As Pep Guardiola sat down to begin working on the “Johan Cruyff box” that has only further released Erling Haaland in the last few weeks, one of the Catalan’s main concerns was the equation of marrying the Norwegian’s movement with maintaining control in the Champions League. They don’t always seem to fit.
Even though he is now blessed with the best goalscorer in the world, “maintaining control in the Champions League’’ governs Guardiola’s thinking in almost everything, and has done for the last few seasons. The Catalan wouldn’t publicly admit that, of course, since he feels it feeds into an unhelpful public narrative about his “obsession” with the competition.
That is precisely how senior figures at Manchester City have privately described it, though, and some feel it goes even further. They don’t just think Guardiola wants a third Champions League. They believe he wants the record for the most in history, as should befit someone viewed as perhaps the greatest coach of all time. There is also how much emotional energy he has put in, too. You only have to watch the footage of him theatrically crumpling to the ground as Real Madrid’s Vinicius Junior tears down the wing after one minor slip in last season’s semi-final.
There is naturally a significant amount of ego in this, but that isn’t said as a criticism. The intensity of the job means elite managers must almost by definition be self-absorbed. It’s close to a prerequisite of getting to the top and staying there. An inherent pride is why so many coaches stay wedded to a style even as the wider game moves past them, because it becomes about proving they still have it.
It happened to Arsene Wenger. It happened to Jose Mourinho. It happened to almost everyone, except the figure whose record Guardiola is actually chasing. Carlo Ancelotti also happens to be the manager fittingly standing in the Catalan’s way.
The Italian is aiming to extend his record with a fifth Champions League, as Guardiola looks for a long-awaited third. You could understand a certain amount of frustration at that, since it all seems to come so easy to Ancelotti at the same time as Guardiola endures so many long nights of the soul in the Champions League. Last season’s semi-final was another.
The Real Madrid manager is frequently asked about the secret of all this by football people, and the answer is instructive.
“You have to have no ego,” Ancelotti says. “Listen to your players, ask their opinion, trust them.”
Even that seems to go against a lot of the system-led management that the Guardiola era has fostered. It is not the only way Ancelotti has defied the supposedly defining trends of the modern game. Far from obstructing managers like Guardiola, the Italian was supposed to be rendered obsolete.
That isn’t just tactical theorising, either. It seemed the reality of their last few roles, especially at Bayern Munich. When Ancelotti succeeded Guardiola at the German club in 2016, the players were staggered at the drop-off in intensity and preparation. It all seemed so lax and lacking in tactical ideas. The seams began to come apart, leading to Ancelotti’s early sacking.
This was the way of the game. System prevailed, all the more so when it was intensely applied. If you wanted to go to a higher level, you needed an idea that amplified the whole. Any stars had to subsume themselves to that.
Ancelotti instead seemed to be following many other managers from the previous era in receding from the top end of the game. His jobs showed that. He went from the Champions League latter stages to just trying to get into the competition at Napoli and then floating around mid-table with Everton.
And yet here he is back at the summit, with an historic Champions League record that Guardiola so wants, as well as the trophy itself. That has all come without wanting to leave any greater imprint on the game. All Ancelotti wants to do is get by, as they got past City last year, to ensure he has four Champions Leagues and Guardiola still only has two.
It illustrates that, rather than both representing dividing lines in football history, they represent opposite approaches in a game that still has a lot of blurred lines.
That applies to the jobs they both came into most recently. They weren’t the same. The current City football project was specifically constructed for Guardiola, according to his ideals. It is almost the perfect football setting for him. There would be a football symmetry if he was to win the Champions League again by finalising the most modern team with “the box” that won Barcelona their first European Cup in 1992.
There was none of this lofty philosophising with Ancelotti’s last appointment. There was a grand project, sure, as the Madrid hierarchy decided they were going to play 4-3-3 for the next decade. Far from being the perfect fit for that, though, Ancelotti was brought back because club president Florentino Perez couldn’t get anyone else. It was little more than a compromise.
So, while City were made for Guardiola, Madrid had to make do with Ancelotti.
It just so happened he was able to work very well within those constraints. He could adapt superbly to what he was given, which was one of the best young squads in the world.
This is another area where the picture is clouded. It isn’t completely wrong to say Ancelotti looked left behind. He didn’t excel at either Napoli or Everton. But he didn’t have what he has now at Madrid.
It points to one of many contrasts in this game, one that may decide where the Champions League ends up. It is idealist against pragmatist, as well as collective control against individual moments. Similarly, while Guardiola sets a club’s entire identity, Ancelotti just makes it feel better about itself. The 4-3-3 wasn’t his idea so he just works to make it better as and when required. He knows how to talk to players, enabling them and ensuring they always feel involved. Ancelotti is also said to be the best in the world at the timing of substitutions. Some of that comes from an instinctive feel for how a match is going, “the sense of a game”. It could be seen in last year’s dramatic semi-final comeback, not least when Ancelotti consulted Marcelo and Toni Kroos on the sideline.
This is exactly what he meant when he spoke about no ego and listening to players. There’s another blurred line here, though. Ancelotti still had sufficient pride to stop a question at a recent press conference and point out that he does a lot more than man-management.
His record speaks to that. It is one that Guardiola would love to claim as his own.
This semi-final may go someway to deciding that. Guardiola's "box" may actually bring his career full circle, as it could represent the completeness of his tactical idea and bring a first Champions League title since Barcelona.
Such sophisticated re-interpretations of the past have moved football into the future. It's just that one of its most historic figures, in Ancelotti, remains a key part of it.