“I don’t know if I’ll be here next season.” Not only the words of Zinedine Zidane at various points in 2021, but also of Carlo Ancelotti back in 2015.
The Italian coach could see the end coming after Juventus beat his Real Madrid team in the Champions League semi-finals.
Barcelona then wrapped up an historic treble and, just under a fortnight later, Ancelotti had been shown the door at the Santiago Bernabeu, despite the fact that the season before he had ended Los Blancos' 12-year wait for 'La Decima', their 10th European Cup.
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Zidane, Ancelotti’s then-assistant, was touted to take over but Rafa Benitez was installed for an ill-fated stint at the start of the 2015-16 season. By January 4, he had been sacked and Zidane ascended to the throne, driving Madrid on to three consecutive Champions League triumphs.
The Frenchman walked away in 2018 only to return less than a year later, after Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari had been chewed up and spat out by club president Florentio Perez.
Zidane added another league title and came close to defending it this season, before quitting the post again, leaving president Madrid with a hole to fill.
Wary of appointing unknowns, not in the football world, but new faces to Madrid, Perez turned back to comfort and security, plucking the avuncular Ancelotti from Everton and restoring him to the position he would rather have kept six years ago.
There was even a sense the Madrid supremo knew he was being harsh and hasty in ousting the coach. Indeed, when asked in 2015 if sacking Ancelotti was the right decision, Perez replied: “I don’t know."
Perez’s propensity to undermine his own coaches means there weren’t many suitable candidates to take over this time around.
Antonio Conte is a short fuse burning and a clash with the president would be inevitable and destructive. Mauricio Pochettino, having failed at Paris Saint-Germain, may have been another potential sacking-in-waiting.
Another Benitez, another Lopetegui, another Solari and another pay-off to make, for a club that doesn’t have as much money to burn as it would like. Hence, the insistence on a European Super League project, one that Ancelotti (say it quietly) publicly criticised while at Everton.
The Italian is aware of the influence Perez wields. He saw it in his first spell, when the chief wanted the players to train harder because UEFA statistics showed other teams spent more time working than Madrid. Ancelotti thought his players needed and deserved the extra rest.
However, Ancelotti is reliable, in Perez’s eyes. The coach is somewhat obedient, and is wise to be; he understands where the power lies at Madrid and the rules of the game. The Italian did not make a fuss when he was dismissed, certainly not like Zidane and his brutal open letter firing shots at Perez and the board.
“(Ancelotti) knows Real Madrid perfectly, he knows how the club works and everything that surrounds the job,” Alvaro Arbeloa told Real Madrid TV on Tuesday. The former defender is likely to be appointed as assistant manager.
Ancelotti will play all the president’s men. James Rodriguez featured heavily under him last time around, for example, while Benitez’s distrust of the Colombian fed into his downfall.
It was also Carlo who drew perhaps the best performances from Gareth Bale during his time in Spain. “(Back then Bale) still prioritised the big ball over the golf ball,” noted Santi Siguero in Marca.
There’s a chance the Welshman could return next season after his loan at Tottenham, with one more year to go on his deal. However, Ancelotti noted in his book Quiet Leadership that Bale sent his agent to visit Perez to demand the Welshman be used as a central striker, instead of asking the coach himself.
Sacked by Bayern Munich and Napoli, last season Ancelotti took Everton to a mid-table finish in the Premier League, a campaign which started well but ended with stolid, at times dismal football.
Given Madrid fans weren’t overly impressed by the coach’s playing style the first time around, nothing he’s done on Merseyside is evidence that the situation has improved.
Ancelotti has not been in the top bracket of coaches for a while, which makes him a disappointing, backwards selection in the eyes of some Madrid fans.
But Zidane was no tactical genius, and brought significant success to Madrid, because of his fine man-management. Ancelotti can do that too, both with the squad and paymaster Perez.
The worry for fans is Ancelotti may slow down the renewal process necessary at Madrid, trying to keep some of the men who served him so well in his first spell – Ramos, Isco, Marcelo – but it may well be why Perez hired him.
“It’s a team and a club more ready for a revolution than for good vibes, a positive mood and cigarettes,” added Siguero.
Zidane was angry about the lack of reinforcement offered to him, with Perez unwilling to put his chips behind the coach in the transfer market.
“I feel the club no longer has the faith in me I need, nor the support to build something in the medium or long term,” complained Zidane in AS. If Ancelotti can squeeze any more drops of success out of the current squad without significant new investment, it will stem the financial bleeding.
In personal terms, returning makes sense for Ancelotti. It’s a chance to return to the elite, against the curve of his career at this point. He will be rewarded for it, and if and when the sack comes again, even more so.
"While I have enjoyed being at Everton I have been presented with an unexpected opportunity which I believe is the right move for me and my family at this time,” said Ancelotti.
Whether it is the right move for Real Madrid, only time will tell, but right now the clocks are running backwards at the Bernabeu.