Analysing Ancelotti: Transfers and Tactics

While I recognize the title is a bit silly, what I set out to accomplish in this article and what it has produced are quite different things.  Initially, I intended to look at Carlo Ancelotti’s transfer history hoping to gain some insight into what Everton can expect in the January window.  I had some concerns that Ancelotti coming in would dramatically alter the club and the current recruitment strategy under Marcel Brands.  I personally believe in Brands and believe his approach that worked at both AZ (see my previous article on Brands at AZ) and PSV of buying younger players and developing them over time to build a championship level side (usually in 4 years or so) is the right approach for Everton.  I don’t believe team with some of the restrictions Everton have in terms of Financial Fair Play can build a side to compete immediately AND in the future.  I’m sold on the developmental method and I am fine with having bit more patience.

Keep in mind, I have no doubts about Carlo Ancelotti as a manager, but I did wonder how he would fair at a bit of a longer-term project at a club that isn’t Champions League level.  Has he always just bought ready-made players designed to immediately compete?  Or has he taken more of the current Everton approach anywhere and could he work within that type of project? As a result, I took a look at each club Ancelotti has been at (other than Reggiana where information was minimal) and the recruitment strategy, the tactical approaches, and the club results.  What I found was both fascinating and encouraging.  I should also add that the players Ancelotti has worked with are unbelievable – it’s literally a who’s who of elite players over the past two decades.

Observation 1:  Oversight.  Ancelotti has worked for some of the most demanding and involved executives in football.  While I have no doubt that Ancelotti has had input at every stop at least in terms of the team needs, he has not been primarily responsible for transfer strategy at many of his clubs with the possible exceptions of Parma and Paris Saint Germain.  Just consider the following situations that Carlo has worked under:

  • Juventus. Worked under legendary transfer guru, Luciano Moggi.
  • Milan.  Worked with one of the most domineering and invasive executives of all time in Silvio Berlusconi, who was very involved if not dominated transfer policy (and everything else). 
  • Chelsea.  Worked under Roman Abramovich / Frank Amesen as a combo who were primarily responsible for transfer strategy, which included strange Russian player purchases (Yuri Zhirkov) and poor fits (Fernando Torres) with bad market returns.
  • Real Madrid.  Worked under domineering Florentino Perez, who likely bought Gareth Bale to set the transfer record at the time amongst other players and seemed to automatically fire managers every year or so.
  • Bayern Munich.  Worked under Uli Hoeneß who was a club legend, uber traditional, and was very active – to the extent that he pushed an assistant coach on Ancelotti in Sagnol that might have contributed to him “losing the dressing room”.
  • Napoli.  Worked under Aurelio De Laurentis who didn’t seem to lack ego and was heavily involved in club operations.  Ancelotti’s lack of support for the De Laurentis imposed November bootcamp probably contributed more to his removal than his team’s performances.

That’s a remarkable list of challenging situations that in my opinion Ancelotti did a remarkable job dealing with.  Nonetheless, it makes it difficult to say how much influence Ancelotti truly had with transfer strategy.  In almost all the cases above, it was minimal.  In light of my initial concerns, this actually makes me feel comfortable that Ancelotti would have no issues dealing with a professional like Marcel Brands.

That being said, it does appear that at Parma and PSG, Ancelotti arguably had more influence over transfer policy than anywhere else.  Taking a look at the two situations, thus may tell us something about the type of player Ancelotti might look for.  With Parma, who were clearly limited in their spending ability, the club bought almost exclusively players 25 and under while selling off a mix of older and younger players (See Figure 1).

Parma major transfers under Ancelotti. Source: Transfermarkt.

At PSG (See Figure 2), the Winter deals were definitely focused on bringing in experienced players.  In his first season, he was hired in January and took over a team that had the league, bought a couple of veterans, although the team finished in second with 79 points.  In Ancelotti’s second year, PSG had a significant net spend focused mostly on established players with the exception of Marco Verratti and finished 1st in Ligue 1 by 12 points and only lost in the quarters to Barcelona on away goals. This is also where the Ibrahimović links come from as he was brought in from Milan by Ancelotti and was wildly successful.

PSG major transfers under Ancelotti. Source: Transfermarkt.

Parma and PSG were in different positions as clubs and as a result had different transfer strategies.  But the ultimate question for me is whether or not Ancelotti can deal with the proposed Brands model (more like Parma) or does he always prefer ready-made players (more like PSG).

Observation 2:  Old vs. Youth.  I looked at every transfer window and honestly didn’t notice any predominant transfer pattern.  At Juventus, Ancelotti took over a team that finished 7th and Luciano Moggi and Ancelotti bought exclusively younger players.  Under Berlusconi at AC Milan, they bought mostly older players, but Ancelotti also didn’t have any problems incorporating younger talents like Kaka, Alberto Gilardino, and Alexander Pato rather efficiently into experience sides.  In fact, in Ancelotti’s first full year when Milan won the Champions League, of the 12 top minutes earners in all competition, only Paolo Maldini and Rui Costa were 30 or older.  At Chelsea, other than the bizarre purchase of 26-year-old Zhirkov from CSKA Moscow, most transfers were younger players.  Even Torres was only 26.  They were also under a transfer ban for at least one window.  Real Madrid surprisingly was all players under 25 with the exception of Keylor Navas at 27.  Chicarito was 26, but on a loan deal.  Bayern was also much of the same with the exception of 27-year-old Mats Hummels.  At Napoli, they did a lot of business to deal with the loss of Jorginho and Sarri’s system where they bought Hirving Lozano, Konstantinos Manolas, and Alex Meret amongst others, but it was still a mix of old and new.

Looking at the result, I don’t see any evidence to suggest Ancelotti or the club transfer strategies that he managed had any particular approach other than circumstantial.  If anything, it seemed to agree more of what Marcel Brands would want to do rather than the opposite.  Although I have no doubt many of the teams Ancelotti inherited may have already had experienced players, it wasn’t always the case and I don’t see him having issues with Brands approach to buying younger players.

With the main purpose of my research finished albeit inconclusively, I did get several other insights into Carlo Ancelotti that should excite Evertonians everywhere.

Observation 3.  Tactical flexibility.  Ancelotti is known to adapt his tactics well to his personnel and vice versa, but that wasn’t always the case.  Unfortunately, Ancelotti learned the value of flexibility the hard way.  Ancelotti was heavily influenced in his time as a player for Arrigo Sacchi at Milan and later as his assistant for the Italian national team leading up to and after the 1994 World Cup where Italy made the finals.  As a result, Ancelotti started out at Regianna and Parma employing a strict 442 Sacchi inspired system.  Ancelotti’s strict adherence to this approach caused Ancelotti to make several questionable decisions.  At Parma, Ancelotti ended up selling Gianfranco Zola because he couldn’t find a place for him in his 442.  Even later with Parma, he passed on signing Roberto Baggio because he insisted that he would have to play striker in his system.  Ancelotti later openly regretted both those decisions.  In was only in his next stint at Juventus that Ancelotti learned his lesson and accommodated Zidane by playing 3-4-1-2 in the attacking mid role with great success.

Ancelotti also is known for playing players in slightly different roles to get the best out of them.  We will cover a couple of these examples including Andrea Pirlo and Angel DiMaria.  Part of this was driven by early mistakes including the failure to realize that Thierry Henry was not best used as a winger.  Ancelotti has since indicated that the resulting decision to approve the sale of Henry to Arsenal still haunts him.  As a result of these experiences at Parma and Juventus, Ancelotti began to develop a variety of interesting patterns and tactical approaches designed to get the best out of the talent at his disposal with fantastic results. 

Some highlights include the following:

  • Juventus 3-4-1-2.  As noted above, Ancelotti played Zidane behind the two center forwards in a free role that saw Juventus go from 7th to 2nd in his first season and if it wasn’t for a late season collapse, Juventus would’ve won the league.
  • Milan 442 Diamond.  In his first Milan teams, Ancelotti dropped a 23-year-old Andrea Pirlo into a deeper lying playmaker role – partially at the player’s suggestion and his experience in the role on loan at Brescia – and pushed Rui Costa up higher behind the two strikers – often Shevchenko and Inzaghi.  Pirlo was flanked and supported by Gennaro Gatusso deeper and Seedorf higher to complete the diamond.  Right behind them was the decent pair of Maldini and Nesta at CB.  With this setup, Milan won the CL in 2002/3 and the league in 2003/4.  Part of this change was due to Berlusconi asking for a more offensive minded team to which Ancelotti obliged. Milan went from 47 to 55 to 65 goals in three years en route to winning the Serie A title in 2003/4.
AC Milan’s Christmas Tree formation.
  • Milan Christmas Tree.  During the 2006/7 season, Ancelotti’s Milan team won the CL predominantly deploying a 4321 with Pirlo again lying deep and two ball winning / central midfielders in Gattuso and Massimo Ambrossini.  Those three supported Seedorf and Kaka behind one of Inzaghi / Ronaldo / Gilardino. 
  • Chelsea Tinkering.  It’s really a replication of what he’s done before, but Ancelotti did a great job finding the right formation and tactics to win the double at Chelsea in the 2009/10 season.  He first used the 442 Diamond with a rejuvenated Deco as the tip behind Drogba/Anelka and Ballack/Lampard in front of Michael Essien.  When Drogba left for the AFCON, Ancelotti reverted to the Xmas tree with Cole/Malouda behind Anelka as a single striker.  Closer to the end of the season and most notably in the FA Cup final (at the suggestion of his players in that match ironically), Ancelotti played with a 433 that looked a bit like a 4231 to get Drogba, Anelka, Kalou and Florent Malouda all in the lineup in attack.  In the PL, the team scored 103 goals with a goal differential of +71.
  • Real Madrid 433.  Ancelotti tried both the 442 Diamond and the Christmas tree at Madrid, but eventually went with a 433 with Ronaldo on the left in a free role, Benzema at CF, Bale (and later James Rodriquez, thus the current links) on the right in front of DiMaria / Modric who were supported by Xabi as a 6.  One interesting aspect was how effective Ancelotti was in deploying DiMaria in a more central left sided.  Ancelotti also deserves credit for his ability to integrate Isco into the midfield to bolster the attack.  Incidentally, it was Ancelotti who believed Mesut Ozil was similar to Isco and gave Florentino Perez his blessing to sell Ozil to Arsenal for £42M

Ancelotti also did some interesting things at his other stops, but those listed covers the majority of the tactics he has employed over the years and likely what we may see at Everton.

Observation 4.  Focus on the Spine and Defense.  If there was any consistency to Carlo Ancelotti’s tactics, it was using his right and left defenders to provide attacking width and deploying inside forwards and/or utilizing narrow midfield play.  Coincidentally, Marco Silva’s base 433 and 4231 variant did some of the same things in terms of attacking with his fullbacks.  However, Silva’s transfer business with Everton and his previous clubs seemed focused on his inside forward positions attack positions.  Ultimately, past research indicates we can expect Marcel Brands to turn over most of the entire team in 2/3 years with Everton being no exception.   However, I have a feeling Carlo Ancelotti’s would have emphasized the outside defender positions and the team’s spine from keeper through center half all the way through center forward before wide attacking players.  If that is indeed the case, I believe it could give some hints as to what to expect from Carlo’s first transfer window in charge. 

Look back, Ancelotti’s first windows were very focused on players for his 442.  In his initial window at a defensive oriented that only conceding 26 goals, he brought in several players (See Figure 1 above).  They included CB Lilian Thuram on a free, RB Ze Maria, DM Amaral, and CFs Hernan Crespo and Enrico Chiesa (father of Federico).  He also settled on an 18-year-old Gianluigi Buffon in goal and paired Thuram and Maria with Fabio Cannavaro. 

At Juventus in his first window he again had a focus on spine and defense (See Figure 3 below).

Ancelotti’s in-comings, first window with Juventus. Source: Transfermarkt.

The club brought in Van der Sar to play GK, CF Kovacevic, DM Olisheh, FB Zambrotta, and DF/DM Tudor.  Again, no real wide attackers, even if Zambrotta was occasionally deployed there.      

In his first window at AC Milan, we see more of the same (See Figure 4 below).

Ancelotti’s in-comings, first window with Milan. Source: Transfermarkt.

Again there were no wide attacking players acquired.  It was CB Nesta to partner with Maldini, CM Seedorf, CB Laursen, CB/RB Simic, CF/SS Tomasson, and ACM/CF Rivaldo.

In almost all subsequent instances, Ancelotti prioritized positions other than wide attack.  That should also be an indication that if an attacking player cannot play in a narrower role that the player may not have a future.  Looking at Everton’s roster, a few names do stick out such as Richarlison, Bernard, Theo Walcott, and certainly current on loan Yannick Bolasie.  Obviously Richarlison can play CF and is debatably Everton’s best player.  Bernard has minimal history since leaving Brazil years ago of playing centrally, he looked comfortable playing in a more narrow role against Burnely and perhaps could be a player that Ancelotti gets the most out of by deploying him in a slightly new role (i.e., DiMaria as a left midfielder).  Walcott could play up front although he is expensive, older, and an upgrade on the right side of midfield would be welcome.  Brands has been trying to move Bolasie for two years and with one final year on his contract when his loan is up, Sporting may acquire the player, which would be welcome by Everton.  Otherwise, Everton is fortunate enough to have several flexible players that could be deployed by Ancelotti in many ways.

That being said, if the defense and/or spine is indeed Carlo Ancelotti’s priority, Everton has an obvious lack of depth and quality at several positions, starting with CB and CM.  I believe those positions would be filled by the one or two players Carlo indicated could come in during the January window.  I’ve already dispelled the myth that Brands won’t do business in the January time period even if he doesn’t like it, but with Everton likely up against FFP, I could see a loan or possibly a buy if players like Martina, Niasse, or especially Cenk Tosun or Morgan Schneiderlin are sold.  

Observation 5.  Immediate impact.  Another observation that should excite Everton fans is Ancelotti’s immediate success he had at many of his clubs in his first seasons, often without relying on the purchase of new players.    

  • Regianna.  Immediately took them up to Serie A.
  • Parma.  Went from 6th to 2nd without major investment. 
  • Juventus.  Went from 7th to 2nd without investment as well. 
  • Milan.  Went from 6th to 4th and a UEFA Semifinal despite taking over in November without any spending.  He then won the CL the next year with a low net spend and won the league the subsequent year with a net spend under £3M. 
  • Chelsea.  Won the PL and FA cup in his first year with all sorts of tactical changes with minimal squad additions. 
  • PSG.  Won the league with his first full season.
  • Real Madrid. Won the CL and Copa del Rey.
  • Bayern Munich.  Won the league.
  • Napoli.  Finished 2nd, same in his first season at Napoli, although he had significant transfer turnover without net investment. 

All of this bodes well for an Everton team that has some talent, but perhaps not in all the right places.  Even with significant injury problems and minimal training opportunities, Ancelotti’s tactics and game management were key to Everton winning their first two matches.  In particular, the difference when Everton was in possession was night and day from Marco Silva.

Observation 6.  Lack of Failure.  It was notable that even Ancelotti’s failures would’ve been successful seasons for most other managers.  One could almost make the argument he didn’t truly fail anywhere.  He was fired at Parma due to finishing 6th and having a poor CL showing.  That’s about his worst performance.  He was fired at Juventus for finishing 2nd and getting knocked out in the CL group despite Luciano Moggi buying only youth and bring in no one in January.  He was sacked at Chelsea despite finishing 2nd, operating under a transfer ban in the summer, and likely not fully backing the purchase of Fernando Torres (in addition to other purchases). 

He was removed at Real Madrid despite winning the Super Cup, the FIFA World Cup, finishing 2 points off Barcelona, winning 22 straight matches, and having scored 118 goals and a goal different of +80.  In addition, at Madrid they lost to a Juventus team in the CL semis partially due to Buffon standing on his head. 

At Bayern they won the Super Cup, but he was fired in September after taking 7 points from 3 in the league and getting beat 3-0 by PSG in Paris.  Things went sideways for Ancelotti, but I can’t help but think it was an impossible job.  He was replacing Pep, lost Lahm and Xabi to retirement, lost Neuer to injury, and lost his main assistant in Paul Clement who was replaced by Sagnol who was Uli Hoeneß’s choice.  He also had players like Mueller, Lewandowski, and no true replacement for Xabi – Rudy or Tolisso with Vidal – that almost dictated reversion back to the Pep 4231.  But in general, it seems counter intuitive that of all people, Ancelotti faced criticism for losing the dressing room or a lack of tactical inflexibility.

At Napoli, he was removed in December for being 7th in the league and after they destroyed Genk 4-0 to advance out of the Group in the CL where they also took 4 points out of 6 against Liverpool.  Napoli were probably unlucky – xPTS would’ve put them 5th – to begin with, but many of the problems stemmed from Aurelio De Laurentis demanding in November that the players attempt a November boot camp that many simply refused to do.  This was compounded by the fact that several ended up in shouting matches with De Laurentis’s son who in his role with the club initially ordered them back to the camp.  Aurelio De Laurentis was irritated that Ancelotti wasn’t more stern with his team and it didn’t help that Carlo openly questioned the idea behind the camp as it was not his idea.  That along with the mediocre league performances was enough to jettison Ancelotti, much to the benefit of Everton.

CONCLUSION  

I am no Carlo Ancelotti expert.  I have not ready any of his books and do not have direct access to the man or his staff.  However, the purpose of the article was to look at history in an attempt to gain insight into how Ancelotti might affect Marcel Brands in the January window.  While I didn’t find too many break throughs, I do believe he will have no problems working with Brands, is used to much more disruptive environments, and won’t disrupt Brands current development focused approach or his time horizon too much.  For me, that was much needed relief. 

I also think if the opportunity presents itself, his preference would be to improve the spine of the team starting with the central defense and midfield, which shouldn’t conflict with what the current direction Brands was likely taking regardless of the manager.  However, what really excited me was his tactical flexibility both in formation and deployment of his players that he had available.  I very much believe Ancelotti can be the manager to take Everton forward even in the longer term and am eager to see how much he can improve the current team on an individual and collective basis.  Ultimately, the more insight I gained about Carlo Ancelotti, the fewer concerns I had, which is usually a very good and welcome sign for the present and future of Everton Football Club.   

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