Coaching & Development | May 25, 2016
Leading from the Top and Managing Outrageous Talent

Carlo Ancelotti has managed Milan, Chelsea, Paris St Germain and now Real Madrid within the space of five years. If he wins the Spanish title, he will have completed a rapid quartet of national championships. If he goes one better and wins “la decima”, Madrid’s tenth Champions League, it would be his third time winning club football’s biggest prize. Few managers have been as successful. Simon Kuper asks Carlo what he’s learned from his years at the pinnacle of the sport.

When you arrive at Real Madrid’s training ground just north of the city, you glimpse the hysteria that surrounds this club. Even on a quiet afternoon when there’s no training, a couple of dozen journalists, TV cameras and autograph hunters are waiting by the gate just in case something happens. Yet once through the door of the club with the highest revenues in all of sport (€521 million last year), suddenly all is quiet. Everything possible has been done to keep the hysteria locked outside. In the coaches’ room, I met Real’s manager, Carlo Ancelotti, and over cups of high-class espresso, he offered some fascinating insights into his trade:

Don’t think your good playing career will automatically make you a good coach.

The central midfielder Ancelotti was the brains of “il grande Milan” that won the European Cup in 1989 and 1990. As a coach he has inevitably drawn on his playing career. For instance, he doesn’t explain to players why he is benching them, unless they explicitly ask. When he was benched as a player, he recalls, “The manager would come and say, ‘You have to be focused.’ And when he turned away, I would say, ‘Fuck you, I want to play.’” It isn’t a useful conversation.

However, he adds: “It’s very important to know that the experience as a player can help you in just one situation: I can understand what the players are thinking. But you have to study to be a manager.” To paraphrase his own manager at Milan, Arrigo Sacchi: a good horse doesn’t automatically make a jockey.

Find ways to deal with stress, and help your players do the same.

When Carlo started coaching at little Reggiana in 1995, the stress overwhelmed him. “I said at the end of the first year, I do this three or four years, and after this, holiday.” Chuckling, he quotes his first mentor, Nils Liedholm, the Swede who coached him at Roma: “The coach has the best job in the world, with the exception of the matches.”

But today Carlo is a relaxed coach, who says he doesn’t feel he’s about to have a heart attack on the bench. How did he do it? When he loses a game, he explains, he analyses his methods systematically. If he concludes that they are correct, then the defeat itself cannot alter that.

In short, he focusses more on processes than results. Even after Milan’s shock defeat to Liverpool in Istanbul in 2005 – they lost on penalties after having led 3-0 on halftime – he could be seen in the hotel bar later that night, chatting cheerily with whoever was around. Convinced that Milan had played well, he didn’t fret too much about the defeat. He explains: “I am focused on my job. It doesn’t matter what happens around me. I’m not so depressed when the result is not good, I am not so happy when the result is good. I don’t think that on my shoulders there is a lot of pressure, because I love this job. I think the pressure on the manager is normal.” Anyway, he quotes an Italian saying: ““Football is the most important of the less important things in the world.”

Mike Forde, Chelsea’s director of football operations when Carlo coached the club from 2009 to 2011, says Carlo takes the situation seriously but not himself. By not showing the pressure he is under, he protects others from stress. It’s often thought that a manager has to motivate players; Carlo understands that just as often they need to be calmed down. Before games he’ll ritually tell jokes in the changing-room.

Be alert to cultural differences.

Some coaches treat their own methods as sacrosanct, but Carlo arrives in each country looking for little differences: “In England in general, teams have less tactical skills defensively. In France the teams are hard, physically, because there are a lot of African players. And in Spain, teams have the pleasure to play football. You have to adapt your methodology to these differences.”

A manager doesn’t have to rule like an autocrat.

even though that’s a common mode in the profession. Carlo believes that every coach must find a management style that suits his character. He himself is a democrat by temperament.  “Here I can decide: training at six in the morning, training eleven in the night. But my style is not to impose. I would like to convince the players of what they are doing. This takes more time.”

Accordingly, he tries to treat players as adults. Sometimes this works against him. Clubs typically recruit Carlo because they like his management by consent, but in hard times they accuse him of being too soft on players.

However, he thinks that if the coach can win the players’ consent to his project, they are more likely to get behind it than when it’s forced on them. So he tries to give his team responsibility. Before Chelsea played Portsmouth in the FA Cup final of 2010, for instance, he asked his starting eleven to decide the match strategy. He recalls: “Everyone said one thing. For example, [goalkeeper Petr] Cech said, ‘You have to control the space behind, to avoid the counterattack.’ That season we played 60 games, and 60 times I made the strategy. So I think the players understood very well what they had to do.”

Still, why try something so risky before a crucial match? “I was sure the players followed the strategy, because they made the strategy. Sometimes I make the strategy, but you don’t know if the players really understand the strategy. Sometimes I joke with the players: ‘Did you understand the strategy?’ ‘Yes, yes!’ ‘Repeat, please!’” Chelsea beat Portsmouth 1-0 to complete the league-and-cup Double.

A top player can be a role model for the others.

When Carlo became coach of Paris Saint-Germain in 2011, he encountered a less professional club than Milan or Chelsea. For a start, PSG’s team was divided into ethnic factions. He says, “We had the South Americans, the French, the Italians. The relationship is not easy. The South Americans like to play with each other. The Italians the same. The players were not used to having a winning mentality. Training was at eleven am, usually. The players were used to come at 10.30, train – and 12.30, one o’clock to leave the training ground. To change this was not easy, to tell them: ‘You have to stay after training, to eat properly, to drink properly, to rest.’ You cannot miss one day. It was important to have [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic, the best player with good professionalism. He was a model for others to follow in training sessions, because he concentrated every time.”

Similarly, Cristiano Ronaldo now sets the example at Madrid. Carlo says superstars tend to be easier to manage than “normal players” because “usually they more are professional than the others. Ronaldo is really professional,” and he blows out his cheeks in admiration. The Portuguese has even been known to jump into an ice bath at 5am after returning from a European match abroad.

No matter how much a player is paid, he is a person not an automaton.

Especially if he has moved to a new country, he needs help from his coach to settle in. Carlo says, “It’s not easy, above all for players that leave England. I think of Ian Rush, Michael Owen.” The longtime Liverpool striker Rush returned from a bad year in Italy in 1988 complaining, “It was like another country”. Likewise, Owen left Real Madrid after a year, homesick for English food and weather. It’s not only the British: Nicolas Anelka had a disastrous experience in Madrid in 1999/2000.

Carlo says of Gareth Bale: “My job is to help him be comfortable on the pitch, comfortable with teammates.” He adds that the player is adapting well to Madrid: “Bale didn’t have a lot of problems, because he is a humble man, not very demanding. He doesn’t want too much.” Importantly too, the player is “starting to speak Spanish”.

Be nice to your staff, from top to bottom.

Twenty years ago, a coach might have run a whole club almost single-handedly. Today, at a club like Real, the head coach is a delegator overseeing dozens of staffers. It helps if these physical trainers, data analysts, doctors, goalkeepers’ coaches etcetera like you. The night before our conversation, Carlo took about fifty colleagues to the Basque restaurant Mesón Txistu, and picked up the bill himself.

The Leader

To understand Carlo’s leadership style, ‘Performance’ spoke with Mike Forde, formerly Chelsea’s Executive Director of Football Operations, who worked with Carlo for 2 years. Mike identified 5 features that marked him out as a leader.

‘Servant Leadership’

I have been asked several times to describe Carlo’s leadership style. I would say it is more ‘servant leadership’ or better put, to lead the people around him through great insight and experience, but doing so from behind. He allows people to have opinions and feel as though they are designing both the vision and the strategy. Therefore when it comes to execution people feel as though they own a part of the process and ultimately by default a greater sense of responsibility and commitment to Carlo. This engenders an ‘Adult – Adult’ environment where people are expected and seek responsibility and accountability.

Humility and Will to Win

When you meet Carlo for the first time what is so striking is his humility. Here is a guy who has won everything as a player and now as a coach and yet when YOU begin to talk he is the first one to lean in and listen. No interruptions, no outbursts, just a very calm and very considered guy. People enjoy talking with him and therefore feel comfortable volunteering personal information about themselves, which no doubt helps him manage them and the situation with a lot less conflict and stress. In addition, when you get to know him and see him work up close you quickly realise the flip side of his personality ‘coin’ is an unbelievable professionalism and ‘will to win’. He doesn’t put it out there first but you see that it is this that makes people respect him so much.

Take the Situation Seriously … but NOT Yourself

Elite sport at the very top is a constant, daily pressure. There are no small games and every moment and decision matters. In this environment it is easy to take the situation too seriously and more importantly yourself. Carlo has a great ability to hold that pressure internally yet protect the energy and motivation of the people around him by not transferring it to them. I think this comes from his background and upbringing and the conscious decision not to take himself too seriously.

Alignment of Purpose and People

It is easy in any fast moving and dynamic environment to lose sight – often through no fault of the individual – of the sense of purpose and where people fit into the process. Carlo has an inbuilt ability to have a strong sense of the big picture (be it in player fatigue management over the course of a season or in-game management of high pressure Champions League matches). His ability to take a daily pulse on the physical, mental and emotional energy levels of people and align them with the group’s daily needs as well as the team’s over-arching season objectives was impressive to observe. His ability to ‘stay in the moment’ with individuals gave him the space paradoxically to think about and prepare for the bigger picture.


In any heavily results dependent industry it is easy to decide on a set model of operating along with a concise and well thought through strategy and set of tactics and irrespective of circumstances push on and try to execute this. With Carlo what makes him unique is DESPITE his success, and irrespective of ways in which he has been successful in the past, there is a part of him that is always ready to learn and adapt to new ideas and ways of working. Everywhere he has been he has been successful but everywhere he has worked he has had a part of his model that is truly adaptable to the environment, organisation, culture and type of players he has inherited. This takes humility, intelligence, a strong ‘will to win’ and the belief it takes everyone and everything to be successful.

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