Why Madrid vs. Bayern is a battle of extreme coaching styles

The decisive factors as to whether Real Madrid or Bayern Munich advance to the Champions League final at Wembley will be team tactics and who, of all the magnificent players on show at the Bernabeu, choose Wednesday night to underline their cold-blooded brilliance and overwhelming desire to make their club champions of Europe. But there will be another sideshow that, though perhaps less obvious on the night, has been central to how these sides have fared in their domestic seasons and in reaching this potentially explosive and epic semifinal, which is beautifully balanced at 2-2.

In Carlo Ancelotti and Thomas Tuchel, you literally couldn’t find two elite football coaches so polemically opposed in almost everything: how they behave on the touchline, how they choose to speak about their players, how they man-manage a squad and how they embrace a corrosive, abrasive atmosphere or a collegiate, mutually supportive culture as more likely to forge greatness.

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I’ll come back to the affable, easygoing Ancelotti in a moment, but suffice to say, the Italian’s text on sports management is titled “Quiet Leadership: Winning Hearts and Minds and Matches,” and one key statement in that book is this: “Remember, there are no great coaches or leaders. They are only as great as the talent they seduce and lead and how much permission this talent gives them on a daily basis to deliver their ideas.” The most aggressive action you’ll find in Ancelotti’s part of the touchline is the brutal action of his jaw, while he chews incalculable amounts of gum, and a single eyebrow arched to show unhappiness as it seemingly tries to escape off the top of his brow like a caterpillar on the run.

Tuchel is fury in a bottle. His style is somewhere between encouragement and excoriation, though not necessarily in equal doses. Watch him intently at the Bernabeu this week if you’ve never done so before.

Before I share a personal anecdote about the German’s abrasive “collateral damage” vocabulary, let’s be clear about one thing: Tuchel is a quite exceptional football strategist and coach. There are few who are as tactically bright, alert or resourceful as he is. That’s not up for debate here. In fact, it’s arguable that in pure tactical terms, he might have the edge on Ancelotti. But back to my first meeting with Tuchel, which happened in Berlin nearly nine years ago.

Following a brilliant exposition on how radically his view on youth development had changed, plus a passionate description of what kind of “hell” it was for him, as Dortmund coach, to pit his team against Pep Guardiola’s Bayern, I approached him and asked for more details about his communicative ideas. He told me an anecdote about showing his players a video of a singer he deemed “ugly” and saying to them: “See how she looks! If someone like her can go out fearlessly, stand in front of a huge audience and show her talent brilliantly, then there’s no excuse for any of you to be fearful or intimidated when you go out to play!”

It was an arresting and illuminating story. For the purposes of getting through to his players, he’d absolutely no qualms in describing an artist in crude terms, nor had he the slightest worry about confidently telling me, on a first meeting, an anecdote with such a repugnant theme.

I have a source very close to Tuchel’s time at Chelsea who explained that he eroded or undermined his undeniable brilliance in designing and explaining tactical and strategic concepts to the squad because of how he behaved on the touchline in matches. Those who play in the hurly-burly of elite football will tell you that not only are they so focused on doing their job that they are barely conscious of what the coach is yelling during a match, it’s often the case that in a raucous stadium it’s literally impossible to discern much more than what body language is attempting to get across.

That changes, however, if you’re a regular first-team starter who, for whatever reason, is on the bench. Suddenly you’re in a box seat to hear what the coach is yelling to the team — or to himself — in explosive anger. My source explained that, having been able to hear how brutally and disparagingly Tuchel spoke about those who were on the pitch and those who became the objects of his anger, a number of Tuchel’s players began to surmise that when they were in the team, this must be what he was saying about them, too. They didn’t like that at all.

He has done it this season, too, stating when they lost to Leverkusen that “we did everything possible to lose this match. We had it in our hands, but at one stage we stopped believing and I’ve no idea why!” He was truly no-holds barred.

If this doesn’t strike you as having the effect of hanging your players out to dry, then perhaps his repeated criticism of defender Kim Min-jae since the first leg against Madrid last week does the trick.

The 27-year-old South Korea international, still in his first season at Bayern and fresh off a brilliant season with Napoli, was at fault in both Madrid goals, prompting Tuchel to sound off. “He was too ambitious — twice. He made the first move too early against Vinicius in the first goal and was caught by Toni Kroos’ pass. Too speculative, too aggressive. The second goal, unfortunately, was another mistake. We were five against two, we had the numbers: there was no need to defend that aggressively against Rodrygo. He brought him down just at the moment Eric [Dier] was about to help!”

Accurate, maybe … but harsh to say it in public? You’ll have your views.

Former New York Red Bulls/Chicago Fire coach Juan Carlos Osorio had his perspective: “I prefer what Sir Alex Ferguson said on this: it’s better to teach the team to defend better in a unified way than to ‘kill’ your central defender like this … it seemed abusive by Tuchel to me.”

It’s worth reaffirming that Tuchel is exceptional at his job and there may be some of his squad — and indeed some of you — think that reaching elite excellence actually permits him to speak as he wishes to and about his players. But this simply isn’t the Ancelotti way.

Madrid’s manager explains it in his book. “A ‘quiet’ approach to leadership might sound soft or perhaps even weak to some. But that is not what it means to me, and definitely not what it means to anyone who has ever played with me or for me. The kind of quiet I’m talking about is a strength. There is power and authority in being calm and measured, in building trust and making decisions coolly, in using influence and persuasion and being professional in your approach.

“My approach is born of the idea that a leader should not need to rant, rave or rule with an iron fist, but rather that their power should be implicit. It should be crystal clear who is in charge: their authority must result from respect and trust rather than fear.”

One key pillar Ancelotti explains: “Let the talent breathe on your problems. Include them, encourage them to be active participants in finding a solution.”

Maybe you’re a “Tuchelite” and believe anything goes. Maybe Madrid don’t hit their heights on Wednesday, and it’s Bayern who’ll return to Wembley, where they won this very Champions League trophy in 2013. And if such circumstances come to pass, it’ll tend to suggest that the German’s total disregard for “player-whispering” is the right way. But the advent of player power, thanks to the inexorable rise of player salaries, and the fact that Ancelotti is the only man to win the title in each of Europe’s top five leagues and has lifted 26 trophies across his brilliant career, suggest that, whoever wins on Wednesday, Tuchel has something to learn from the gum-chewer with the quiet leadership style.