When the board went up, so did Carlo Ancelotti. They were coming towards the end of Real Madrid‘s first proper preseason game at Ibrox, just not quite quick enough. Their new coach, who is also one of their old coaches, had seen enough so he approached the referee and asked if, rather than playing out the final minutes, it wouldn’t be better just to blow the whistle now. Willie Collum did exactly what he said.
Which might be a reflection of the respect there is for the man who has been everywhere, and won everywhere too. It was certainly a reflection of the fact that, well, it was only a friendly match — even if it can sometimes feel like there is no such thing at Real Madrid. This time though might have been a bit different: this one hadn’t gone well — Madrid had lost 2-1 at Rangers, an early end perhaps preventing the scoreline being worse — and yet there was something kind of calm about it all.
Something kind of … Carlo.
Look, it is not just Madrid’s manager that means that the reaction to this game — Madrid’s summer as a whole, in fact — has felt unusually low-key. The focus has after all, naturally, been elsewhere. There have been the Euros, the attention on Spain (even if the club-centric coverage never truly goes away, everything filtered through the prism of Madrid and Barcelona); there has been a Copa America; and now there is an Olympic Games. Better things to do, basically.
There also hasn’t been a huge amount else, not at Madrid. Not so far anyway, not when it comes to the usual noise. Sure, there are rumours, names, some of the normal summer silliness; sure, there is the normal new manager thing going on about how much harder they’re working now; but the volume doesn’t feel like it’s turned up so loud. Actual things have actually happened — and pretty big things when you think about it — but even that doesn’t feel quite so seismic as it might right now. Not even the Florentino Perez tapes, but that’s a different issue.
Sergio Ramos‘s departure to Paris Saint-Germain was announced early. Raphael Varane‘s departure for Manchester United hasn’t been announced yet, although it’s imminent. David Alaba was secured early and with minimal fuss. And the other “signings” are the players they already have, returnees making their way back to the Bernabeu. And, yes, that is always the way it’s put: signings offered up in speech marks because, well, that’s what you do when you know that what you’re saying isn’t really true. There was even one headline recently that declared: “Madrid sign for free.”
Real Madrid also only came back to work this week, at least when it came to the players who will likely make up their team this season. Against Rangers, of the 17 players that got on the pitch, only four seem like being significant figures — Nacho, Martin Odegaard, Lucas Vazquez, Rodrygo — although Miguel Gutierrez impresses. And even that isn’t that certain. There were eight Castilla players in the squad, and 16 men out: players who had been at the Euros (eight), the Copa America (four) and the Olympics (four more).
While it’s all happening at Barcelona — or not happening, if we’re talking about Lionel Messi officially staying — not very much is happening at Madrid. There isn’t even much more build-up: they have played Rayo Vallecano and Fuenlabrada behind closed doors, Rangers at Ibrox, and now Madrid have just one preseason game left, against AC Milan, although they are trying to arrange another one. And although he had seen enough in Scotland, Ancelotti doesn’t mind all that.
Just as importantly, he knew it would be like that; it is part of the reason why he is here at all, even if a chance conversation brought him back, his return unplanned by any of them. And in part it’s also precisely because he is the man who is here that things seem to calm, his character contributing to that.
Revisit his presentation news conference and if there is one recurring theme it is this: I’ll get what I’m given. No demands, no public pursuits of players, no pressure. No complaints. No: is this what I have to work with? No noise. Instead, there is a quiet ease. More even than before, the last time he was here.
Before he signed, Madrid outlined the situation to Ancelotti. While not as dramatic as what is happening 400 miles away at their rivals’ place, the message was simple: things are not good. There isn’t really any money, there won’t be big signings. Unless, somehow, they can get the very biggest. In fact, sales are more likely: they are needed. There are too many players — literally, more than can fit in a first division squad — and certainly too many players who earn a lot and deliver very little. There are kids who need to be looked at, veterans who need to be recovered. That is your job.
It is not perfect, no, but it is one Ancelotti is delighted to do. Not least because it is one he hadn’t expected to do again. After Napoli and Everton, this is a return to his place, his level that had been left behind. It is a second chance he wasn’t expecting, and one for which is he better equipped, an acceptance borne of experience. When he left last time, Ancelotti was not happy with how he had been treated by club president Perez, it is true, but Madrid is Madrid. Even when it’s not quite the Madrid it was.
All that other stuff doesn’t really matter much, or at least there’s not much point in letting it matter anymore. Ancelotti has a three-year contract which he knows he probably won’t complete, that the sack is coming one day, but that doesn’t matter much either. He knows that criticism will come and that much of it will come from within but he no longer cares. He would like signings, sure, who wouldn’t? A striker and another centre-back would be handy, a midfielder with energy, but if he doesn’t get them: fine. If some deal can be done, even better, but it won’t be him doing it. No sweat.
He is not a fire-starter. Others are, which is why they ended up being non-starters. He was a comfortable choice, as well as a qualified one. Imagine Conte losing Ramos and Varane — it’s curious how calm the reaction has been to Madrid’s defensive heart being torn out — and then look at the way it actually is. If Ramos and Varane thought Ancelotti would fight their corner, and they did, they were wrong. Which is not the same as saying he didn’t want them.
Ancelotti can’t be unaware that the money for Varane will probably not even get reinvested — what funds can be generated are destined to facilitate an attempt to sign Kylian Mbappe, Perez’s obsession — but that’s fine too. He may think he can get something from Odegaard, but if he is denied that possibility, it won’t be a crisis. He will try with Gareth Bale and Eden Hazard, but accepts that it might not succeed. He knows the limitations of the youth-teamers, but where he needs them, they will be used.
Quietly, he gets to work with what he has, the return of conditioning coach Antonio Pintus — another big question for Perez — fitting Ancelotti’s belief that football has become ever more physical. Varane, Luka Modric, Bale, Toni Kroos and Alaba began their work with him a Valdebebas this week. Which was probably more important than what was happening in Scotland.
There are some things you can’t control, Ancelotti knows, and some things you can. If you’ve been around long enough you learn that sometimes you can even control time itself.