When Real Madrid‘s second goal went in at Almeria on Sunday night, Davide Ancelotti was up and off the away team bench like an Olympic sprinter erupting from his blocks.
It’s a great image, too. As the stadium reacts to David Alaba‘s wondrous free kick that put the Spanish champions 2-1 up, sealing another of their famous fightback “remontadas,” Ancelotti Jr. is roaring up at the heavens, knees bent, arms pumped towards the sky, leaning backwards until he’s practically doubled up: this is a man completely consumed by joy and vindication.
The backstory goes like this. Despite making five changes to the team that won the European Super Cup over Eintracht Frankfurt in midweek, Los Blancos had been sluggish and ragged in their LaLiga opener, especially when falling behind to a superb counter-attack goal early on.
Carlo Ancelotti reckoned, postmatch, that they “started badly, it became a complicated match and we weren’t fresh enough to play with real speed up front. It was tough to score our goals.”
Almeria, the promoted champions of Segunda Division, were playing well and repelling Madrid’s efforts with total confidence, so much so that even after Lucas equalised on the hour mark, Los Blancos were still tied 1-1 15 minutes later with the same amount of time left before the final whistle. On the sidelines, the Ancelottis — 63-year-old father Carlo and Davide, his bright, talented, 33-year-old son — had concluded together that it was time to introduce David Alaba. Plus they were toying with the idea of adding Casemiro.
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Alaba, scorer of Madrid’s opening goal against Frankfurt in Helsinki on Wednesday night, was ready first. He received detailed tactical instructions from Ancelotti Jr. and was prowling the touchline for nearly two minutes before there was a break in play enabling him to sub in — a break that came thanks to Rodrigo Ely fouling Luka Modric on the edge of the Almeria penalty area.
It was injudicious by the Brazilian, who protested both to the ref and to the Madrid midfielder, trying to establish a defendant’s case that he wasn’t guilty of obstruction and putting forward the idea that Modric had dived over his outstretched thigh. Ely also tried to haul Modric up off the ground; there was a spark of accusation and counter-accusation, all of which turned out to be just a sideshow distraction.
The real action was happening on the touchline.
Young Ancelotti hustled over to his father and demanded three things. First, that Alaba be subbed on immediately; second, that they didn’t wait for Casemiro to be ready to replace Toni Kroos; and third, that the two nominated free-kick takers, Kroos and Benzema, who were already hovering over the dead ball, be told that Alaba must take it. The debate lasted about five seconds, delegated authority was granted and Ancelotti Jr. told Alaba he should head directly to the free kick and tell the two world-class footballers, who both have been at the club many years more than the one-season Austrian, that he was going to take charge. They could both stand down.
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If you rewatch the moments prior to Alaba’s technically-perfect, left-footed, match-winning free-kick, you’ll see that there’s a little bit of persuasion needed. Kroos looks unconvinced, but Benzema is the first to accede to young Ancelotti’s orders, and gradually, Kroos follows suit. What Ancelotti Jr. had correctly deduced was that the specific location of the set piece — about 15 feet outside the Almeria penalty area and to the right, as Madrid attacked — was inch-perfect for a specialist left-footer to bend one from inside to outside and attempt to find the top-left corner of Fernando Martinez‘s goal.
What Ancelotti Sr. had risked was the level of respect this hard-nosed, ultracompetitive Madrid squad had for his son. He’d risked the chance that Alaba, perhaps “cold” from only just having trotted on, might fluff the free kick with a quarter of an hour left, leaving the team and fans frustrated while Kroos and Benzema, two exceptional options in dead-ball situations, nursed a grudge at being overlooked. When the ball curves, rather beautifully, on a left-to-right trajectory and deflects off the inside of the post — it was literally impossible to save — then of course the true hero is Alaba.
While Alaba was still at Bayern, he explained his technique. “I began working on my free kicks from a young age. Mehmet Scholl [legendary set-piece scorer for Bayern] was my coach in the reserve team, he made a lot of time for me. That really helped me refine my technique. Then [Robert] Lewandowski and I often stay out on the training pitch during the week, practising free-kicks for 20 minutes at least … often half an hour.”
But there’s cause for Ancelotti Jr.’s extravagant celebration, too. Talented though he is (top of the class in both his UEFA B and UEFA A license exams) and increasingly experienced, having assisted his prodigiously successful father at Madrid (back in 2013-2015, plus at Bayern, Napoli, PSG and Everton), there’s always a conscious and subconscious fight required against the perception of nepotism when you’re the boss’s son. In this instance, his clarity of thought, his willingness to be bold and the strength of his work relationships — not only with his dad, but with Alaba, Kroos and Benzema — all ultimately led to Madrid’s winner.
It reminds me of a response Dani Alves gave when we were filming an interview together. I asked him why his diminutive physique hadn’t been a barrier to his becoming a world-class footballer. In Spanish, he answered simply: “Futbol es para listos!” (Effectively, it translates as: “Football is a sport that allows the smart guy to thrive.”) I recycled that expression in midweek while interviewing Casemiro about Alaba’s previous goal, the tap-in to put Madrid 1-0 up against a hard-working, high-pressing and threatening Eintracht Frankfurt in the Finnish capital.
Casemiro was the man of the match that night and was therefore delivered to our studio in the Olympic Stadium to have a five-minute chat about the win. The point about putting Alves’ “futbol es para listos” quote to Casemiro was that, notwithstanding his outstanding performance in defensive midfield all night, he had been Johnny-on-the-spot with his perfect assist to Alaba.
Coincidentally, that goal was also the fruit of good preparation and conviction from Davide Ancelotti. His analysis of Frankfurt suggested they were vulnerable on their back post from set plays — particularly corners — and Madrid had asked Casemiro to position himself around Kevin Trapp‘s back post whenever the opportunity arose. In the end, there was an element of fortune that Benzema’s header deflected up towards that area, but as Carlo Ancelotti stated postmatch, “Casemiro was there to take advantage specifically because of how we’d planned things.”
So I told the man of the match: “You were pretty ‘listo’ there when you reacted first and punished your marker for dozing off.”
Casemiro answered, “I was about to use the chance to put a header on goal when I glimpsed Alaba on his own, and with an easier chance to score than me. The key to the goal, and the key to how we work at Madrid, is that if a teammate is in a better position, you have to give him the ball … so I did.”
These two examples of good decision-making and fast thinking might seem basic to you, and fair enough if they do, but to conclude, here are a couple of examples from across the weekend when things did not work out this way.
Think of the shock result at the Camp Nou where a tooled-up Barcelona side only drew 0-0 with Rayo Vallecano, and in particular, a counterattack for Andoni Iraola’s side just before half-time that could, and should, have put them 1-0 up.
Alvaro Garcia has fooled Ronald Araujo, putting him on his backside, and is now one-on-one against goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, but fellow striker Sergio Camello is nearby, about 15 metres (50 feet) away, begging for the ball. Even with Eric Garcia covering the goal line for the advancing Ter Stegen, the chances of scoring are about 100 times greater if the ball is squared to Camello. Alvaro ignores his teammate, Ter Stegen saves and Rayo only get a point from their superb performance.
There were other examples of “ego” beating street smarts in LaLiga, but to underline the value and importance of the Madrid ethos in both of the goals I’ve highlighted, just take a look at two other examples from each end of the spectrum: perpetually dysfunctional PSG and clever old Osasuna.
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In the first case — admittedly, while beating Montpellier 5-2 — Kylian Mbappe infamously stopped his run, stood on his own complaining and failed to aid a terrific attack when Vitinha chose not to pass to the Frenchman. Moreover, the agitated, out-of-sorts striker tried to take the ball off Neymar when PSG got a second penalty, Mbappe having failed to score with the first one. Now the two of them are embroiled in a needless, damaging social media spat.
Back in Spain, meanwhile, Osasuna also showed that football is “para listos.”
Last season, Chimy Avila and Anti Budimir famously wrestled over who should take a penalty at Elche and their teammates had to step in so that common sense could reign. Stroppy Chimy was told to behave, Budimir took it and scored. On Friday night, Osasuna were awarded a controversial spot kick against Sevilla. Budimir was still on the bench while Avila was playing and had scored, but this time, the team acted as one and chose 20-year-old debutant Aimar Oroz, whom they knew was a specialist and possessed a cool-as-a-cucumber mentality despite his young age and lack of first-team experience.
The kid scored. Osasuna won.
Football was for the smart guys. Like Davide Ancelotti, Casemiro and, by association, Alaba, Benzema and Kroos. Long may it stay that way, too.