. Ancelotti is also considered the best in the world when it comes to timing substitutions. Some of this comes from an instinctive sense of how a game is going, “the point of a game”. That was evident in last year’s dramatic semi-final comeback, not least when Ancelotti consulted Marcelo and Toni Kroos on the touchline.
That’s what he meant when he talked about no ego and listened to the players. However, there is another blurred line here. Ancelotti still had enough pride to interrupt a question at a recent press conference and point out that he does a lot more than just lead people.
His record speaks for itself. It’s one Guardiola would love to claim as his own.
This semi-final could help decide that. Guardiola’s ‘box’ could indeed come full circle in his career as it represents the completeness of his tactical idea and could bring a first Champions League title since Barcelona.
Such ingenious reinterpretations of the past have taken football into the future. It’s just that one of his most historic figures, in Ancelotti, remains a key figure.