European soccer’s constantly turning coaching carousel never fails to surprise, but even to those who have learned to expect a shocking hiring or sacking around every corner, today’s news probably still managed to raise some eyebrows. Carlo Ancelotti, one of the most decorated and accomplished managers in the sport, is leaving Everton after just 1.5 seasons to return to Real Madrid, where he previously won a Champions League title.
That a manager of Ancelotti’s caliber would leap at the chance to leave behind an uppper-mid-table Premier League club in order to return to one of the most famous clubs in the world is no great surprise. What’s unexpected is that the Real Madrid job was even available to Ancelotti in the first place. For as successful as Ancelotti has been as a manager, it had looked like the 61-year-old’s time as a top candidate for coaching vacancies at Europe’s super clubs had come to an end. He arrived at Everton, following disappointing exits from Bayern Munich and Napoli, seemingly ready to begin the next and final phase of his career, one that would give him the opportunity to, at long last, build a team from the ground up.
When Everton hired Ancelotti, they must have been betting on how specifically attractive the opportunity to build something new would be to him. Previously, he had always been an ideal fit at the biggest clubs because of his easygoing personality and pragmatic coaching style. Ancelotti was the guy the big teams brought in when they wanted a manager who would keep star players happy, not get into any public spats with the board, and not make too many demands about which players needed to be bought or sold. Ancelotti has always been less of an architect than a project manager, and Everton had hoped that the chance to finally stand at the drafting table and sketch out the future of a newly rich club would be enough of an incentive to keep him from returning to upper echelons of the sport.
Everton’s gamble might have paid off had it not been for the fluky timing of Zinedine Zidane’s latest exit from Real Madrid. With the pool of young, dynamic managers being as deep as it currently is, Madrid is probably the only massive club that would have looked in Ancelotti’s direction. Whereas other clubs of a similar stature may have sought out someone like Antonio Conte, fresh off capturing the Serie A title with Inter, Madrid was reportedly put off by the Italian’s demands. Ancelotti won’t himself bring any kind of revolution to Madrid, but he will provide the safe, experienced hands that Madrid apparently prizes.
It’s that return to normalcy, for Ancelotti, Madrid, and Everton, that makes today’s news somewhat of a disappointment for all parties. Surely Ancelotti is happy to be back at the helm of such a great club, but some part of him must be disappointed that the project he sought to undertake at Everton never really got off the ground. That disappointment goes double for Everton fans, who in 1.5 seasons saw Ancelotti recruit some key players, inject some much-needed calm and confidence into the squad, but largely fail to implement any kind of cohesive style of play. This season’s 10th place finish was a disappointment, but the sight of James Rodríguez in a blue shirt and Everton claiming victory at an Anfield derby signaled that there was still something potentially new and exciting, for both the club and for Ancelotti, on the horizon.
But now all that momentum towards an uncertain but intriguing future has died, and everyone is back where they’ve always been most comfortable—Everton stuck in the middle of the table, looking for any kind of direction; Ancelotti in one of the most sought after jobs in the sport, ready to take what he is given and do the best he can with it; Madrid with a great, proven manager who won’t challenge the club hierarchy’s vision for the team’s future direction. It’s an easy pill for everyone to swallow, but a slightly bitter one, too.