Ancelotti Explains How His Tactical Outlook Has Evolved

In our latest excerpt from Carlo Ancelotti's acclaimed 2016 book Quiet Leadership: Winning hearts, minds and matches, the Italian reveals the key principles that underpin his tactical philosophy, how his approach has evolved over the years and the "beautiful accident" that helped his European champion AC Milan team flourish...

Although the overall identity of the team, the style of play, is very important, it is perhaps best understood as strategic.

The tactics – how to perform in particular games or particular periods of the season, or how to change systems or personnel against particular opponents – are also crucial to success.

When people talk about football they often seem to believe that to play ‘offensively’ is good and to play ‘defensively’ is bad. That’s not true.

If you have a team that plays well defensively but not so well offensively, or the other way round, that is the sign of a bad manager.

You must be strong when either attacking or defending. In Italian football, the tradition and history of the game are defensive: catenaccio, a defensive system of play, was born in Italy to an Argentine, Helenio Herrera.

Attacking play is more about the creative qualities of the players, but defensive play is different. Anybody and everybody can learn to defend well.


If they don’t it is because either the manager allows it to happen or the players choose not to defend well. Great defensive play is mostly organisational and positional in the modern game – it’s not so much about tackling any more.

It’s all about concentration. Of course, you have to be physically conditioned, you have to run and sacrifice. Players don’t like it when they don’t have the ball. Nobody likes to run without the ball – they all want to run with it.

This is where systems become important. When I was starting out, I was wedded to 4-4-2. I have now learned to be more flexible although I still believe that 4-4-2 is the outstanding defensive system.

You have the best coverage of the pitch, it is simpler to press forward and press high, with coverage behind the pressing players.

With 4-3-3, for example, although you can press high because you have three strikers, it can expose limitations in midfield behind those forwards, especially on the flanks.

Also, if your forwards are not great at defending it can be easier for defenders to bypass them and get into the next line with superior numbers. This is less likely with 4-4-2, where you can bring in the wide players to bolster the midfield so that your central players are not overwhelmed.

There is, of course, a downside that can be exposed in 4-4-2.

When you are attacking you have to use a lot more lateral passes to get forward and then deliver into the scoring zone, whereas with 4-3-3 you can move the ball through the lines quicker and attack more centrally. Perhaps the ultimate will be the Guardiola vision of 11 midfielders – even the goalkeeper.

This is not so crazy, because if you play with a high line then the goalkeeper has to be fast and competent with his feet, like Manuel Neuer at Bayern Munich or Hugo Lloris at Tottenham.

When I hear other coaches saying that their team was outnumbered in midfield, I say, ‘Look, we’ve got to stop thinking like this because we’ve got eleven players on the field and they’ve got 11 – if we’re outnumbered somewhere, they must be outnumbered somewhere else on the field. Let’s concentrate on playing in these areas.’

In the military, they say that no strategy survives contact with the enemy. This is so true in football.

You plan all week and then the opponent chooses different players from those you had thought he would or, as soon as the game starts, you realize that they are using a different system to the one you had planned for.

Or, for specific matches, where the opponent always plays the same way but your team struggles against them, you might have to change formation to fit the opposition.

In my time at Real we had difficulties with our local rivals Atlético. They always played the same, but were always difficult. When we played them we had to counter what they wanted to do.

Their strength was in the middle of the pitch, where they were very aggressive. When they won the ball they would immediately use it to attack.

So, our tactics for the games were not to use the middle of the pitch, but to use the flanks to put in crosses quickly.

I also made the full backs play really high up the pitch to press the ball quickly when we lost it to deny them any possibility of counter-attacking.

You often have to change formation to work around injured players or to accommodate new ones.

Sometimes this is where the best ideas come from – from constraints.

At Milan, we had a lot of quality players arrive and at first I was struggling to fit them all in the team and keep them happy, but then we stumbled upon a beautiful accident.

First, Andriy Shevchenko picked up an injury, so I moved Andrea Pirlo back to a deeper role, as playmaker behind the two offensive midfielders.

We ended up inventing the Christmas tree formation. It came about as a practical necessity but it married perfectly to the philosophy of the president. As they say in England, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention.’

The key to the success of the Christmas tree formation came in one game, against Deportivo de La Coruña in the Champions League.

They had two deep-lying midfielders and I thought that playing with our normal team, minus our injured players, we would not be able to defensively cover the position of these players.

They would be too deep for us to affect. So, instead we played two offensive midfield players who could push up on them when we didn’t have the ball.

You could say that the whole idea was, in fact, born of thinking not offensively, but defensively, which you might say is typically Italian. ‘How could we stop the opposition?’ was first in my thoughts. We won the match 4–0.

Maybe if we had lost 4–0 I would have discarded the idea altogether. In our next game in the Champions League we played against Bayern Munich and we won again, 2–1, with the formation, so I started to believe that I was necessity’s child.

In football, as in anything, you must never stand still. Never believe that the tactics you deploy today and that have brought you great success will continue to be effective tomorrow. Your opponents will not be sitting back and letting it happen again.

Look at the Chelsea team in the 2015–16 season. The season before, they were champions and all but invulnerable; then, suddenly, they can hardly win a game. It’s the same players, tactics and system, so what’s changed?

The difference is that other teams have moved on and worked out how to play the Chelsea system.

To stand still can actually mean to go backwards.

I like tennis and each time I see a new type of player emerge – Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Serena Williams, Björn Borg, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic – I can never believe they will be beaten. But they always are.

When I was talking with Billy Beane, of the Oakland Athletics baseball team and Moneyball fame, he said that his revolutionary practices gave him an edge for maybe one year and then everyone else copied and improved.