José Mourinho’s future at Chelsea is in the balance. That much should be clear by now. Mere months after winning the Premier League title, Chelsea is not even among the top four teams in London, never mind top four in the league. As the most successful manager in the club’s history, Mourinho has probably earned the right to be given time, but that’s not usually how things work at Stamford Bridge. Despite the eye-watering severance package that Mourinho will be entitled to, Roman Abramovich has never hired a manager that he wasn’t afraid to sack, and Mourinho certainly hasn’t helped his case with a series of unseemly incidents.
Mourinho’s plight is made worse by the coaching market. When Liverpool decided to sack Brendan Rodgers earlier this month, it was the availability of proven winner Jürgen Klopp that emboldened the owners to make the switch so early into the season. There’s nothing that increases the pressure on a manager at a top club like another big name being conveniently out of work. Two and a half years ago, it was the looming shadow of Mourinho and Pep Guardiola that had many a manager twitching in their seats, and this time around, it’s three-time Champions League winner Carlo Ancelotti whose name is starting to be linked with every big job, Chelsea foremost among them.
The latest reports — no doubt leaked by Ancelotti’s camp — say that the Italian would consider a return to Stamford Bridge, but not on an interim basis. His exit from Chelsea was nowhere near as acrimonious as Mourinho’s original departure, and if the Portuguese could be welcomed back by Abramovich, then so can Ancelotti. What is less sure is whether Ancelotti would actually be the most ideal fit for the Blues, or whether his supposed position as the favorite to take over is just because he’s the best available candidate that wouldn’t require an expensive buyout.
Ancelotti is arguably one of the most underrated tacticians in the modern game. Because all his teams have been very gifted, it is sometimes overlooked how shrewd the Italian can be. From his latter years at Milan, right up to his time at Madrid, Ancelotti has hardly been short on attacking talent at his disposal, but he has often had to find innovative ways to extract the most from that talent. His famous Christmas tree formation at Milan — at the time when he was the first manager to move Andrea Pirlo into deep midfield — was really a creative solution to the problem of a top-heavy squad. Similarly at Real Madrid, his successful switch of Ángel Di María to midfield not only solved the problem of fitting all his best attackers in the same team but made that Madrid team devastating. Ancelotti may not be the kind of manager to turn underdogs into champions, but he has a knack for helping good teams maximize their potential.
This current Chelsea side, however, does not quite fit the description of an ideal Ancelotti project. The team has been built fully in Mourinho’s image. Part of what makes its dramatic collapse so baffling is that this should be a team that improved this year under Mourinho. It is made mostly of players that he signed, and the squad is constructed to fit the needs of the type of soccer that he prefers his teams to play. The team may need some rejuvenation, but it is hardly a massive rebuilding project. Built to be more functional than expansive, it may be a more natural fit for someone like Diego Simeone rather than Ancelotti.
If Ancelotti desires a return to the Premier League, then he need only to turn his eyes to the north. Louis van Gaal has created a completely new Manchester United squad out of the ashes of its last title-winning team, and there are the makings of a very good team at Old Trafford. But no matter the gradual improvements, the soccer on display has been unquestionably turgid, and there is a sense that van Gaal’s conservative approach is now starting to hold the team back. With a team and a fan base that is crying out for more attacking soccer, and an ownership that is finally willing to spend big in the transfer market, United may be a more preferable fit for Ancelotti.
Van Gaal still has another year and a half to run on his current contract, but if United fail to meet its goals this season, would anyone bet on him definitely seeing out the end of his deal? Sir Alex Ferguson confessed that Ancelotti was one of his first choices to replace him at United, and the job is even more attractive now that pressure of succeeding the living legend has been abated. At both Barcelona and Bayern Munich, Van Gaal built the foundation for great teams before more progressive managers came in to take those teams to the next level. If the United hierarchy take the view that the team has gotten as far as it can under Van Gaal, Ancelotti could be just the man to sprinkle some stardust on what is now a very solid, but very dull, team.
Ancelotti is too good and has too impressive a resume to be out of work for any longer than he wants to be. Sooner or later, some big club will snap him up. Given Chelsea’s struggles, Abramovich may end up being the first suitor to make a move and re-hire an ex-manager for the second time in less than three years. But for Ancelotti’s style, there may be better fits. None more so than at Manchester United.
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