Up in the stands of Goodison Park on Sunday, Carlo Ancelotti and Mikel Arteta sat and observed their new teams, their minds no doubt already racing with ideas and theories as to how to improve the situation at their respective clubs.
Mikel Arteta was likely buzzing with excitement at the prospect of steadying the ship at his former club, while the experienced Italian Ancelotti was brought in to restore an old titan of English football that had lost its way and seen locals rivals rather enviously assert dominance over them in recent years.
If you have just woken up from a coma and are reading this, I do not blame you for a second if you think Carlo Ancelotti has been appointed the new Arsenal manager while Mikel Arteta’s first managerial job is at Everton. You will also, no doubt, be surprised to know that it is quite the opposite.
Mikel Arteta has been confirmed as the successor to Unai Emery’s managerial ‘throne’ whilst Ancelotti has taken over the job at Everton, a club that were in 16th place before their match against Arsenal kicked off.
Just about ten days ago, reports strongly linked Ancelotti to the Arsenal job. In fact, he was the bookies’ favourite to get the job. It seemed like Arsenal’s poor succession planning, for which they have rightly been criticised, and which is in stark contrast to Tottenham’s swift action in appointing Mourinho as Pochettino’s successor, was finally drawing to a close with the experienced Italian’s appointment.
However, Arsenal have now chosen Arteta over Ancelotti. On the other hand, in a stunning show of ambition and initiative, Everton have somehow managed to land the multiple Champions League winner instead of going backwards (in history as well as progress) by appointing ex-manager David Moyes.
I feel the decision of the Arsenal hierarchy to choose Arteta over Ancelotti has been the smartest and most prudent bit of decision-making they have engaged in for several years.
Yes, I am saying that Arsenal are right to choose an individual who has never managed before over one of the most experienced and decorated managers of the modern era. Yes, I wrote an article several months ago criticising clubs for hiring former players because they “get the club.”No, I am not hypocritical or crazy. Allow me to explain.
My argument is more “Arsenal are right to swerve Ancelotti” than “Arsenal are right to appoint Arteta.” Although, I must add here that I believe the Spaniard possesses an extremely astute and knowledgeable footballing mind. Being the right hand man for (arguably) modern football’s greatest intellectual is no mean feat. In fact, it speaks volumes of Arteta’s managerial and coaching abilities that not only did Pep Guardiola trust him with the day-to-day training drills and tactical routines, he also completely delegated entire head coach responsibilities to him for Manchester City’s Premier League game against Arsenal back in 2016 (which City won 2-1). By all accounts, he is a Guardiola disciple, an avid thinker about the game, and a man who has “lived alone with tactical diagrams.”
Whether Arsenal have made the right call by appointing Arteta is something only time will tell, but I feel they were spot on when they decided not to appoint Ancelotti.
Simply put, Arsenal are a club in turmoil. They need a serious resuscitation project which, initially, just stops their current free-fall and provides some consistency and stability. The short-to-medium term job is to take them from the 5th or 6th best squad in the country to a team that consistently finishes in the top 4. Yes, that was what Wenger was doing for so long, but that ship has sailed now. The long-term plan is obviously to transition from a consistent top 4 club to one that challenges for the title regularly, and then wins it after those consistent challenges.
For lack of a better word, Arsenal are very much a “project” right now. Arsenal fans won’t like me for saying this, but they are in a similar position to where Tottenham were in 2014 when Mauricio Pochettino was appointed. We all know what Pochettino then went on to achieve with Spurs (yes, he didn’t win any trophies, but achievements are more than just shiny silver objects).
That is the sort of manager Arsenal need right now. One that can take a club in a crisis, provide its core players with a clear and precise set of tactical ideas, provide the club with a proper playing style and identity (like all world-class managers do), and elevate it season-by-season and year-after-year into, eventually, a proper European club again.
To be blunt, Carlo Ancelotti is not that sort of manager.
Don’t get me wrong, he is an able and extremely well-decorated manager. He has won the UEFA Champions League three times as a manager and has amassed an incredible 20 trophies in total. He has managed the top clubs in all of the top 5 leagues in Europe, managing superstars and world-class players along the way.
Ancelotti has clearly had a successful managerial career, and it is easy to think that a household name in football management can come in to a struggling club like Everton and instill a winning culture by harnessing his unparalleled experience and know-how. The problem with that would be ignoring the clear trends and signs that show where the Italian has managed in his career, where he has had his success, and how he has achieved said success.
Ancelotti has always, apart from the start of his career, managed teams that are near or at the top of their respective leagues. Milan, Chelsea, Paris Saint German, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich all spring to mind. Even the Napoli side he took over was one that had won over 90 points in Serie A in the season before his arrival.
Another way to put his managerial record is this: he has never managed a club in Arsenal’s current situation. He has never been brought in to a club in crisis and been asked to steady the proverbial ship. He has never been told to operate with a squad that ranks outside the top 5 in the league, even on paper. He has never been told to make do with a low budget in which he cannot buy established players like Thiago Silva, Matts Hummels, Tooni Kroos, Jamez Rodriguez and Gareth Bale. This is not a slight on Ancelotti by any means – they are just facts highlighting that he has operated in starkly different situations than the one Arsenal are in.
Ancelotti’s strength has mostly always been his man-management skills and the ability to maintain squad harmony whilst allowing his best players to play freely. He has the knack of making top players play to their utmost potential and get the best out of everyone, which he has done at almost all of the top clubs that he has managed. He always puts squad morale and general happiness over systems and footballing philosophies.
This is quite a desertion from the usual stereotype of an Italian manager. Whenever you hear about Italian managers like Arrigo Sachi, Marcelo Lippi and Fabio Cappelo, you always associate an unwavering and unequivocal obsession and belief in tactical detail and organisation. That is not the case with Ancelotti.
There have been reports about him leading Bayern training while smoking a cigarette. Some reports even say that his training sessions at Bayern Munich were too lax and laid-back. In fact, it has been claimed that Arjen Robben used to organise “secret training sessions” behind Ancelotti’s back because the Italian’s sessions were too simple for the Bayern Munich players, who were used to the intense and tactically complex sessions of Pep Guardiola.
Ancelotti’s man-management and people-centric approach works well with super-clubs where the majority of players are at an elite level and generally work well under a fluid system. It works well when the major agenda at hand is somehow making all the world-class players play together in a way that maximises the team’s benefit. It is geared towards keeping top players and big egos happy with the manager and with their fellow players. The approach is not effective when the team is devoid of confidence, tactical ideas and any sort of coordination. It is also not ideal when good or average players have to be coached and improved in order to create a team that is greater than the sum of its parts.
The Italian manager’s approach is not really suited to consistent excellence in the league either. He is a master of the Champions League, no doubt, but for all the great clubs and world-class squads he has managed, one can’t help but think that Ancelotti has underperformed in the league throughout his career.
He won only one Serie A title with that incredible AC Milan squad which boasted the likes of Maldini, Nesta, Cafu, Pirlo, Gattuso, Seedorf, Kaka and Shevchenko. Although he won the league with Paris Saint German, he only did so in his second season. In the first season, he finished runners up to Montpellier, despite having a much better squad and extremely vast financial resources. He did not win La Liga with Real Madrid despite facing a stuttering Barcelona team in the 2013-14 season (Atletico Madrid ran out winners in the end).
Even with Napoli, the side’s league performances dropped significantly. In the 2017-18 season, they won over 90 points with Maurizio Sarri. In 2018-19, Ancelotti came in and the team finished with 79 points, which was no disaster considering their resources, but it was not elite either. This year, Napoli have struggled massively in the league, so much so that the Italian has been let go by the club mid-season.
Therefore, There is a fundamental and systemic difference between what Arsenal need and what Ancelotti is. They need a clear and consistent push in the league for the next few seasons at least, which sees them cement themselves as a regular top 4 club once more. Ancelotti might have gotten Arsenal a shiny silver object at the end of one of the seasons, but he would not have taken them back to the top.
What Arteta does at Arsenal, and what Carlo does at Everton, will both be quite interesting. I for one will be very surprised if Carlo Ancelotti is the reason Everton start breaking into the top 6 like Leicester have done this season. But the beauty of football is this: you never know.