Part 2: The Best Ceiling Raising Coaches in Football

The case for Zinedine Zidane.

This is Part 2 of a three-part series on floor raising and ceiling raising in football coaching.

The intro and Part 2 are free. Part 1 and Part 3 are for paid subscribers only.

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  1. INTRO: June 9 (FREE)

  2. PART 1 — Floor Raising: June 9 (PAID)

  3. PART 2 — Ceiling Raising: June 10 (FREE)

  4. PART 3 — The Balance Between Floor and Ceiling Raising: June 11 (PAID)

In Part 1, I covered managers who had extremely well-defined tactical philosophies, seeking to make the individual subservient to the collective and needs of the system. The result was a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts, enabling remarkable floor raising efforts that ensured safety for second-division caliber teams or titles for those competing against giants (or even the giants themselves).

Though I concluded with the limitations of this approach, it is important to remember that selecting the best coach is heavily context-dependent. What the club is interested in achieving, the way they operate, and the players at their disposal are some of the key factors that determine whether someone who tilts more to floor or ceiling raising is better suited for the job.

For the powerhouses of European football, I think it is fair to say that ceiling raisers tend to be the better fit. This is because these entities are the least willing to cede control over club operations and generally have squads littered with attacking stars and a few large egos. Coaches at these clubs have to be willing to bend (but not break) to dressing room nuances and make do with transfer decisions that they may not fully agree with.

Tactical Flexibility

Fans were skeptical of the appointment of Massimiliano Allegri post-Antonio Conte, wondering how a manager that had struggled to elevate a worse AC Milan squad could hope to make the jump to a perennial league winner. To their pleasant surprise, the newcomer proved to be a better fit scaling up and was exactly the change in direction Juventus needed to maintain their grip over Italy and go farther in Europe.

Allegri initially coasted off the back of Conte’s successful tactics, maintaining the 3-5-2 formation and benefitting from the drilled mechanisms that were still internalized within the squad.

However, his willingness to chop and change was already on display in his first season in 2014/15, switching to a 4-3-1-2 formation that gave a young Paul Pogba the creative freedom he needed alongside midfield partners Claudio Marchisio, Arturo Vidal, and Andrea Pirlo, who together made a potent mix of technique and athleticism. They were only stopped in Europe by a legendary Barcelona side in the final.

If need be, Allegri was willing to revert to a back three against specific opponents or to preserve a lead in-game, giving him a curious mix of tactical flexibility, laissez-faire offensive game plans, and classic Catenaccio pragmatism.

Essential personnel gushed at their newfound freedom and the relaxed approach of their new manager, which stood in stark contrast to the heavy-handed, all-or-nothing attitude of their prior boss.

Carlos Tévez: With Allegri, I have more freedom of movement than under Conte. Under Allegri [the forwards] only have a fixed position when we don't have the ball — we're more free to play the way we want to play when we attack. We play differently in the Champions League to last year; we're mentally and physically ready. This team can take on anyone.

Pirlo: He has brought a sense of calm. He does not give too much importance to individual matches. He played in plenty of Champions League matches with Milan, and this really helped us. He gave us confidence after less good performances in recent years.

The following seasons would see relentless squad turnover, forcing Allegri to find new solutions again and again, something that might’ve motivated other managers to become frustrated and clash with the higher-ups.

In 2015/16 he lost Vidal, Pirlo, and Tévez. He responded by converting Claudio Marchisio to the side’s new deep-lying playmaker and successfully incorporated new signings Mario Mandžukić and Paulo Dybala. Additionally, he made Pogba an even more important offensive presence, allowing the blossoming midfielder to rack up 7 non-penalty goals, 12 assists, and 3.1 dribbles p90 across Serie A and the Champions League in a more aggressive pseudo-attacking midfield role.

The whole system changed again in 2016/17, following the departure of Pogba and arrivals like Miralem Pjanić and Gonzalo Higuaín. Allegri’s utilization of a 4-2-3-1, with Mandžukić as a wide target man stationed out on the left, was one of the Italian’s more innovative solutions, and his tinkering once more allowed Juventus to make it all the way to the Champions League Final.

That season marked the end of Juventus’ peak in the 2010’s, as a gradually declining squad and the rise of Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli led to increasingly contested league races and criticism from fans over Allegri’s lack of inspirational football.

Massimiliano continued to adapt in the face of this, turning to a more cross-oriented approach to best utilize Cristiano Ronaldo, though the accommodations made for Juve’s supposed franchise-changer reduced Paulo Dybala’s underlying output. These trade-offs were emblematic of the increasing difficulty of Allegri’s attempted balancing act, as Juve’s midfield quality thinned and the front office’s maneuvering in the market became less slick.

With less to work with and Juventus seemingly needing more direct tactical instruction to revive a waning force, Allegri departed in 2018/19 after winning his fifth consecutive league title.

He was replaced by Maurizio Sarri, an individual closer to the Conte-like, automatism-based school of thought that lifted Juventus back to glory all those years ago. This savvy turn to a floor raising coach would prove to be just what the Bianconeri needed, right?

Well, Juventus’ weird squad proved to be troublesome. Sarri didn’t have the specific pieces he needed to apply his mechanisms at pace and the presence of Ronaldo made it difficult for him implement his usual aggressive press. He quickly departed in 2020 and Juventus hired Andrea Pirlo, who… also left after one season.

It turns out managing big clubs is actually kind of hard?

Diplomacy & Lineup Optimization

If Allegri’s relaxed nature made him well-liked, Carlo Ancelotti’s method of man management caused him to be absolutely adored.

There are endless testimonials from players that I could link, but I’ll just post this one from Sami Khedira:

There is a genuine sense that Ancelotti actually cares for the emotional and physical wellbeing of his players, which is extremely rare in the ruthless, psychopathic industry that is sport. Rather than treating his footballers like soldiers who need to be ordered around and their every action regimented and monitored, Carlo comes off as a fatherly figure who gently guides, advises, and lets things be.

Players aren’t robots and reciprocate warmth and kindness with loyalty, which can allow coaches to get away with tough decisions that might irritate one player, such as when he minimized Gareth Bale’s role in 2014/15 for team balance, without losing the core of the dressing room. Ancelotti isn’t averse to making calls for the benefit of the collective — he’s just careful about when and how he does it.

Ancelotti’s respect for his squad’s independence dovetails nicely with his willingness to allow players to freely express themselves on the pitch. His faith in his team’s ability to make the right decisions is legendary, arguably peaking in the 2010 FA Cup Final, where he allowed the starting eleven to decide the game plan.

Chelsea went on to win the trophy.

Nevertheless, his comfort in situations where he experiences a shortage of control downplays his astute mind for the game. In his best years, Ancelotti was a master at picking out perfect lineups from imperfect squads.

Real Madrid is a standout example.

After identifying how winger Ángel Di María could be used as a box-to-box central midfielder in order to fit him next to Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, and Gareth Bale, Florentino Pérez sold the Argentinian and brought in James Rodríguez.

The solidity of the team was further disrupted by the departure of Xabi Alonso for Toni Kroos. No matter: Ancelotti played a midfield of James-Kroos-Modrić that managed surprisingly solid defensive results and could’ve bested Barcelona’s famed MSN had Los Merengues not been hurt by key injuries.

Carlo simply has a way of recognizing player tendencies and understanding how they match up, allowing him to put out lineups that naturally procure well-balanced attacking shapes and mitigate the potential destabilizing effects of the afforded freedom.

And, though he is most associated with flowing, offensive football, Ancelotti is not averse to going defensive when needed, spending the social capital acquired by his charisma to get one-off, committed performances from big egos.

As it turns out, managing generational attacking talent this way is a pretty good method for reaching insane heights. Prior to the Ronaldo and Bale injuries that prevented Madrid from winning the league (and, therefore, a treble), Real Madrid’s 2013/14 team had the highest ELO rating in club history.

But, as tactics have become more rigorous and complex, Carlo has run into his fair share of problems.

At Bayern Munich, players reportedly organized their own training sessions behind his back, having been used to Pep Guardiola’s intensity. This goes back to my point about the context of each situation being paramount, though Carlo has encountered more generalized struggles even after leaving Bavaria.

Taking over a deteriorating core at Napoli and then tasked with elevating a far from ideal squad at Everton, Ancelotti faltered, failing to match Sarri’s exploits and achieving worse underlying numbers in Liverpool than the previous season, despite only beginning his tenure midway through 2019/20 and getting new signings in the summer.

His absence of structured patterns in build-up and incomplete grasp of modern pressing systems and compactness in deeper stances hindered his ability to lift more mediocre talent, which makes one wonder whether his present-day value is as high as it once was.

Complete Buy-In

~1,700 words into this article, it’s probably worth mentioning that both Allegri and Ancelotti are former players. As much as the analyst community hates it, this gives them an inherent advantage in management, particularly in ceiling raising situations where the dressing room matters more; players inherently have greater respect for those who have played the game, and that respect rises in concordance with how good the coach used to be at kicking a spherical object.

We also shouldn’t underestimate how experience as a professional footballer can be influential in shaping the laid-back strategies employed by Massimiliano and Carlo. Being one of the people you one day wish to manage gives you unique insight into an athlete’s mind and knowledge on how to navigate changing room politics.

Allegri was an ok footballer and Ancelotti was a very good one. Zinedine Zidane on the other hand…

Though it absolutely infuriates his most ardent critics who think he’s using some sort of cheat code (feel free to become one of the greatest midfielders of all time just so you can get an edge in management), Zidane’s greatest asset is simply the fact that he is Zidane.

Luka Modrić talks about Zizou like he wants to kiss him:

I'm very happy. Zinedine was an idol. He was one of the players I admired as a child. I think every young player admired him because he was one of the best of his generation.

Every piece of advice he gives you is like gold dust and it helps you improve on the pitch.

The sight of the still-fit Zidane leading running drills could not be more different to the manner in which the portly Rafael Benítez operated (he was tolerated at best and actively disliked by his players at worst depending on the reports you believe).

It was the aura and legend of his playing career that bought Zidane time as he learned on the job, grew tactically, and made history by winning three consecutive Champions League titles.

A frustrating dearth of order in possession and messy defensive structures were interspersed with genuine masterclasses, usually in the “big” games, where the buy-in and focus of the squad reached its peak.

It is also in these instances where Zidane has gone for some of his wildest experiments, which have thrown off opposition coaches through sheer surprise and daring. Even so, these are big gambles that either come off or don’t due to the absence of the adequate preparation necessary to pull off drastic alterations without any kinks. Consequently, this characteristic has been both a blessing and a curse in his Champions League runs.

Zidane’s preference to let player tendencies dictate build-up and attacking patterns was a trait he picked up from his time as assistant coach under Carlo, but he lacks the same seasoned eye that would’ve allowed him to match everything up neatly. That didn’t matter so much in 2016/17, as the redundancies in spatial occupation — enhanced by Isco’s unfettered role at the nominal tip of a diamond — simply enabled god-level press resistance because of the close networks it created between some of the best technicians of all time.

The press resistance was still great in 2017/18, but the hyper-fluidity hindered the side’s ability to prepare for defensive transition, and that began to be heavily exploited. This was readily apparent in Champions League games, where inferior sides like Tottenham took Los Blancos to task and, ultimately, Madrid were somewhat fortunate to go on and win the whole competition.

Stunning the world, Zidane promptly resigned after triumphing in the aforementioned tournament, stating:

I made the decision to step down. I know it’s weird, but this team needs a change to keep winning, they need a different perspective, a different way of doing things and that’s why I decided to leave.

Whether a display of remarkable humility or basic diplomatic instinct, there seemed to be a modicum of truth to the idea that Madrid needed someone who could instill more organization on the field. Nonetheless, squad decline and burnout skewered replacement Julen Lopetegui, before Santiago Solari tried to right the ship in a situation where he was completely out of his depth.

So, one year later, Zidane was back —- this time without a certain Ronaldo who had made his straightforward cross-heavy approach extremely viable.

For all his adaptability and potential for mad schemes, Zidane proved that he was wedded to a style of plodding possession play that made it difficult to facilitate the semi-transition necessary to unsettle defenses and make up for the decreased utility of crossing. He declined to prioritize Martin Ødegaard to shift the team’s style and Zidane’s over-reliance on Benzema to carry flat midfield structures stagnated Luka Jović.

To be fair, Benzema was incredible and Zidane endured countless injury issues in 2020/21 while making some adjustments. Offensively, he sought to keep his original strategy afloat by having defensive midfielder Casemiro make unexpected runs into the box.

Most impressively, Zidane evolved defensively, creating genuinely solid shapes against the ball (as long as they originated from a 4-1-4-1 base structure) that established a much stronger floor than prior Madrid outfits had possessed. The Frenchman also maximized Madrid’s set-piece efficiency, which, when combined with the defense, led to a league title in his first year back.

Thus, while Zidane lacked the sheer flexible range of an Allegri or the precise understanding of how to build a perfectly complementary eleven, he proved to be the most appropriate option in his initial stint, thanks to his ability to command the undying love of his squad and his brave gambits in the Champions League. The situation was less ideal for Zidane the second time around, but his adaptations on defense and on dead balls were enough to supplement his aura and capture another title.

And, yet, here we are again. Zidane has resigned — in a much more confrontational fashion than before — blindsiding Madrid, who scrambled to find the appropriate replacement.

Eventually, they settled on a familiar face — Carlo Ancelotti.

He has won at this club before, is beloved, and has a great relationship with the old players, but is he the best appointment in a vacuum given the context of Real Madrid’s squad quality, the progression of the game, and Zidane’s inability to floor raise at the level required in possession?

That’s for you to answer. I didn’t pour countless hours and sleepless nights into applying these concepts for them to never be used by other people.

Part 1: Floor Raising

Part 3: The Balance Between Floor and Ceiling Raising