Carlo Ancelotti and Zinedine Zidane aren’t just two of the best managers in Real Madrid history; they are two of the greatest managers in the history of football. Each of them has a different style and has accomplished feats no other manager in history has. Zizou with his three-peat, Carlo with his four Champions Leagues (and two as a player) and league titles in every top five European league.
Zizou’s three-peat will forever be in the hearts of Madridistas and may be the greatest achievement by a manager in modern football. He is also owed a great debt of gratitude for returning for a second stint, winning the league with a weak side, and keeping the team competitive in a tumultuous 2020/21
So I do not mean to disparage Zidane when I write this piece. Instead, I mean to give credit to Carlo Ancelotti, especially as it is in response to something I criticized him heavily for earlier in the season – perhaps too harshly.
Zidane walked away from Real Madrid after feeling like he was placed under unfair pressure. And he has a point. However, the fans and club also have a point in a way. Real Madrid were not showing any progress on the pitch as an attack, with the young players Rodrygo Goes and Vinicius Jr. stagnating in their development. Worse yet – and this the part where I actually disagree with Zidane – Real were nearly knocked out of the group stages of the Champions League after losing to Shakhtar Donetsk twice and dropping points against Borussia Monchengladbach.
Now, Zidane did well to bounce back from those setbacks, leading the team to two wins over Inter Milan, a decisive win over Gladbach, and eliminations of Atalanta and Liverpool. But when Real faced their first true test of the Champions League, they were embarrassed by Chelsea, precisely because Zidane did not respond to the major issues that plagued the team in 2020/21: a toothless attack, a team vulnerable defensively in transition, and a lack of ideas in the final third when in possession.
Real Madrid played too slow, and they were never able to tweak their playing style for the big matches, hence why they dropped so many points that cost them the league title.
Ancelotti had his own issues with the squad’s stability, and he was humiliated in some matches, such as the 4-0 loss in El Clasico. Don Carlo suffered the kind of defeats Real Madrid never did under Zizou, because Carletto’s team was less organized and more dependent on individuals.
At the end of the day, though, Carlo was successful in LaLiga and the Champions League. Yes, LaLiga was easier, but he beat the very best teams in a row in the UCL – including three teams that Zidane never beat in previous years in Manchester City, Chelsea, and PSG.
Carlo Ancelotti adapted, but Zinedine Zidane could not
The key difference is that Ancelotti changed his ideas and learned from his mistakes. Aside from super-sub Eduardo Camavinga, Ancelotti did not have any substantial upgrades on the squad Zizou had in the previous seasons.
But Carlo was able to get more out of the likes of Vini Jr. and Rodrygo – and he was even able to get decisive contributions from Dani Ceballos and Jesus Vallejo. Even without David Alaba healthy, he still beat Manchester City. So do not give me the injury excuse either.
Ancelotti changed his ways at the exact right time. He experimented and came up with plans. Ancelotti took the criticism in stride and never lashed out at the fans and the press. Talk about disrespect? The stuff people were saying about Ancelotti was way, way worse than the stuff they said about Zidane. There were people questioning Carlo’s entire legacy in the sport and acting as if he was the worst manager in the entire league.
But really, he was the best manager in the entire world by the end of the season. Why? Because he adapted. Zidane was one of the world’s most adaptive managers during the three-peat, but in 2020/21, he stuck to the same formula that got him burned, and it led to a grueling season where Real fell short.
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I do not blame Zizou too much, though. He still did a great job with what he had. It’s just that Carlo did an even better job, and we have to give Carlo all the credit in the world for exceeding every expectation we had for him and the team in 2021/22 – and for proving our vicious doubts wrong. And he did it by listening and executing these necessary changes at the right time.