In 2016, Bayern Munich faced a very difficult task. The club had to find a successor to Pep Guardiola. Only one came into play: Carlo Ancelotti. For us players, this meant a change on the one hand. What Ancelotti said in a week, Guardiola said in three hours. On the other hand, as was the case for his predecessor, it was also true for Ancelotti: as a player, you feel at ease because you feel that the coach is ready to put his methods to the team layout. That is why he succeeds everywhere.
In a poll on who is the best coach in the world, very few would say Carlo Ancelotti, even in Italy. Still, he has a unique record. He is the only one to soon be titled in the five major European championships: with Milan in Serie A, Chelsea in the Premier League, Paris Saint‑Germain in Ligue 1 and Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga, while with Real Madrid he is on the verge of winning La Liga.
Nor is there a coach who has won the Champions League more often, three times, or with more clubs, two. Ancelotti is also one of seven men to have carried this trophy in the air as a player and as a coach. As a player, he prevailed because he possessed extraordinary strategic skills. Ancelotti was part of the legendary Milan team led by Arrigo Sacchi, who taught the concept of football to great individual players. Ancelotti was therefore on the pitch when a revolution was taking place, when the operating system for the modern game against the ball was being programmed: ball-oriented zone marking, the master plan of which is still relevant .
This experience is the sine qua non for a high-level coach. Any coach who hasn’t played at the highest level is missing something that Ancelotti went through. And so his deep understanding of the game, the players, the professional football environment comes from within. A dogmatic coach he is not. All his teams have a tactical level, he thinks defensively. But as a player, you get your freedom. Ancelotti is the best at handling extreme characters.
Ancelotti also got along with powerful men like Silvio Berlusconi, Roman Abramovich, Florentino Pérez or Nasser al-Khelaifi. After a few weeks in Munich, he approached me and asked me who had more to say, Uli Hoeness or Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. It was important for him to know who was giving the thumbs up or the thumbs down within the club.
When he trained us, it was sometimes chaotic in the locker room. In short, stuff for kids. Ancelotti was supposed to provide discipline. He was given a list of five points that we players should pay attention to in the future. After practice, he pulled me aside, showed me the list and said, “Now they’re taking me by the balls.”
Then Ancelotti stood in the dressing room in front of the team, looked at a piece of paper and said, “I have an order from the board to read you a list.” What he said, his tone, his appearance, expressed: “It’s not part of my job, I’m not coaching a youth team after all. But if the bosses want me to do it, I will. Some players countered that signing thousands of autograph cards a month was too much for them. Ancelotti said: “It would be the same for me.”
Ancelotti is independent. He has charm, humor and a certain nonchalance. He manages to keep his distance. He would often sit in a restaurant with his family for an hour and a half after the final whistle and eat tortellini. Growing up as a farmer’s son in Reggiolo, northern Italy, Ancelotti used to help out on the farm in his youth. He embodies what is possible in football. You can come from the bottom up and shine on a big stage. Yet he never takes himself too seriously.
Those who ask today how one can succeed in five countries with five languages should know: footballers do a lot of things non-verbally. And Ancelotti has mastered the 50 important words needed for this game in all languages. Top-level football is international. Real, PSG, chelsea, Bayern and Milan differ in style only in nuances. Ancelotti is the ideal solution to quietly take over such teams.
In Madrid, he surely likes the exuberant universal talent of Karim Benzema, the intelligence of the game of Luka Modric, the precision of the passes of Toni Kroos. Benzema’s missteps, on the other hand, interest him less, and he no longer wants to teach Kroos how to defend. As manager of Real, he is aware that a debacle can happen, like the 4-0 loss against Barcelona. Genius is simply not available in all games. Ancelotti knows it and the players know he knows it. They support each other because he is one of them.
He does not lose his temper after defeats but places himself in front of his players. The team and the coach are a unit, it is a merit of Ancelotti. the 3-1 win over PSG and at Chelsea proved that Real Madrid can win not only the league but also the Champions League. I played my last year under Ancelotti. When I told him I was quitting my career, he asked me to reconsider. He said I could play at this level until I was 40. When he realized that I had made up my mind, he tried to get me to become his assistant coach. But I wanted to take some distance.
He loves what he does and loves football and footballers. That’s why everyone loves playing for the great coach Carlo Ancelotti.
Chronicle of Philipp Lahm appears regularly in the Guardian. This is produced in partnership with Oliver Fritsch at online time, the German online magazine, and is published in several European countries. Luca Lezzi from La Repubbliit helped research for this column.