https://twitter.com/TheAthleticUK/status/1377516328307679239Carlo Ancelotti exclusive: ‘Some clubs are like businesses but not Everton. It is a place full of love’
Carlo Ancelotti springs up from his office chair at Everton’s training ground and raises his iPhone.
The interview momentarily becomes a walking tour, first pointing his finger at a white tactics board dotted with small blue magnets.
“And here is my lovely photograph with all the players and backroom staff,” he smiles.
Dressed head to toe in Everton training gear, Ancelotti sits back down and becomes reflective.
“This pandemic is, I promise you, going to end,” Ancelotti says. “Everyone is tired. You, me, all of us, we are tired of living this way. But when this thing ends, those little things we once considered ordinary will feel extraordinary. To go to a restaurant with two friends? That’s going to feel like a huge party! Or imagine celebrating a goal in a stadium full of supporters. Imagine that!”
He grins. “Or imagine winning another match at Anfield but, this time, with supporters waiting to embrace you behind the goal! It will all feel so much greater.”
It is the first
to the standout result of Ancelotti’s 15 months as Everton manager. That 2-0 victory in February was Everton’s first at Liverpool this century and it was hardly the norm before then. Everton have won only seven times at Anfield in 59 league visits since 1963.
Yet for Ancelotti, the man dubbed as owner Farhad Moshiri’s “Hollywood manager”, the result was less rare.
Ancelotti has won eight times against Liverpool in 16 meetings as a coach. Only Liverpool’s Bob Paisley and Real Madrid’s Zinedine Zidane can match his three Champions League titles. At 61, he is one of the true aristocrats of European football. The man who won Chelsea’s first top-flight league and FA Cup double. The man who won Paris Saint-Germain’s first French title in 19 years. The man who ended Real Madrid’s 12-year wait for La Decima by lifting the Champions League in his first season at the club.
During a compelling hour’s conversation, his reflections on modern football’s thorniest debating points, such as talk of a European Super League and Financial Fair Play, are sharp and insightful. His observations on football’s uneasy relationship with mental health, particularly in light of his compatriot Cesare Prandelli’s recent decision to step away from his duties at Fiorentina, are meaningful. There is time, too, for some lighter insights: his predictions for the upcoming European Championship, how refereeing standards compare across the continent and how his training sessions differ in England.
As the 2020-21 season nears its climax, Everton are in the race for Champions League qualification and, Ancelotti says, “in general, we are where we want to be”. It is, he acknowledges, a very different challenge to the ones he faced at a roll call of established European superclubs, including Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, PSG, Chelsea, AC Milan and Juventus.
“It is a distinct project, compared to Bayern or Chelsea or those very top clubs. At those place you arrive, you have to win — full stop, end of story.”
And at Everton? “Here, the project is a bit more open. But the results are still the results. We have a target. It is different to the target at Manchester City or Manchester United, but there is always a target. To arrive at the target is always a huge effort, a motivation, a stress, a pressure. The work of a coach is always the same; to hit the target at the end of the season. It is only the environment that changes.”
This week, Ancelotti topped The Athletic’s fan survey of managers who were popular with their supporters.
It seems he is getting close to that target.
On Merseyside, Ancelotti and his Canadian wife Mariann have swiftly settled into their environment.
“We have a beach!” Ancelotti says, referring to the Crosby suburb north of the city, and they have also enjoyed the cycling and walking trails in their downtime. Ancelotti’s warmth for the area appears sincere. On one occasion, he called ahead to a local barber’s shop and pleased locals by wandering in wearing his full Everton training kit. He sent a good luck message to Neil Young, his managerial counterpart at local side Marine before the non-League club’s second-round FA Cup victory over Havant & Waterlooville that set up a meeting with Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham. He supported the British National Health Service by appearing in TV adverts to encourage those who have had COVID-19 to donate blood plasma, in the hope it contains the antibodies to help save the lives of people facing urgent care because of the virus.
For a manager who thought he had seen it all, these nine months and counting of matches in near-empty grounds presented fresh challenges.
“Without the fans, you do have clearer lines of communication to the players during games,” he says. “And they have to listen! But the flipside is the players also hear all the nonsense that us coaches come out with during games!”
His grin is back. Ancelotti has, over time, come to relish English football.
Between his Chelsea sacking at Goodison Park immediately after the final game of the 2010-11 season and his return to the same stadium as Everton manager in December 2019, there were flirtations, to varying extents, with Liverpool, Manchester United, Spurs and Arsenal. Ancelotti is the only coach to have managed in the top tier of the top five leagues — England, France, Spain, Italy and Germany.
So, let’s settle one thing. Are the referees in England really as poor as is often suggested?
“The referees here are a lot better than other places!” he insists. “In Italy and Spain, they come under a huge amount of pressure. Here, they are more calm, and my honest opinion is they make less mistakes and the refereeing level is extremely high. The criticism is normal, but it is better than it is in Italy.”
Since we are talking about referees, how about VAR? “Allora… (Well…)” he begins, “I am supportive of the objective technology, so offside is offside, even if the technology says it is by a millimetre. There is no cure for being offside. With handball, for example, it is subjective and a human decision. Then, errors can be made. It is important that the referee on the pitch decides. The VAR is there to support the referee, not the other way around.
“Offside is decided by technology, full stop. But for other big decisions, the referee should go over to the screen and decide, because a penalty has to be very clear.”
In each country, he encounters little quirks. He speaks English extremely well but prefers to conduct interviews in Spanish, feeling a little more comfortable in it. When he first went to Chelsea in 2009, he asked then-assistant Ray Wilkins, who had played in Italy, to translate jokes to players to calm them down before big matches. It is one of his managerial qualities that he recognises some individuals require calming down, rather than further motivation, before taking to the field.
In an interview with the Financial Times, he said: “The problem of the English player – sometimes it’s difficult for them to understand that they don’t have to work 100 per cent in training. There are some training sessions where it’s important not to work 100 per cent. The French don’t understand why they have to work 100 per cent every day.”
He highlights other English peculiarities during our conversation.
“The intensity level in England is a lot higher than any other place,” he says. “The level is very high against every team in the league. In Italy, it can be more of a tactical battle, which lowers the intensity. The catenaccio lowers the intensity of a game. There are other things. For example, in England, set pieces…”
He blows out his cheeks. Even in the modern Premier League?
“Far more important here than in other places,” Ancelotti nods. “I do more in training sessions here on set pieces than anywhere else. It is far more important.
“But football has changed. It is far more complicated to distinguish different countries’ national leagues, because of the cross-pollination of players and coaches. I do think Italy has retained a unique sense; you could recognise an Italian team if you watched the game without being told who was playing. You can no longer say very easily that an English team plays an English style of football, in the traditional sense.”
Ancelotti possesses a lightness of touch and easy charm.
We endure the usual Zoom rigmarole.
First, we can see Ancelotti without hearing him. Then we can hear him without seeing him. Finally, on a third device, we are set up and ready to go.
He makes an interview a two-way conversation, briefly discussing London, where he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the finest Italian restaurants, before moving on to the COVID-19 vaccine. “I have had the first shot,” he says, “and the second one is coming in April.”
Has he given up the cigarettes? “One and a half years now,” he says, before adding “and one of those years has been a pandemic!” In the summer, he will take in the European Championship. Who’s his tip? “Italy.” Of course. “But really! They were very good in qualification.”
Time in his company, even digitally, provides a portal as to why so many players, from varying generations, speak about Ancelotti so warmly. Kaka, the former AC Milan and Real Madrid playmaker, said: “Everywhere Carlo goes, when he leaves, he leaves this nice feeling with the player’s hearts.” When Chelsea sacked Ancelotti in 2011, players including John Terry and Frank Lampard joined him at a farewell party the same evening.
For a man who exudes calm and authority, I suggest it is a little surprising to hear him speak of “the stress and the pressure”. Now in his 26th year of management, does he still feel it?
“It is normal to feel that,” he insists. “The stress is part of the job and part of life. But I always say that the greater stress is to wake up at 4am and go to work, earning far less money than I am privileged to earn. So it is ‘stress’, in inverted commas. Stress is to have to work hard in an environment you do not like. But I love what I do in football. I don’t consider it to be work, or like a job.
“The stress and pressure, it motivates me. When you lose a couple of games, your mind starts whirring. You think about what has happened. You are not able to sleep after a game. It is part of the job. To manage those negative experiences is the most challenging part of management. It is a physical, as well as a psychological, challenge because if you do not sleep well, it is a physical impact.“
He says he is getting better at controlling those late-night thoughts. He has learned too, over time, that players need shielding.
He says: “When you lose a game, you can criticise what the players have done or you can try and find solutions. The criticism from the press, for example, is not something I can control. The result is not something I can control. So I put my mind on what I can control: the performance of the team, or the pressure that lands onto the players, because they are already under big pressure. Even when you decide the line-up, it is a stress, but you can control that by speaking openly to the players and motivating the players. A coach must focus on what he can influence.”
Last week, fellow Italian Cesare Prandelli resigned from his position as Fiorentina coach. Prandelli is a friend of Ancelotti’s and spoke of a “dark cloud” that had consumed him and “profound distress.” Ancelotti’s sunny demeanour dims a little.
“It is an understandable message that he wrote; extremely clear. He is a person who feels less motivated in his environment and he is encountering psychological challenges. It is a positive thing he has spoken about it, not only for him, but for many other people in the industry.
“The concept of psychology in football is changing. There was a time when people could not speak about mental health in football. Now there are far more discussions; players speak with a psychologist, they speak more openly about the challenges they face. When I played, the psychological challenge was not considered whatsoever. To talk about these challenges was like talking about sex to your mum and dad: almost impossible! It is changing for the better.
“You have to understand this, because the expectations are very, very high and, every year, they become greater on both the coach and the players. Once upon a time, we spoke about teams defined by the players. We would speak about Diego Maradona’s team, or Michel Platini’s team. Now we speak about the Mourinho team, or Guardiola team, or Ancelotti team. This is a pressure that is heaped upon the coach. But players have their own challenges; it is far more complicated than when I played; television, social media, this constant accumulation of pressure, people are always asking for more, more, more, more.
“A coach has to take this on, for all the people who work for the club. It is a big psychological challenge.”
Without wishing to disparage Ancelotti’s predecessors at Everton, they were poached away from clubs such as Southampton, Watford, Wigan Athletic and Preston North End.
Hiring Ancelotti, therefore, represented a statement of real intent. His presence at Everton is symbolic, in what it tells us about the club’s short and long-term ambitions, but tangible progress is also evident on the field.
In the transfer market, Ancelotti bolstered his first full campaign by acquiring James Rodriguez from Real Madrid and Allan from previous employers Napoli, while Ben Godfrey and Abdoulaye Doucoure have proved to be smart and effective domestic additions. Last week, the club announced they had received the final all-clear from the government to build a new 53,000-seater stadium and the ambition is to relocate for the 2024-25 season. Everton are now a club dripping with ambition. Ancelotti has previously declared that next season’s goal will be qualification for the Champions League.
Yet the European elite has, for a long time, felt like a closed shop and interlopers are rarely embraced. It can be done via smart coaching and pinpoint recruitment, as we saw at Tottenham under Mauricio Pochettino in recent years and as we see now from Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City.
The wealth of rival Premier League clubs is one challenge but this is compounded by UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations.
The basic premise of FFP is that a club can only spend what they earn. This has reduced debt across European football but critics argue that it weights the chance of success in favour of Europe’s most commercially prosperous clubs. Manchester United, for example, will attract greater income through gate receipts, sponsorship, European qualification and television revenue than Everton and so are able to spend more than them in the transfer market. As such, a football club’s position in the ecosystem is said to be entrenched by the current regulations. Manchester City, PSG and Chelsea are relatively recent challengers, turbocharged by billionaire owners or nation-states, but FFP, in its current guise, would likely hinder future upstarts.
Ancelotti has been on both sides of the fence, first coaching a string of superclubs but now with upwardly mobile Everton. He briefly hypothesises over a salary cap, which he says could help “equalise the competition and be an important point”. For now, at least, he is realistic about the pace of growth for Everton.
Speaking personally rather than on behalf of Everton, he says: “Our club has patience to progress, little by little, because it is very difficult to progress rapidly in modern football. You can have a president who wishes to invest a lot of money but the club cannot do it, because of FFP. As such, to progress means step by step, increasing the quality of the team each year. But money entering into a club is normal — it is how a lot of teams did it before FFP.”
Despite his club’s lofty ambitions, I suggest it is pretty tough to gatecrash the elite within two years under the current rules? “Yes, yes,” Ancelotti nods. “With FFP, it is almost impossible.”
So, are the cynics correct? Is FFP a mechanism to protect the dominance of the richest clubs? Ancelotti laughs.
“That is the reality!” he says. “The reality of FFP is that the richest clubs can invest. It is a strange period anyway because all the clubs have now lost a lot of money in the pandemic. Therefore, there are not many big clubs who can sign big players. I cannot say necessarily FFP will preserve the biggest clubs but my worry is that, with FFP, you lose above all the interest in national competitions. There is going to be less possibility (for a domestic side) to overcome a Manchester United or Manchester City.”
We point to the domestic dominance of Bayern Munich in Germany, PSG in France and Juventus in Italy in recent years. “If you are the club who has traditionally won the league and been in the Champions League, you have greater income,” he says.
For Europe’s wealthiest clubs, the pandemic has enabled a broader and more controversial conversation. Clubs such as Real Madrid, Liverpool and Manchester United believe they drive the majority of the interest and revenue in European football. As such, they consider themselves entitled to a greater share of the income. At its most extreme, this has led to suggestions of a European Super League, where the continent’s most famous clubs would break away from their domestic competitions.
Ancelotti says: “It is clear that if the national competitions lose interest and entertainment, then the concept of a Super League attracts more power. For a supporter, if it got to the stage that Everton could not hope to beat Manchester City, then I am not going to watch. I would prefer to watch Manchester City against Barcelona because it would be more entertaining.
“But for me, the Super League cannot happen. We have the Champions League. It’s enough, right? The Champions League pits the best against the best already. But the future of football must value the national competitions more. The schedule is really tough as it is. The players never rest.
“Now we have an international break but we have players who are going to play three games (for their countries in it). They do not stop, particularly during this season. If there were fewer games, it would give a chance to smaller teams to improve their quality and have a more competitive league. It is true this year that the Premier League is much more competitive; ourselves, West Ham, Aston Villa and Leeds, who have all done really well. But in the end, City will win the league by 15 points or whatever it is.
“We want to be able to hope that Everton could compete, within two or three years, with the very top teams. But with football as it is at the moment, Everton cannot compete (consistently at that level). We need more time. It is true that the stadium is one very important point to attract more income and be more competitive.”
There have been some suggestions that FFP may be relaxed, partly due to Manchester City’s victory in the Court of Arbitration for Sport, but also to inject cash into the sport following the financial effects of COVID-19.
Would that be a good thing?
“Everyone has suffered in the pandemic,” says Ancelotti. “If there is an owner who wants to inject money into football, then why not? It could be a good step.”
Despite football’s structural challenges, this season’s Premier League offers an opportunity to Everton.
They are in the thick of the battle for Champions League qualification, five points behind fourth-placed Chelsea with a game in hand. Ancelotti’s brand of quiet leadership, as he titled his most recent book, has enhanced performances at Everton, both collectively and individually in standout cases such as Ben Godfrey and Dominic Calvert-Lewin.
He’s not always a beacon of calm, though. He once told the story of the time he responded to a poor result as PSG manager by kicking a box towards the head of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. But he is mostly as he appears. Calm and in control. Ancelotti says it is the product of his parents. His dad did not “kick” him as a child. His parents worked on a farm, producing parmesan cheese, and their little boy from the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, became one of the most decorated figures in the sport having also won three Serie A titles and two European Cups as a player with Roma and AC Milan.
At Everton, he has spoken of a club that requires patience but has Ancelotti, too, needed to change his own state of mind? Did he have to become a little less demanding at a club where the quality of player is a touch lower than at a lot of his previous managerial stops?
“There is a distinct and different communication with the players,” he explains. “You need to be more patient with mistakes they might make and all these things. But importantly, you must not lose confidence or trust in what we do together. Honestly, I have not found that transition difficult because I have encountered a positive environment, where it is a family club. There are a lot of people who work here who are Everton fans. The club has a very clear project and the owner wants a better team and the club to be in a higher position, where it was before, to be the club that won trophies in the 1980s.”
Ancelotti has previously described clubs as “families”, such as AC Milan where president Silvio Berlusconi assumed an intrusive and paternal role. On one occasion, before the 2003 Champions League final victory over Juventus, Berlusconi, then also Italy’s prime minister, even sat in on Ancelotti’s team-talk. Other clubs he diagnoses to be more like companies, such as Juventus, where it all feels a little more corporate. One former Real Madrid employee, I say, recently compared life in the Spanish capital to working for Microsoft.
He says: “Everton has this history and traditional values. I cannot compare it to one of those clubs that are more like a business. Everton has a strong sense of love and affection that envelops the whole place from the fans. Of course the fans can criticise us, but it is because their love is so great that they want the best for the club.
“The objective was to fight to qualify for Europe, and that’s where we are. It has been a weird season, because we have been excellent away from home and very bad at home. But, as a whole, the team has progressed. We signed good players, we are more competitive against big teams. We are not yet at the level of the very top teams but we are closer. The progression has been good but we must get better in the future and that’s why it is important, if we can, to get into Europe next season. Above all, the young players who have progressed not only technically but also really demonstrated character and personality. Richarlison, Calvert-Lewin, Godfrey, (Tom) Davies, (Michael) Keane — they are better players than they were this time last year. The team has demonstrated a strong mental attitude.”
He pinches his thumb and index finger together. He goes into English. “You guys call it fighting spirit. In certain games, I know, there were times where, when we needed greater quality, we have had more problems.”
He appreciates how the team confronted two contrasting psychological situations — when trailing Manchester United 2-0 at half-time at Old Trafford but recovering to draw 3-3 before leading Liverpool early at Anfield two weeks later and seeing the result through — as evidence of growing maturity.
“Compared with last year, this has improved immeasurably. In very complicated games and different situations, we have done really well. It is clear the quality of the team is more defensive than offensive and it is true that with James Rodriguez, the technical capacity of the team grows a lot. In this last period, we have not had him and it is not a coincidence that we scored a lot more goals with him fit at the start of the season.”
If there are grounds for criticism, it is to be found in the home form, which has been hit and miss. They are not alone.
“The hardest aspect of the pandemic has been preparing players for matches without supporters,” Ancelotti says. “The fans inject an extra motivation — little customs, little bits of spirit. It is hard to weigh up the impact but the results of the season tell us it is a factor. Look at Liverpool losing six games at Anfield. They had never lost in almost 70 home games before that. We have lost a lot of home games but won a lot away. It is absolutely because the fans have not been there. The fans prepare the atmosphere of a game.”
Is there anything that can replicate the buzz? “No,” he says, bluntly. “On a psychological level, I don’t think so. It is impossible to replicate the atmosphere that thousands of people create through their emotions.”
He is looking forward to the partial return of fans next month, when Premier League teams should each get a home crowd of 10,000 for their final home match of the season.
“It will all feel so much greater,” he reiterates, before adding, “To help society, we have to place our trust and pay attention to the people who have the greatest knowledge and expertise in the issues of the pandemic. So, if they tell you to wear a mask, or wash your hands, or get vaccinated, do that. You have to have trust in this.
“Continue doing as we are advised because, when this thing ends, our lives can feel so great together.”