Carlo Ancelotti is the gentleman of football management, the cuddly figure nobody can hate and everyone would like to share a glass of wine with – and not just because you know he has the best choice of vino on the planet. He was the master of ‘soft power,’ the ability to navigate strong personalities and seemingly appease them while at the same time making his own decisions. However, in recent years, Carletto appears to have lost the power part and just gone soft.
Napoli is a tough place to work, everyone knows it, and none more so than this season. In the wake of losing Maurizio Sarri, there was always going to be some leeway for the first campaign and second place was not entirely disappointing. It was in his second season that we were meant to really see Ancelotti’s Napoli. We did, and that was the problem.
He seemed to remove all the attractive traits of Sarri’s well-worked, fast-flowing, all-attack football, changing to a 4-4-2 that nobody in the team appreciated, least of all captain Lorenzo Insigne. The poor results and dull performances were only part of the reason for Ancelotti’s ousting, as he was largely a victim of too many strong personalities clashing around him. Ultimately, Carletto was squished.
Sarri stood up to De Laurentiis and defended his players, which is what eventually caused his ugly exit from the club. This time, when the President started his usual meddling, Ancelotti tried to remain friendly with all sides, but was too weak to make himself heard in the typical Neapolitan chaos.
Perhaps the old Milan system of telling Silvio Berlusconi he’d follow tactical indications and then do what he really wanted to had been rumbled by ADL. Maybe we underestimated the importance of Adriano Galliani in acting as a buffer between coach, squad and President in the Grande Milan. Cristiano Giuntoli and Edoardo De Laurentiis are too embedded with the patron to be remotely objective.
Ancelotti’s soft power approach failed at Bayern Munich, too. It was already starting to lose its effectiveness at Chelsea. Maybe the Alpha Male is in fashion now in a world where everyone tries to out-shout the other and disguise it as debate. Perhaps kindness and decency are confused for weakness.
We all know when the Napoli balance shattered into a million pieces. It was the night of November 5, in that dressing room after the 1-1 Champions League draw with RB Salzburg, when the team rebelled against a club-ordered training retreat. Ancelotti had already said the day before in a press conference that he didn’t agree with the retreat, effectively giving his players the licence to stand up and walk out. He refused to speak to the media after the game, incurring UEFA fines to boot, and his fate was sealed.
We don’t know precisely what happened in that meeting, but none of the options are good. If Ancelotti took a neutral stance when the players refused club orders, that is a show of weakness. If he told the squad to go into the training retreat and they ignored him, then he held no power over them whatsoever. If he encouraged the team to abandon the hotel, then De Laurentiis would rightly feel aggrieved at his coach leading a mutiny.
Ancelotti has never really been a creator of teams, but rather a facilitator allowing champions to do their thing in unison. Whenever he has tried to impose radical change, he found these big personalities not only resisted, but actively pushed him aside to go straight to the source of power, the directors.
Ancelotti will always be that lovable figure, the man everyone likes and admires, but he was too nice for the cut-throat world of SSC Napoli. A stronger figure like Gattuso might not succeed either, because they all eventually have to deal with De Laurentiis and he will always be happy to break the whole squad apart as long as he gets his way. As long as ADL has his iron grip and insists on controlling every aspect of the club, the Partenopei can never truly thrive.