What Will Carlo Ancelotti Change at Bayern Munich?

The Pep Guardiola era has finally come to an end after three years. During the Spaniard’s time at the club, Bayern Munich won three consecutive Bundesliga titles as well as two DFB-Pokal successes and remained a force domestically and in Europe. They also reached the Champions League semifinals in every season under Guardiola, but fell short each time against Spanish opposition with exits to Real Madrid (0-5 on aggregate) in 2014 , Barcelona (3-5 on aggregate) in 2015, and Atletico Madrid (an away goals defeat after a 2-2 aggregate score) in 2016.

While there is certainly much ongoing debate over whether or not the Catalan was overall a success at the club having not won at least one Champions League which was expected of him from the moment he arrived in Bavaria, there is certainly no doubt that he has left the team in good shape. They’re still the dominant force in German football, still an established top 3 club in Europe, and possess several world class players in their ranks, with most of those who were around before Guardiola’s arrival even better players now thanks to Pep’s influence, namely guys like Jerome Boateng, David Alaba, and Thomas Müller for example.

But now life after Guardiola must begin for Germany’s most successful club with the former Barcelona man on his way to begin a new adventure in England with money-rich Manchester City starting next season. It’s been known for quite some time now that his replacement at Bayern is Carlo Ancelotti, another world class foreign manager who has achieved plenty in the game as both a player and as a manager with three Champions League, league, and domestic cup titles each to his name.

Bayern’s front office management has already begun planning for the 2016/17 season along with Ancelotti as they look to prepare and meet the Italian’s expectations in strengthening the team in any way possible to achieve their goals of trying to gain success on all three fronts. Signing Borussia Dortmund captain and German international Mats Hummels as well as Portuguese teenage sensation Renato Sanches from Benfica for a combined total of €73M is certainly a good way to start doing just that.

As the club and their fans eagerly await Ancelotti’s official arrival at Sabener Strasse, Bayern’s training ground, next month, the questioning and pondering over what changes, both in terms of personnel and tactically, he’ll make have already begun. While it’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly the Italian mastermind will do before he’s even begun the job, there is definitely room to make a few guesses on what he has in store sitting up his sleeve with the countdown until next season having already gotten underway.

Aside from his world class man management which has seen him build up excellent rapport and relationships with players, officials, and his previous employers alike, Ancelotti has over the years developed a reputation for being tactically flexible. He’s always varied his approach based on what he has at his disposal at every club that he’s managed throughout his nineteen-year managerial career. With that in mind, it makes it harder to guess exactly what his primary system will be with Bayern because the possibilities are endless with him.

Ancelotti at Parma

At Parma, Ancelotti mainly deployed a rigid 4-4-2 system, similar to the one that he had played in during his time at AC Milan under the legendary Arrigo Sacchi. There he had three players who would go on to become some of the best of their respective generation in Gianluigi Buffon, Lillian Thuram, and Fabio Cannavaro. He also had Argentine Roberto Sensini, who was one of his most important players at the time because of his versatility and accomplished two-way playing style. He also regularly rotated his fullbacks (Ze Maria, Antonio Benarrivo, and Roberto Mussi) and frequently utilized them as wingbacks, because of their dynamism and attacking prowess.

Ancelotti's starting lineup at Parma.
Ancelotti’s starting lineup at Parma.

In midfield, he combined the intelligence and tirelessness of Dino Baggio with the pace and creative abilities of Massimo Crippa with Mario Stanic and Stefano Fiore operating in the wide positions while goal getter Hernan Crespo and the graceful Enrico Chiesa were brought in to play as the forwards. In the midst of formulating this team, Ancelotti had decided to let club icon Gianfranco Zola move to Chelsea and passed on the opportunity to sign Roberto Baggio as they didn’t fit into his plans with Chiesa preferred to them in a creative forward role. He later stated that he felt regret for making those decisions and pinned them down to lack of experience and knowledge at the time.

Ancelotti at Juventus

At Juventus, he tried to bring the same system he used at Parma, with one change being Zidane playing as a #10 in a 4-4-1-1 instead of having two forwards, but had little success before he made some notable changes. He changed the formation to 3-4-1-2 in the 1999/2000 season, brought in Dutch international Edwin van der Sar as a replacement for Angelo Peruzzi, and established the young Alessio Tacchinardi as a start following the departure of World Cup winner Didier Deschamps. He also signed Gianluca Zambrotta who would go on to become a mainstay as a left fullback and wingback with Gianluca Pessotto moving over to the right and competing with Alessandro Birindelli for a place in the side.

Ancelotti's starting lineup at Juventus.
Ancelotti’s starting lineup at Juventus.

The team was built around the front three of Zinedine Zidane, Filippo Inzaghi, and Alessandro del Piero with the wingbacks offering the width to compensate for the narrow approach in midfield and Tacchinardi’s all round and technical abilities making him a useful asset on the offensive side of things with more than enough players covering behind in defense. Under Ancelotti, they remained a defensive force at home and internationally and while their offensive numbers improved over time, their biggest strength was in their defense no matter who was playing back there. Whoever was in from Paolo Montero, Ciro Ferrara, Igor Tudor, or Mark Iuliano, they were always a tough nut to crack.

Although his Juventus spell wasn’t quite as successful as it should have been with the array of talent at his disposal, Ancelotti’s time with the Bianconeri is looked at as arguably the largest learning curve of his managerial career and where he learned that in order to succeed, you need to constantly evolve and adapt your methods to a modern approach. Instead of being stubborn and sticking to an outdated approach purely out of romanticism and nothing else, he learned at Juve that flexibility and adaptation are two key traits for anyone who wants to be a successful manager and it’s something he learned from an experience that he’s never looked back at from ever since.

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Ancelotti learns flexibility during his Juve stint.

Ancelotti at AC Milan

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Ancelotti’s Christmas Tree / Diamond shape at AC Milan.

During his eight-year stint with AC Milan, where he achieved his most notable successes as a player, he often shifted between the 4-4-2 diamond, 4-3-2-1 ‘Christmas tree’, and 4-3-3 formations which he used to adopt a playing style emphasized on creativity, flair, and dominating the midfield.

He converted Andrea Pirlo from an attacking midfielder to a deep lying playmaker and played him alongside the destructive Gennaro Gattuso and the more well-rounded Clarence Seedorf with Rui Costa (and later on Kaka) pulling the strings in front of them, playing behind the lethal scoring pair of Andriy Shevchenko and Filippo Inzaghi. Backed up by the then most formidable defense in Europe with Paolo Maldini, Cafu, Alessandro Nesta, and Jaap Stam, his Milan team remained on top of Europe for several years and was a strong force in the Champions League, despite their somewhat less convincing domestic performances.

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Ancelotti’s standard shape at AC Milan during his successful UCL run.

Ancelotti at Chelsea

With Chelsea, Ancelotti used the 4-4-2 diamond and 4-3-3 as his main systems with a similar scheme to what he applied at Milan, but with a few key differences. Joe Cole and Florent Malouda started as creative wingers in his first season at the club with the midfield consisting the attacking threat of Frank Lampard, a destroyer in Michael Essien or John Obi Mikel (sometimes even both), and the intelligent playmaking abilities of either Michael Ballack or Deco, combining physical and technical qualities that could contribute a lot on both ends of the pitch. Although Ancelotti never quite had a settled team or system in place during his time in London, he did manage to get the best out of the likes of Lampard, Malouda, and Drogba who played some of their best career football under his guidance.

While he never managed to get the best out of the midfield as a unit, he did manage to set them up well to often dominate and overpower opponents and create a platform for the attacking players to succeed in the final third. That was helped by the fact that he had Jose Bosingwa and Ashley Cole marauding up and down the pitch as fullbacks with freedom to attack, because of the fact that the midfield was played so narrow, and their energy allowed them to do that without abandoning their defensive duties in the process in what was a strong defensive system at the back for the team.

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Ancelotti’s fearsome attacking line at Chelsea.

Didier Drogba was the main man up front, but frequently played alongside Nicolas Anelka which meant that Malouda tucked in more centrally with Lampard playing further ahead behind the forwards to form a diamond shaped midfield. Although Ramires and Fernando Torres joined the team later on during his second season, the plan largely remained the same under the Italian.

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Ancelotti at Paris Saint-Germain

At Paris Saint-Germain, Ancelotti, after alternating between systems often until he found something to stick to, settled on a compact, narrow-focused 4-2-2-2 formation with the wide midfielders, Javier Pastore and Lucas Moura, tucking in to play closer to whatever two of Thiago Motta, Blaise Matuidi, and Marco Verratti were in the team. Verratti performed in the deep lying playmaker with Matuidi as the box-to-box midfielder beside him. Although they had their contributions going forward, the pair were more often required to be attentive to their defensive responsibilities and protecting the compact, flat back four and leave the attacking for the four players further forward.

Ezequiel Lavezzi played up top alongside Zlatan Ibrahimovic, albeit with a slightly more withdrawn role and freedom to roam in the final third as an attempt to make use of his pace and Ibrahimovic’s creativity on the ball to create a partnership between the two up front. Pastore and Lucas would still retain the ability to stay wide when necessary to open the pitch up for ensuing attacks, but they’d largely be asked to drift inside and create the space on the flanks for the overlapping fullbacks, Christoph Jallet and especially Maxwell, instead. This system relied mostly on the two wide midfielders to conjure up attacks and carry the ball forward from deep positions, which suited Pastore and Lucas well as they’re comfortable with the ball at their feet and are capable of dribbling past players regardless of their positions on the pitch and it gave them the license to express themselves effectively on the pitch.Image 9

In a way, it resembled the system Ancelotti used at Parma and at Juventus for a period, but with more freedom and fluid for the midfield players to adapt to the modern way of playing the game, which is what Ancelotti has become all about as a tactician and manager over the years: making sure to stay and adjust with the times.

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Ancelotti at Real Madrid

And finally, at Real Madrid, he tried to replicate the fluid 4-2-2-2 system that he used in France, mainly during the absence of Xabi Alonso who was injured during the Italian’s first few months at the Santiago Bernabeu. Following the Spaniard’s return though, and the team’s ongoing defensive struggles, Ancelotti decided to tweak the formation and change it to a 4-3-3. He removed Sami Khedira from the starting lineup to make room for Alonso as a deep lying playmaker while he also converted Angel di Maria into a central midfielder who was responsible for giving the team the defensive balance that it needed with his tireless work off the ball and also to be their primary outlet for attacks in transition given his pace and world class abilities to bring the ball from defense to attack within seconds. This meant that Isco also had to be dropped from the lineup as he wasn’t good of a fit for Real’s slick, fast counter attacking style given that he was more of a ‘ball holder’ and didn’t release passes or carry the ball forward as quick enough as di Maria could.

He also moved Gareth Bale to the right wing upon his arrival and Mesut Özil’s departure, a move that’s divided opinion over the Welshman’s productivity ever since but worked ever so well initially. Karim Benzema would take up more of a playmaking forward role in between Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo and act as the link between them because his all round technical attributes could allow him to hold up the ball, wait for them to come into play, and play them through on goal into spaces in an attempt to make use of their blistering pace and incisive finishing on the counter.

Luka Modric was seen as arguably the most important player of the system that Ancelotti had installed because he was looked to as the man who could set the tone for the way that they play given his qualities on both sides of the ball and his ability to control the flow and tempo of games in possession. Whenever he was missing, Real noticeably struggled without his presence but whenever he was in the side, they looked like a different force to be reckoned with throughout Ancelotti’s entire time at the club. Marcelo and Dani Carvajal were called upon to provide the width and support offensively whenever Bale and Ronaldo moved into more central areas, although at times, Ancelotti rotated them with Alvaro Arbeloa and Fabio Coentrao to instill more defensive balance and positional discipline in the team, depending on whoever the opponent was.

Even with the signings of James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos in his second season, Ancelotti tried to plug them into the system instead of changing a settled formula to accommodate them by squeezing them into the positions left behind by Alonso and di Maria’s departures. Although the balance of the team was hindered with the pair unsuccessful in putting in the defensive work that their predecessors did, Ancelotti did manage to get more out of the team as a whole when it came to off the ball work and pressing which saw them defend and attack as one for large periods of the 2014/15 season, only for it to become unable to sustain with Modric’s injury and lack of rotation hurting the team in the long run.

Although his biggest successes with Real came with the 4-3-3 formation, they did have some good matches and runs with the initial 4-2-2-2 system that he deployed, particularly in a 3-1 Clasico win over Barcelona in his second season where James Rodriguez and Isco, playing as wide midfielders with Gareth Bale missing, ran the show and ran Barca ragged with their fluid movement, intricate passing, and exceptional combination play with the attackers in front. Ronaldo played as a forward alongside Benzema this season, although in a withdrawn role which still allowed him to have a few extra yards of space to make his runs into the box and allow himself to get more involved in the game without being marked out of it by opposing defenders.

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Predicting Ancelotti at Bayern

So now that we have some information on Ancelotti’s past teams and the way they were set up and played, it’s time to analyze Bayern’s squad and assess the different possible systems he could put in place with the players he’ll have at his disposal.

Goalkeeper

Obviously a no-brainer, no matter who the manager is. Manuel Neuer, arguably the best goalkeeper in the world, is going to be the #1 choice in goal.

Defense

Although Ancelotti, like his predecessor Guardiola, is not afraid to play with a three or five man back line, he hasn’t actually regularly utilized any such supporting system since the late 90’s. With Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels, the German national team central defensive pairing, are near guarantees to start, Ancelotti could yet ponder over whether or not he’ll want to add a third man to form a trio with Medhi Benatia, Javi Martinez, Joshua Kimmich, Holger Badstuber, and David Alaba all being viable options. However, judging by the fact that he hasn’t played any system like that in such a long time, it’s probably unlikely that he’ll do so at Bayern either although he may well tinker with it at some point.

Every club Ancelotti has managed at in the past has had an emphasis on attacking down the left hand side. At Milan he had Maldini and Seedorf, at Chelsea he had Ashley Cole and Malouda, at PSG it was Maxwell and Pastore, and at Real Madrid he had Marcelo and Ronaldo. With David Alaba yet to reach his prime years and club captain Philipp Lahm not getting any younger, it’s likely that a similar strategy will be adopted during his time in Bavaria as well.

Prediction: Expect Alaba to resume with his full-time duties at leftback with occasional games in midfield and, unless Ancelotti is plotting a transfer for a world class rightback, we should see Lahm continue as a starter on the other side. Mainstay defense should be Lahm-Boateng-Hummels-Alaba.

Midfield

This is where things become trickier.

Although Alonso was a staple player in Ancelotti’s first season at Real, he is two years older now than he was in 2014 which will surely play a part in the Italian’s decision over what his first choice midfield will look like. Arturo Vidal is one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the world, Thiago Alcantara is one of the brightest young playmakers as well, and Renato Sanches who is a big talent himself. There are also players that are currently playing bit part roles like Sebastian Rode and Joshua Kimmich, but it’s unlikely that they’ll find their way in the starting lineup with better, more proven options available.

Prediction: Hard to call currently with the futures of Thiago and Götze still under question marks, although it’s hard to see the latter having a place in the starting lineup either way unless Ancelotti plays with a #10, which is unlikely. Regardless of whether Ancelotti goes with a two or a three man midfield, Vidal is likely to start given that he’s exactly the type of player Carlo loves to have in his team and offers the two-way playing style that the Italian asks of his central midfielders to play.

Should Ancelotti go with a three man midfield, Javi Martinez could very well return to his old defensive midfield role that he played in regularly before Pep Guardiola’s arrival. If not, then the other midfield spot will likely go to a more creative player and so long as Thiago stays put, he’ll likely get the nod ahead of the inexperienced Renato in any potential midfield lineup.

If it’s a two man midfield, it’ll likely be Vidal-Thiago. A three man midfield would likely be Vidal-Martinez-Thiago.

Attack

There were some rumors not too long ago over whether or not Robert Lewandowski would leave Germany to play abroad, but it seems unlikely to happen and so long as he stays, he has the centerforward position locked down for himself. Franck Ribery’s age and health make him a doubt to feature as a regular in this team while Kingsley Coman is still too green in several areas of his game to be a starter yet either. Douglas Costa will probably continue as a starter, but where exactly still remains to be seen.

The main question mark here and quite possibly over the entire choice of system for Ancelotti is what will be the position of Thomas Müller in the team. Although Müller is comfortable playing behind a striker and on the left, his best positions are either on the right wing or as a second striker. One cannot rule out Arjen Robben from being a starter either, but given his never ending injury issues and the fact that he’s not getting any younger, it may well be time for Ancelotti to complete a full transition for this team from the days of ‘Robbery’.

Prediction: There are two real options with Müller. Either he could have a similar role to the one that Lavezzi had under Ancelotti at PSG as a withdrawn forward or he could take up something like what Anelka played during the Italian’s time at Chelsea as a starting winger, but with freedom to join the forward up front which allows the other winger, in this case Costa, to tuck inside and form a diamond shaped midfield.

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No matter what Ancelotti decides to go with as his base formation and playing system, he has to keep a few things in mind. For example, Bayern’s biggest attacking weapons are in their wide play so any formation without wingers would take away that strength from them. There’s a solid mix between physical and technical quality all around the squad so creating a balanced team shouldn’t be difficult for a man who’s done more with less at previous clubs. With the pace and athleticism Bayern possess, a system that allows them to mix it between counter attacking and possession based football with pressing, similarly to Jupp Heynckes’ last reign at the club, could be the way to go.

Of course, it’s all simply speculation right now. The squad for next season is far from being finalized with the summer transfer window yet to get underway and the futures of several players still remaining unclear. If Thiago joins up with Pep at Man City and Götze re-joins Klopp or Dortmund, then things could look very much different as far as Bayern’s starting lineup goes. However things turn out, Ancelotti certainly has the budget, backing, and patience to build the team in his own vision having signed a three-year deal and he has the luxury of having one of the best benches in world football with several internationals making up the core of Bayern’s depth.

A three or five man defense isn’t impossible but it’s unlikely that Ancelotti will go down that route, same for the popular 4-2-3-1 formation which isn’t so popular with Carlo seeing as he’s barely used it anywhere in his illustrious managerial career. It’s most probably going to be either 4-3-3 or 4-2-2-2, depending on the roles he plans on Muller and Martinez occupying in whatever system he decides to go with. Let’s just assume it’ll be 4-3-3.

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Edin Halilovic

Edin is a Bosnian currently residing in the United States whose interest in the Bundesliga and German football in general has been increasing heavily in recent years. Follow him @edinh_96

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