A chronological look at Real Madrid's managerial changes since the year 2000, why coaching Real Madrid can destroy a manager, and why Rafa Benitez's failure is inevitable.
Six games into the La Liga season, we’re already discussing Rafa Benitez’s job security. It may sound severe, but Rafa is - if we’re taking into account the Club’s recent history - doomed to fail at Real Madrid, and it has little to do with how the team has opened the 2015-2016 La Liga campaign, but more to do with the ideologies of the Club itself.
The savagery of the Real Madrid managerial conveyor belt is very real. One by one, they step onto the belt, rolled out, and inescapably dumped into the grinder, whence, they are extracted deprived of their honour and stripped of their reputation. Since the turn of the century, none have escaped this anguish. It’s a perceptible problem. The Bernabeu is notorious for the pressure and burden it places on its players and coaches. To give you an idea of just what kind of pressure we’re discussing, this is the fan base that has booed Casillas, Raul, Zidane, and Cristiano Ronaldo. In reality, no one is completely clear of this chastising. Yet, despite all this, managing Real Madrid is regarded as the pinnacle of World Football.
The conveyor belt
Between 1910 - 1999, there were 49 head coaching changes at Real Madrid. But since the turn of the century, there have been 12 changes in 15 years - about a 25% increase. More money came in, more stars were signed - the pressures rose. It was no longer enough to win trophies - it had to be aesthetically breathtaking.
Submissiveness, consistent trophies, joga bonito - this seems to be the only formula that might keep a manager afloat at the Bernabeu.
2000 - 2003
When Florentino Perez arrived in 2000, the club was in financial turmoil - a point that was emphasized during the elections. At that time Vicente Del Bosque was already at the club, having come off a Champions League triumph. It was a trophy that was as impressive as it was unlikely, as Real Madrid had finished 5th in the league, nearly destined for a UEFA Cup spot. But Del Bosque spurred Real Madrid to their 8th Champions League title, which ultimately saved his job.
In hindsight, Del Bosque was the perfect fit for Florentino’s new vision. The collection of superstars Perez assembled needed a coach to to bind the brains together and keep the players focused on the football. Del Bosque was a composed character, one that could keep the atmosphere calm and the team away from the limelight. He brought out the best in everyone.
Del Bosque even found space for unsung heroes like Steve Mcmanaman. When Luis Figo was brought in, Mcmanaman was essentially pushed out. It seemed grossly unfair to the Englishman who had been one of Real’s best players the year prior - but Figo was simply better, he was a crack. Mcmanaman ultimately refused to leave though, and Del Bosque had to make it work. The ‘Moustache’ shifted the versatile Macca over to the left, and the Figo-Macca tandem became one of the most fear-inducing combinations in the game.
The Figo signing was a great one, but it was a hidden test - the first of many. Del Bosque had no control of who was and wasn’t signed for the club. Perez was in the fledgling stages of the new financial era - one that brought tremendous success to the Real Madrid brand. Interestingly enough, it brought initial success on the pitch too - but only up until the day Del Bosque was fired.
Vicente Del Bosque had it all. Under his reign, Real Madrid played beautiful football, found silverware, and had good morale.
But after some time, when purchases are no longer conducive to what happens on the field, everything crumbles. Perez relied on ‘Zidanes’ for his attackers, and ‘Pavones’ for his defenders. It’s a massively flawed theory. Francisco Pavon was a below-average defender, and Real Madrid had to rely on a possession-based football system in order to mask it’s weak defense and limit opportunities to their opponents.
As for the ‘Zidanes’ part, you can only have so many of them in your attack before the system becomes unbalanced.
It’s a policy Vicente Del Bosque had no control over.
This kind of lack of control for the manager takes its toll. By the summer of 2003, Perez described Del Bosque as "exhausted", ultimately deciding to let him go just moments after Real Madrid won La Liga.
It was then where Perez spoke words that should haunt him till the end of days.
"He was not the right coach for the future."
Real Madrid’s status of being the most feared team in Europe went into hiatus for a decade.
Florentino Perez made many mistakes - the most infamous being the sale of team anchor and revolutionary defensive midfielder Claude Makelele - but the dismissal of Del Bosque was just as detrimental.
And so the story began. The head coaching gig at Real Madrid - the pinnacle of World Football - was really just a suicide mission. How can anyone really succeed at Real Madrid when the most successful manager in recent memory - one with humility and results - was indifferently brushed aside?
If there was ever a perfect coach to bind stars together in a way that brought in silverware, it was Del Bosque, and the players knew it.
"Unfortunately he wasn’t popular, they brought in another suit. Del Bosque is a friend, a person I admire greatly and was very important in my integration in Madrid. I love him, he’s an exceptional person, a lifelong member of Real Madrid and I think that sooner or later he’ll return to Madrid, at least I hope he does."
- Luis Figo
Del Bosque went from the Bernabeu to Besiktas the following season - ultimately failing and getting the can less than a year after he was signed. He was then idle for three years, before finally taking over a historically great Spanish National Team and finding success again. Five years it took for Del Bosque to find his feet again after going through the Real Madrid conveyor belt.
2003 - 2006
The post-VDB era was followed by some grim years. After having just one coach through three years, the club plowed through five coaches in the following three. The system was a mess, nothing was working.
When Carlos Quieroz arrived to replace Del Bosque in 2003, there was optimism. He was, after all, the elucidated mastermind of Manchester United - the brains behind Sir Alex Ferguson’s prosperity. Quieroz possessed the joga bonito the Bernabeu desired. In reality, how could you not pull off beautiful football with arguably the most star-studded attack in the sport’s history? But what Quieroz didn’t have was the promised tactical balance and results.
Carlos Quieroz took a La Liga Champion and the most expensive team in the World, and pummeled them down to a fourth place La Liga finish. The team was knocked out of the Champions League by Monaco in the quarter finals. It was a season beyond disappointment. Quieroz left Manchester United in hopes of a dream gig - a chance to coach a team of legends and amass trophies to his resume.
He left the Bernabeu with his tail between his legs.
Keep in mind that it all wasn’t Quieroz’s fault. He asked for a center back and defensive midfielder and didn’t get one. He also had to accommodate David Beckham instead of a stabilizing midfielder like Esteban Cambiasso.
But that’s the point. That it wasn’t all on Quieroz was irrelevant. It’s just part of the job at Real Madrid - one of the many trials managers face.
The pinnacle of World Football, they said.
Quieroz was replaced by club legend Jose Antonio Camacho in what was a disastrous short-term spell. Camacho had lost the dressing room within days, was an opposer of the galactico policy, and to bring it all together, the team looked terribly out of sorts on the pitch. Raul was in his decline, Walter Samuel was a walking catastrophe, and the team had just been humiliated by Bayer Leverkusen 3-0 in the Champions League. Just days before Camacho left, he benched Beckham and Raul in a loss to Espanyol, which was a big no-no.
The season had barely begun, and Camacho resigned in September.
Mariano Garcia Remon, another manager who had previously succeeded as a Real Madrid player took over Camacho’s head coaching role. Remon was Camacho’s assistant and was promoted by default. Clearly never a long-term solution, he was gone by the New Year, winning just 12 of his 20 games in charge.
Enter Vanderlei Luxemburgo - relatively unknown to European waters. Luxemburgo was a successful Brazilian coach who had never played or coached in Europe. But he was Brazilian, and he was successful - worth a shot. And he was, really. Luxemburgo took the team and ran with it - notching up wins in his first seven games in charge with Real Madrid.
The Club didn’t win any trophies that year which was somewhat sympathized with considering the hole that was dug by Camacho and Remon. Luxemburgo was kept on for the following season, but didn’t last until Christmas after failed tactics and poor results. The most notable loss was at the hands of Barcelona in the Bernabeu - a 3-0 loss instigated by a historic night from Ronaldinho. It was him and Samuel Eto’o that did most of the damage - the two players that Florentino Perez opted out of having as Real Madrid players. That night, Luxemburgo fielded a cringe-worthy central midfield duo of David Beckham and Pablo Garcia. Madrid were blown away, dissected, and thoroughly embarrassed.
Shortly before Luxemburgo lost his job, he lost the fan base too. In his last game in charge at the Bernabeu, Luxemburgo took off Ronaldo and brought on Thomas Gravesen, a substitution that was met with chants of ‘fuera, fuera, fuera!’ (‘out, out, out!’).
Florentino Perez called for an emergency meeting, and Vanderlei Luxemburgo went back to Brazil - just another manager who reached the top, only to be thrown onto the conveyor belt.
The first year of the post-VDB era was a horror show which saw the club cycle through three coaches in one season.
The club’s next manager, Juan Ramon Lopez Caro, lasted half a year.
Lopez Caro replaced Luxemburgo in December after being promoted from his head-coaching duties with Real Madrid B. His first game in charge was a loss in Greece against Olympiakos in the Champions League. He eventually only won half of his games. By the end of the season, Florentino Perez resigned from his post, and Lopez Caro’s duties were not needed by new president Ramon Calderon
2006 - 2009
Ramon Calderon’s first order of business - along with acquiring the prolific Ruud Van Nistlerooy and the defensively stabilizing Fabio Cannavaro and Emerson - was to hire Fabio Capello as coach. Of his four predecessors, Capello was by far the most ‘high-profile’ name. He was a respectable coach, definitely disciplined, and had won La Liga with Real Madrid once before.
Apart from Ramon Calderon’s heinous corrupt nature - a subject not necessary to delve into for this piece - Calderon appeared to have brought valuable changes on the pitch.
Emerson was a necessary signing as the club had not had a World-class destroyer since Cambiasso left, and Cannavaro was the first elite central defender signing the club had made since Walter Samuel, only Cannavaro was one of the greatest center backs of all time and coming off of a historically great World Cup performance in Germany. Ruud Van Nistlerooy, meanwhile, was a cold-blooded killer. On top of those three main signings, Calderon and Capello signed other proper reinforcements like Mahamadou Diarra, Gonzalo Higuain, and Jose Antonio Reyes.
Nevermind that Cannavaro became an even bigger disastrous central defender than Walter Samuel - few could have foreseen that. But the signing itself was promising at the time.
It was a promising start to a new era. Long gone were the luxury signings, and in came signings made out of necessity that suited the manager. Capello was given the reigns, and what a squad he had assembled.
Mind you, although Calderon did promise expensive shiny new toys like Arjen Robben, Cesc, and Kaka, he was only able to eventually sign Arjen Robben.
Under Capello, the team developed a ‘never say die’ attitude. The squad of Real Madrid 2006-2007 was known for its resilience and clutch goals.
They ultimately won La Liga on the last match day, ousting Barcelona for the crown. It was the first major trophy the club had won since Del Bosque left. Yet despite all this, it wasn’t enough to save Capello’s job.
What was most desired by the entire organization was a Champions League trophy - the beloved ‘Decima’. Capello had failed to deliver - and not even marginally. Real Madrid were knocked out in the round of 16 by Bayern Munich. Among that, his comments and actions did little to win over the fans. His playing style wasn’t appreciated by the Bernabeu, and Capello reacted by pointing the middle finger at two fans in particular who were getting on his back during a 1-0 win over Zaragoza in the Bernabeu.
Tell those fans what you really think of them, Fabio.
According to Capello, they were the same two fans who had verbally harassed him ten years prior in his previous stint.
And so, with that, Fabio Capello was fired one year into his three year contract. Perez or no Perez, the machinery of the managerial conveyor belt was still going strong.
As Calderon put it: "We've laid the foundations, but we need to find a more enthusiastic way of playing."
And in came Bernd Schuster - Barcelona legend and German tactician. Schuster was coming off of an impressive two-year spell managing Getafe, and was known for his attacking philosophy.
Attack, attack, and attack. Music to the Bernabeu’s ears.
In order to leave Getafe, Schuster bought out his contract - from his own pocket - for €480,000.
Schuster overall was an upgrade over Capello. The German had Real Madrid playing more attractive football all the while defending the La Liga crown with a better record and with more games to spare. De facto, in that season, Real Madrid broke the record (previously set by Barcelona) with 85 league points.
But Schuster failed to improve in Europe. Once again, Real Madrid were knocked out in the round of 16 - this time by AS Roma. Schuster was becoming notorious for his short temper with the media, even walking out of press conferences on occasion.
While Schuster was kept on for the following season, the team was starting to collapse. The defensive stability that Capello had built seemed long gone, Raul was degenerating, and Guti - the engine of that team - was incredibly inconsistent.
Before Christmas of the following season, Schuster was fired, surrendering to the superior Barcelona side of Pep Guardiola. That last sentence is not an opinion, it was in an actual statement by the German head coach.
"Winning at the Camp Nou is impossible. Barcelona are flattening everyone. It's their year. The state we're in, all we can do is put in a decent performance. We can't ask for more… We can't fool ourselves… We have to open our eyes."
The implications of those words has no bounds, really. In Madrid, those word are sin. Such submissiveness and degradation to a club like Real Madrid, bowing before its arch rivals - it’s unheard of and demeaning. Juanito would be rolling in his grave.
Meanwhile, what he said was quite true. Guardiola was building one of the greatest sides the game has ever seen. Even still, the Bernabeu doesn’t appreciate a defeatist attitude, and Schuster was gone shortly after those words were spoken.
But while Schuster left, there were deeper problems the club had failed to address - problems that were well beyond Schuster. The club had sold off Robinho, and the only other player who really had attacking flair and game-changing abilities from that position was Arjen Robben. But Robben was injured more than he was available, meaning that Real Madrid looked pretty well toothless for a good chunk of their 2008-2009 campaign.
Schuster’s failures as a manager had as much to do with himself as they did with the club itself.
Ultimately, Real replaced Schuster with Juande Ramos - a man with an incredibly brief stint with the club. Unfortunately for Ramos, he came in at a time where going up against Guardiola’s machine was incredibly difficult. Losing the Clasico 2 - 6 at the Bernabeu is as bad as it gets. And that’s not the only humiliating result he suffered. Real Madrid were also knocked out, again, of the round of 16 in the Champions League by Liverpool, 5-0 on aggregate.
Real Madrid ended the season trophyless and Ramos’ contract ended along with the season
A day later, the ever-respectable Manuel Pellegrini was hired, and with him, came one of the busiest offseasons in Club history. It was the return of Florentino Perez, whose campaign was uncontested to say the least. Perez broke the bank, bringing in Cristiano Ronaldo, Ricardo Kaka, Karim Benzema, and Xabi Alonso.
It was a revolution. Perez not only brought in players of magnanimity, but also of necessity. Real Madrid needed players to take them to new heights in attack and a general in midfield. At the time, Xabi Alonso was the only central midfielder who didn’t already play for Barcelona who could stabilize Real Madrid’s midfield.
All of the above provided the recipe for a colossal amount of pressure to win trophies. How could a team like this possibly fail, regardless of Guardiola or whoever else may stand in their path?
Pellegrini was responsible for the free-flowing and scintillating football behind Villareal’s awe-inspiring run to the Champions League semi-finals which ultimately came down to a penalty miss by Juan Roman Riquelme.
"Hard to say in a few words the excitement and pride that one feels for having been chosen to direct perhaps the most important club in the world."
Pellegrini had reached the pinnacle of World Football.
But how could a coach who did so many great things with Villarreal fail so badly with such a perfect squad on paper? Truth be told, it wasn’t necessarily Guardiola who stood in the way of Real Madrid under Pellegrini. It was on one day 3rd division team Alcorcon who defeated Real Madrid 3-0 in Copa Del Rey, or on another it was Lyon, who knocked Real out of the Champions League in the round of 16 for the seventh straight year.
And of course, Guardiola did enough damage too. Despite an astounding 96 points in the league by Pellegrini’s men, Barcelona topped it with 99 points. Both were league records, and perhaps it can be argued that Pellegrini was unfortunate that his tenure was amidst the presense of such a historical Barcelona side.
Later Pellegrini stated that he didn’t really have control over the squad, and anything assured to him otherwise was merely a false promise.
"I didn't have a voice or a vote at Madrid. They sign the best players, but not the best players needed in a certain position. It's no good having an orchestra with the 10 best guitarists if I don't have a pianist. Real Madrid have the best guitarists, but if I ask them to play the piano they won't be able to do it so well. He [Pérez] sold players that I considered important. We didn't win the Champions League because we didn't have a squad properly structured to be able to win it."
Pellegrini also claimed that his relationship with Florentino Perez was virtually non-existent. Fitting, since Pellegrini was not even Perez’s first choice as head coach.
Still, in hindsight, the firing of Pellegrini was justifiable despite the points the Chilean tried to make. Getting knocked out by Alcorcon and Lyon with the squad he had was inexcusable.
2010 - 2015
Florentino Perez’s hunt for a galactico coach ended in 2010, when Jose Mourinho signed with the club on a four-year deal - a term that lasted three seasons, the longest term since Vicente Del Bosque managed the team for four years.
This was truly the most promising head-coaching signing Perez had ever made. Mourinho was coming off of a treble-winning season with Inter, and was renowned for the brotherhood he created in every team he managed. Mourinho instilled an ‘us versus them’ mentality.
Furthermore, Perez had allowed Mourinho the ability to sign the players he felt the team needed. Mourinho essentially had an infinite budget, and he spent it wisely, bringing in Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil, Angel Di Maria, and Ricardo Carvalho.
No Galacticos, put key pieces. Khedira was to provide Xabi Alonso with some relief from defensive duties, Ozil was brought in after a break-out World Cup performance with Germany to provide a more reliable playmaking presence over the declining Kaka, and Ricardo Carvalho added quality depth and leadership at the back. Di Maria didn’t really break through until a few seasons later, but he became a long term investment.
Jose Mourinho’s tenure with Real Madrid was sturm and drang. Every turn there was a victory, followed by a crisis. It was dramatic, and never dull.
Perhaps it was ironic that Mourinho’s first match at the club was the only dull moment of the three years. It was a 0-0 draw in Mallorca, which was quickly followed by 20 consecutive games without a defeat - a streak that ultimately ended in a 5-0 humiliation at the Camp Nou in which Florentino Perez called ‘the worst loss in Club history’.
It was a night that cut the team so deep, Sergio Ramos had to break some legs and throw some punches before he left the pitch.
It was a night that cut so deep, that none of the players faced the media after the match. Only Jose Mourinho ventured out, in what was a statement straight from his gut.
"This is the first time I have ever been beaten 5-0. It is a historically bad result for us. It is not a humiliation but I am very disappointed. It is sad for us.
But it is not difficult for me to swallow. What's difficult to swallow is when you lose a game because you have hit the post or the referee has been bad. I have left here in that state before with Chelsea and Inter Milan but that was not the case tonight. It is easy for me to take because it is fair.
We played very, very badly and they were fantastic. We gifted them two goals that were bordering on the ridiculous. It is our own fault.
I hope this game does not affect us psychologically. I have spoken to the players and told them the title is not gone. We can't leave here crying. I left here defeated at the start of last season with Inter Milan and then at the end of the season we were playing in the Champions League final [having knocked out Barcelona], while they had to watch it on television.
When you go 2-0 down you have two choices. You can say 'let's leave it at this' or you can take a risk and try to get into the game. They are very quick and dangerous on the counterattack and we paid for that. When they scored the third, the game was over. I knew we had no chance. We felt impotent. I am disappointed because I expected more but at that point all I wanted was for us not to lose our balance on the pitch."
In reality, Real Madrid may have lost 5-0 managed by anyone that night, but few could have responded to such a shellacking the way Jose Mourinho did. It brought the team together, and the Club had an improved season compared to the last one by the end of it.
In the Copa Del Rey, Mourinho learned from his mistakes earlier in the Camp Nou, and was able to adjust his tactics against Barcelona in the final at the Mestalla. Real Madrid played a defensively compact game, closed down channels, and frustrated Barcelona to no end. It was a night that saw Guardiola’s men sustain prolonged periods of possession without finding a way through to goal and couldn’t register a shot on target until the second half. Madrid trumped Barcelona 1-0 that night after a Ronaldo header in extra time that buried the Catalans.
It was a victory that embodied what Jose Mourinho was all about - pride and mental toughness. Mourinho tried to emulate the same strategy against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final shortly after. Real Madrid defended valiantly with 11 men in front of a restless Bernabeu which was not accustomed to parking the bus in their own stadium. Nevertheless, it was the strategy necessary to overcome Barcelona’s style of play - one that mechanically breaks you down with intricate passing and relentless offensive pressure. Their ability to hold on to the ball gave opposing teams no choice. Park the bus or get annihilated, that’s how it seemed to work.
But in the 61st minute in what still remains a controversial moment, Pepe - who was playing as a defensive midfielder that game - received a red card for a challenge on Dani Alves which threw Mourinho’s entire game plan out the window. The anchor was gone, and Barcelona finished the game as 2-0 winners thanks to Messi’s brilliance.
So while Real Madrid won just one trophy in Mourinho’s first season, the Portuguese head coach rightfully remained at the Club. After all, he had not only taken the Club past the round of 16 for the first time in nearly a decade, but he had even taken them to the semi-finals.
The following year Mourinho continued his run, taking Madrid to the semi-finals of the Champions League again, only to lose to Bayern Munich in a heart-wrenching penalty shootout at the Bernabeu. It was a tough loss to swallow, but in some consequence, Real Madrid won La Liga and broke a record in goals scored with 121. That was just one of four records Mourinho set that year, the others of which included most points in league play in Europe (100), most away wins (16), and highest goal differential (+89).
Staggering numbers. You couldn’t argue against Mourinho staying even if you tried.
Mourinho’s third year though, was far from historical. The Portuguese virtuoso had become more senile by the day. Tensions had risen between Himself and the Spanish camp of Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos, the former of which was benched for long periods in 2013 in favour of the outstanding Diego Lopez. Even Cristiano Ronaldo had grown indifferent to Mourinho. Later Mourinho stated that "(Ronaldo) maybe thinks that he knows everything and that the coach cannot improve him anymore"
But forget the fact that Mourinho was undoubtedly correct with his comments. No player or coach should be above the team. If Mourinho (rightfully) felt that Diego Lopez was outperforming Casillas, it’s his right to reward him with a starting role.
But there were politics within Real Madrid - unwritten rules. The war had now gone public. It was messy and laded with tension. Other players had joined the feud. Pepe - who was later benched for his comment - had this to say regarding Mourinho’s attitude towards Casillas: "He should have shown him more respect."
The brotherhood Mourinho had created was gone.
The distractions in the media had become heavy. The team atmosphere was tempestuous, and many felt Mourinho was damaging the image of the club, particularly after he poked Tito Vilanova in the eye during a Clasico.
Meanwhile on the pitch, the lousy results were adding fuel to the fire. In hindsight, Jose Mourinho had built a team to beat Barca, but no one else. It was not a tactically versatile team. It was a counter-attacking team that struggled when given the ball. No match made this more apparent than in Dortmund where Real Madrid lost 4-1 in the Champions League semi-finals. It was a match of constant chaos and disorganization. Mourinho had slotted Sergio Ramos to right back for the first time in years, and Real Madrid were ripped apart in an open game.
Furthermore, Mourinho publicly claimed Karim Benzema was never his preferred striker - a message that battered the Frenchman’s confidence. Mourinho’s exact words on Benzema: "I don't have my dog to go hunting with so I will have to take my cat"
The team went trophyless in Mourinho’s final year. The last straw was a Copa Del Rey final loss to Atletico Madrid - their first loss to their city rivals in 14 years.
And that was the end of Jose Mourinho in Real Madrid.
Widely-known as the best manager on the planet, he reached the pinnacle of World Football and left it three years later with a tarnished reputation.
By now, Florentino Perez had learned enough from his previous managerial signings to know the Club needed a new direction and a new coach - one with vision that could bring calm to the locker room while avoiding the limelight.
Enter Carlo Ancelotti - the Italian Del Bosque. Ancelotti was suave and low-key; tranquil but stirring. The Italian manager had a woeful league record, but a promising resume when it came to Champions League trophies - the latter of which was what Real Madrid was ultimately after.
Ancelotti had an incredible knack for reinventing players to bring out the best in them. During the 2001-2002 season, Ancelotti was faced with a predicament, having to chose between Rui Costa and Andrea Pirlo. But of course, he accommodated both, by simply pushing Pirlo into a deep-lying playmaking role. Up until then - apart from sparse moments with Brescia - Pirlo was an attacking midfielder.
Well, it seemed to work. Andrea Pirlo is now arguably the greatest central midfielder of all-time.
Ancelotti applied the same strategy to Angel Di Maria in what became a resounding success. Under Mourinho, Di Maria was an inconsistent attacking winger. Under Ancelotti, Di Maria was a tireless central midfielder with three lungs - one that would pester the opposition with his relentless pressure and mazy runs. Di Maria had quickly become one of the most unique players in World Football. His value rocketed, and Real Madrid sold him for a profit to Manchester United.
That one move essentially changed Real Madrid’s season, as the engine of Xabi Alonso - Modric - Di Maria overpowered and conquered Europe en route to Real Madrid’s 10th Champions League victory.
In one season, Carlo Ancelotti had done what ten managers before him failed to do: Win la Decima. And he did it while playing good-looking football and keeping the atmosphere of the team calm. In the meantime, Real Madrid also won the Copa Del Rey defeating Barcelona 2-1 in the final. Real Madrid were back to being a feared and respected team.
Had Real Madrid finally found a successful coach to steer the ship long-term?
In Ancelotti’s second season, he had to accommodate and entirely new midfield after losing two cornerstones in Xabi Alonso and Angel Di Maria. The transition though, was made seamless. James Rodriguez took Di Maria’s duties, while Toni Kroos sat deep in the Xabi Alonso role. Neither James nor Kroos were accustomed to playing those deeper roles, but Ancelotti made it work. The best example of this efficient midfield was when Real Madrid dismantled Barcelona in October at the Bernabeu. The trio of Kroos - Modric - James was tight-knit, always in proximity to one another offensively, and always pressuring Barcelona’s midfield into coughing up possession.
Heading into the Winter break, everything looked peachy at the Bernabeu. The defending European Champions looked even stronger than the year prior.
But few could have predicted how badly the team was about to fall apart.
Ancelotti’s deadly and feared team came undone when Luka Modric suffered a devastating injury which sidelined him for months. Without Modric, Kroos was overworked, playing in a position he’s not programed to play - a lone defensive midfielder without a proper partner beside him. Real Madrid had depth issues at that position. The only options Ancelotti had was Asier Illaramendi, Sami Khedira, and Lucas Silva - all three of whom he didn’t trust. Because of those trust issues, Ancelotti opted not to rotate his players, which led Kroos to complete exhaustion.
And that kind of exhaustion trickled down the squad list. By the time April rolled around, Real Madrid went into the Champions League quarter final against Atletico Madrid without the injured Luka Modric, Karim Benzema, and Gareth Bale. While there was no direct correlation with those injuries and Ancelotti’s lack of desire to rotate players, the fingers were still pointed Carlo’s way.
While the lack of quality depth really was an issue beyond Carlo’s control, it was also clear that keeping a tight rotation was just part of who Ancelotti was as a manager. During his tenure with Milan, Ancelotti was notorious for using his subs scarcely, even in extreme situations where the team played three games in one week.
Ultimately, Ancelotti’s second and final season with Real Madrid ended without a trophy - a feat that all but guarantees your fate as a manager with the Club.
Ancelotti was fired despite a phenomenal first season. During the announcement, Florentino Perez didn’t have an explanation as to why exactly Ancelotti was let go, other than the club deciding that a change was needed.
Ancelotti left when he probably shouldn’t have. He had formed an identity with the club, one that plays with a certain style and one that focused on football rather than off-field antics.
"Ancelotti has won, in these two years, the affection of me personally, the board and the fans. He forms part of our history as the coach with whom we won the Decima," Perez said.
Ancelotti later spoke out candidly about what it’s like coaching Real Madrid:
"The demands for a coach here are huge and I think the time has come for a change. We have a great club and we know that their talent and hard work will bring happiness again to our fans and socios."
It's already set in stone. I'm going to spend time relaxing, between Madrid and Canada. Because these two years with Real have been very tiring, believe me, and particularly challenging.
Nobody can imagine how much it takes out of you, in terms of energy and your nervous system, to coach Real. Then I'll be going home for another event -- in a month's time, my grandchild will be born. It's an event I can't and don't want to miss."
Rafa’s fate is inevitable
If the large sample size which was dissected in this article was anything to go by, then Rafa Benitez will join his 11 predecessors on the managerial conveyor belt.
Benitez has one thing going for him: He is a born and bred Madridista, a man who thoroughly loves the Club and has worked diligently his whole career to finally land a head-coaching gig at Real Madrid. He promotes the youth products, and has an identity. Behind Rafa Benitez, Real Madrid finally have a sense of Madridisimo running through them - a sense of purpose.
A sense that promotes the underlying cause of the Club.
It’s the identity the Club will need to adopt in order to remain steadfast to itself. It’s the same identity that Raul - the man who Rafa claims to have discovered and instigated his move to Real from Atletico - possessed.
Make no mistake about it, the underlying problem in this entire protracted and meticulous work is that Real Madrid have yet to establish an identity. Every year the doctrine changes, a system that makes it excruciatingly difficult to build accolade.
More patience is needed - even if it means going through a trophyless season.
But, as the story continues, Rafa Benitez too, will meet his fate.