Roberto Baggio

Roberto Baggio
Il Divin Codino

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Carlo Ancelotti Will Be Like a Breath of Fresh Air at Real Madrid

The Italian's easygoing nature extends to tactics – from Parma to PSG he has learned to change according to circumstance.

Perhaps Carlo Ancelotti's greatest gift as a coach is his affability. He desperately wants to succeed but he recognises there are things in life other than football – such as food, even if he is rather slimmer now than he once was. His years at Milan under Silvio Berlusconi and at Chelsea under Roman Abramovich passed without ructions with owners noted for interfering. He even managed to cool a developing (on one side at least) feud with José Mourinho by suggesting they simply pack it in.

After the sulphurous reign of Mourinho, his breezy pleasantness will be a cleansing blast at the Bernabéu. Real Madrid can be a strange place politically but if there is any top manager equipped to handle the internal pressures, it is Ancelotti, a man seemingly able to face down most situations with a raise of his famous eyebrow (according to the journalist Sheridan Bird, the effect is the result of limited movement caused by an elbow in the face from Marco Tardelli).

His easygoing nature extends to tactics. Ancelotti may be inclined to the 4-3-2-1 on which he wrote his coaching dissertation at Coverciano but he will change according to circumstance – a lesson he learned at Parma, his first job in management. Then, he admits, he was too wedded to the 4-4-2 he had learned under Arrigo Sacchi at Milan. That he had learned it, even, said much for his character and his willingness to learn. Ancelotti arrived from Roma aged 28 and took time to adapt.

"He struggled at first," Sacchi said. "Berlusconi said we had an orchestra director who couldn't read sheet music. I told him I would teach him to sing in tune with our orchestra. Every day, I would make him come an hour before training with some kids from the youth team and we would go through everything. Eventually he sang in perfect tune."

At Parma, Ancelotti insisted on playing that way, even though that meant Gianfranco Zola playing on the left wing until he decided to move to Chelsea. It also meant he missed out on the chance to sign Roberto Baggio, who was keen to leave Milan, but wanted to play behind the front two rather than compete with Hernan Crespo and Enrico Chiesa for one of the two striking berths and so joined Bologna instead.

Now, Ancellotti insists, he would be more flexible, would find a way to accommodate a talent like Baggio's. "I lost a great opportunity to improve the team with the ability of Baggio," he said. "But that was a lack of experience. I had been a coach just two years. I didn't have the knowledge to know I could change things. And maybe I was a little bit scared to change because it was the start of my career."

He proved that in his second coaching job, at Juventus, where he switched to a back three, playing 3-4-1-2 to accommodate Zinedine Zidane behind a front two.

At Milan, it was fairly obvious Ancelotti wanted to play a 4-3-2-1 but when the order came from Berlusconi to use two central strikers, he demurred and ended up playing 4-3-1-2 slightly more than twice as often in Serie A as he did his preferred style.

At Chelsea, he tried to operate with a diamond in midfield but, realising that Frank Lampard is better with the ball in front of him than playing with his back to goal, soon adapted, using Deco or Joe Cole in the role before switching back to a shape that varied between 4-3-2-1 and 4-3-3.

In Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ancelotti found the idea front man for his 4-3-2-1 at Paris Saint-Germain, with Ezequiel Lavezzi, Jérémy Ménez, Nenê and Javier Pastore playing off him. Even then, he was prepared to change to 4-4-2 when the occasion demanded it.

It is hard to imagine Ancelotti changing much in his first weeks at Madrid – although much, of course, depends on who they sign. It's certainly possible to imagine a 4-3-2-1 with Karim Benzema at the peak, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Mesut Ozil tucked behind in what would effectively be free roles, and a three of Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira and Luka Modric providing the platform. Or perhaps Angel di María could be used a little deeper than previously – as Pastore was often used at PSG – as a creative player who starts deep and then advances.

More likely, especially with Isco set to join and another forward likely, is that the 4-2-3-1 will remain. It's a system that allows the use of four creative players, plus at least one attacking full-back and a player who can advance from deep and so fits a squad who are both heavy on attacking players, the inclinations of the president Florentino Pérez and the way Madrid need to play in a league in which they are expected to win the vast majority of their games.

The one problem is that Ancelotti has used a 4-2-3-1 in just 3% of the league games in which he has been coach since taking over at Juventus in 1999. For a manager so undogmatic it probably isn't an issue but it does seem he has been appointed more for his personality than because his natural tactical philosophy is a fit with the players in the squad.

The Neymar Problem

Brazil''s young susperstar lived up the hype at the Confederations Cup - but there was still cause for concren

The Cristiano Ronaldo problem has become the Neymar problem. That both are superb players is not in doubt; both are supremely skilful, capable of a sudden and devastating acceleration, and both can turn games in an instant. But they can also be negligent of their defensive duties and allow the opposing full-back to get forward untended.

Ronaldo and Neymar may be match winners far more often than they are match losers, but both create tactical issues that have proved almost insoluble. Neither, it's probably fair to say, is helped by having Marcelo, the least defensive of left-backs, playing behind them.

Last October, in a friendly against Japan in Poland, Brazil coach Mano Menezes found an innovative solution and used Neymar as a false nine in a 4-2-3-1 set-up. Hulk, who operated on the right, is no more inclined to track back than Neymar, but the deployment of Kaká and Oscar in the line of three offered energy and discipline. The result was a highly impressive 4-0 win - similar in scoreline but far more impressive than the 3-0 win in the Confederations Cup - but with the return of Luiz Felipe Scolari that experiment has passed into history.

Perhaps, particularly given the industry of Oscar, Brazil could get away with Neymar if they had a more solid full-back behind him or more defensive presence on the other flank - at Real Madrid, for instance, Angel di María's diligence provides a useful counterweight to Ronaldo. With Marcelo tearing forward at every opportunity, though, and Hulk and Dani Alves presenting exactly the same issue on the right, Brazil are vulnerable to angled ball out to the flanks. There will be times - as in that breathtaking opening quarter of an hour against Mexico - when teams find themselves taking a pummelling capable of nothing beyond desperately clinging on. But, equally, it's easy to imagine Brazil being shredded by a smart side playing on the counter-attack with rapid wingers.

Vital Attributes
Of course, Alves or Marcelo are not bad players and both have almost precisely the attributes their clubs need most in a full-back. Alves, certainly, has been vital in the past four of five years. Barcelona regularly face messed defences and having a fill-back who is quick, gifted tactically and blessed with prodigious stamina is hugely valuable - not only for the width he offers on the overlap, but for the depth he gives to the attack.

Such is Barcelona's control of possession that it hardly matters if Alves leaves space behind him. And even if he does, Gerard Piqué is adept at stepping across, with Sergio Busquets filling in as an auxiliary central defender. It's not complicated, but takes practice to get right and Brazil have not achieved it yet.

It's been an ongoing problem for them and one of the reasons Alves, ostensibly a better player, has so often been left out by Brazil for the more defensively reliable Maicon. His problems, perhaps, reached their height at the Copa América in 2011 when Paraguay's Marcelo Estigarribia attached him with such gusto and effectiveness that he earned himself a wholly implausible move to Juventus. Brazil weren't quite that vulnerable in the Confederations Cup, but equally there were major reasons for concern.

Scolari's thinking, presumably, is that the two holding players - Paulinho and Luiz Gustavo  in the Confederations Cup - can move out to the flanks to cover. That is how the 4-2-2-2 that has been the Brazilian default for three decades or so is supposed to function, with the two anchors and the two creators pulling out of the centre as necessary to create width or deny it to the opposition as the full-backs - or "laterals" to give the Brazilian name, which gives no indication of defensive responsibility - rattle up and down the flank.

The stereotype of Brazilian football as almost pathologically attacking hasn't even been close to true for 30 years or so. Very few teams have a better defensive record than Brazil and World Cups, and when they won in 1994, and again under Scolari in 2002, the real strength was their defensive midfield pairing: Dunga and Mauro Silva in the USA, and Gilberto Silva and Kleberson in 2002 (albeit with a back three). As the full-backs, Jorginho and Branco in 1994, Cafú and Roberto Carlos in 2002 - pushced on, the midfield duo provided solidity, either dropping in as additional centre-backs or pulling wide into the space vacated by the forward surge.

Brazil are well-equipped at the back of midfield - Jean and Fernando offered back-up in the Confederations Cup, while Ramires and Lucas Leiva weren't even selected - but there is little sign yet of this pairing offering the levels of backing required by the adventurous flanks. There must be concerns about how Paulinho so regularly seems to get dragged forward, which in turn exposes a back four made susceptible by what is essentially a man-to-man system that means enforcing an offside trap is all but impossible.

The flaw is not only worrying for Brazil, but also intriguing for Neymar's prospects at Barcelona.

It's probably true that no team has ever pressed so well as Barça at their peak under Pep Guardiola, and that requires extreme fitness, discipline and tactical intelligence. If Neymar is capable of that, he hasn't shown it yet. It may be that, as a designated superstar, Brazil's pretender to Lionel Messi's crown, he has been indulged at home, but at Barça he will be forced to conform.

It may go against the grain to say it, but it's plausible that by tempering Neymar's natural flair, and inspiring a greater sense of defensive responsibility, Barcelona may make him more likely to be a World Cup winner with Brazil.