Il Engineero| Pellegrini’s Spanish Utopia

“I changed the way football was played in Spain, using loose midfielders instead of fixed midfielders, and that was then adopted by the Spanish team. In the Spanish league, before I went to Villarreal, they put the forwards on the wings to move the ball up and down the pitch but I started to use roaming midfielders who created space. What I did in Villarreal was bigger than winning titles, there I achieved what no one had ever done, and no one will ever achieve. In Málaga I accomplished something nobody had ever done either. Then I went to Real Madrid and made the best season in the club’s history so far, but did not win titles. I did things in general that nobody did before. Is it a coincidence?”


Tragedy befell Pellegrini just days before the most important match in the recent history of Malaga. He got a phone call from home delivering very tragic news before a liga game. He kept the news confidential and didn’t say anything to anyone till the game was over.

The Chilean kept his cool and oversaw his talented Malaga side take on Real Sociedad at the Anoeta. The game finished 4-2 in favour of the Basque club. After the post-match press conference, news circulated that Pellegrini had lost his father. He left early to catch a flight from Madrid to Santiago, Chile to attend the funeral of his father and only returned to Europe on the day of his Malaga’s biggest match for a long time.

To have gotten where they were was an unthinkable feet on its own after a long season struggling with finances and being written of by many. Malaga were the season’s surprise package- earning rave reviews after impressive tactical displays against FC Porto and AC Milan. Ninety minutes after the first whistle was sounded in the Signal Iduna park, Malaga were a touching distance from becoming the second team to reach the CL semi-final in their debut campaign- after Villarreal. The mastermind behind Villarreal’s record-breaking season watched on from the touchline as proceedings went on in Dortmund looking to set another record. Two injury time goals from the home team however ruined the parade for the Andalusian side who were seconds away from making history.

The debt ridden team’s exit was a bitter pill to swallow considering the timing and refereeing error in the goals they conceded, but that didn’t take away what was a brilliant first experience in Europe. Joaquin- a player reborn under Pellegrini said before the game said; “Without Pellegrini this might never have happened. It’s not just about the fact that we’re winning but how we’re playing. Everyone knows Pellegrini’s philosophy and his history but he’s a guy who gives you so much confidence, who acts with so much humility that, somehow, he always gets the best out of every player: he is the central piece in this jigsaw.”

On the 16th of February 1953, Manuel Luis Pellegrini Ripamonti was born in Santiago Chile, a place renowned for it’s indigenous culture, industrialization, football and fine wines. In a city which loves football and the atmosphere it brings, Pellegrini was raised with a unique football culture and soon begun a professional career as a defender.

He took an engineering course while still playing in Chile and graduated in 1979. After over 400 appearances at Universidad de Chile, the Engineer retired as a one-club man and begun a coaching career. He explained with humor in an interview recently the moment he felt the need to hung the old boots. Aged 32, Pellegrini had just seen his keeper parry the ball in his direction and just as he was about to head the ball clear, Ivan Zamorano almost half his age out-jumped him to score.

As a player, he associated his game-play with aggressiveness, which is weird considering his conduct and calmness on the touchline and in press conferences. In an interview with Sid Lowe, the Chilean claims he completely changed his character, otherwise he couldn’t have become a coach.  “At first, I made decisions based on emotion, when you have to take them calmly. When I made the transition from player to coach I evaluated myself and saw that I needed to improve my personality. I would fight with players – literally. I was 35 and you can’t be like that; you have young players to guide. You have to transmit calm. It’s not easy to slow your heart rate and maybe some see it as a flaw, passivity, but it’s among the best things I’ve done.”

He managed several teams in Argentina, Ecuador and his homeland Chile such as Universidad de Chile, Palestino, San Lorenzo and River Plate but Villarreal was his first coaching assignment outside South America. Pellegrini caught the attention of Villarreal after winning the league title with River Plate. The 21st century marked a period of change for Villarreal.

Manuel Pellegrini was appointed as head coach in the summer of 2004 at a club who had experienced top flight football for only 6 years in it’s 80+ year history.

The civil engineer arrived in Europe as a relatively unknown and unproven coach despite his success in South America. The few people who knew him, expected Pellegrini’s transition to European football to be slow like the many South Americans who had moved to Europe – because of the difference in football culture, however after 12 months, the Chilean became one of the hottest coaches in Spain.

In his first year at the club, he won his first (minor) trophy in Europe by winning the Intertoto Cup. Pellegrini guided the club to the UEFA Cup quarter finals and took them domestically to an unprecedented 3rd place finish, their highest ever in La Liga, which gave them entry into Europe’s top club competition for the first time. Pellegrini achieved his short-term goal. Winning while playing attractively.

The Champions League was a whole new ball game to the yellow submarines. The draw did them no favors too. The Spanish club were paired with former European champions Manchester United and Benfica, grounds which could house the entire population of their city, along with LOSC Lille from France after defeating Everton in the Champions League play-offs. Surprisingly, Villarreal progressed from the group as the only unbeaten team. They went on to the Semi-final, becoming the smallest town to host a Champions League Semi-Final against Arsenal. The underdogs were loving it.

In the pre-match interviews, Wenger often referred to them as South Americans. “I am convinced we face more South American football than Spanish football by playing Villarreal. It means they are a team that has technical tricks, tactical knowledge yet can slow the game down and wait for a weak moment. The South Americans are good in the one-on-ones – both offensively and defensively”

Pellegrini is not obsessive, as he’s said before in an interview. Pep Guardiola loses sleep at night studying and analyzing opponents through video analysis. He shouts “yes yes” when he spots faults in the opposition’s structure and has reportedly sent his players text messages at 3 am discussing tactics. Unai Emery as well spends a lot of his time behind a screen making video analysis. Joaquin said he watched so many videos under the obsessive manager that he run out of popcorn. Pellegrini is not like these managers. He has a relaxed life and spends majority of his time on his couch reading and watching movies as well as studying. “The manager who just knows about football is lacking. To lead a group of players is to lead a group of people with different ways of thinking. You have to speak a lot to the players, have to make them feel what you expect of them. Have to convince them. Therefore it’s very important for a coach to have a life outside football.

The Chilean brought a South American flair to El Madrigal. He isn’t the archetypical modern South American manager a la Bielsa, Cholo and Sampaoli who parade the touchline with intensity, no. Pellegrini always casts a calm, suave figure which translated to his team’s style and performances on the pitch. Pellegrini had a city of just 50,000 excited, not only for their results, but for the swagger in Villarreal’s play. Under the watchful eye of the civil engineer, Villarreal became a very well drilled team. The South American flair in the team’s attacking play was blended nicely with tactical discipline and grit-Something few South American coaches managed to do in Europe. Their attacks were well constructed and the way they moved the ball elegantly across the pitch was a work of art. “Always putting priority on treating the ball well, we’ve also added more mobility, It’s a mixture of South American and European football”. Pellegrini always prioritized playing well. When asked whether he’d rather win the league or finish second by playing attractive football, he replied there is less chance of winning the league without playing well.

“Aesthetics are important. People want to be entertained and the coach has a responsibility for that. Fans come to see things they are not capable of doing. My teams have great movement, they use the ball and we always try to win, never to draw. We don’t focus on opponents but on ourselves. I’m also sure that playing beautiful football makes it more likely you’ll win. We want to play good football, beautiful football in the sense of ball possession and managing the concepts of football which can give you a good show.

Villarreal became synonymous with the 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 system. Although Pellegrini’s philosophy is built on attacking patterns and movements, the Chilean has always managed to find a balance which keeps the defense stable. His system was focused on numerical superiority and fluidity in midfield. The wider midfielders had interesting movement patterns which distinguished the South American’s system from the traditional 442 system, in which the wingers had chalk on the boots hugging the sidelines. oiCazorla (highlighted) in the game against La Real, moving centrally from the right to form a triangle with the other Villarreal midfielders. Their system was referred to as “U-shaped midfield” in South America. The U-shaped midfield, as the name suggests, was coined from the midfielders’ positioningiiIt was a fluid system, the fluidity and constant attacking rotations had opposition defenses in disarray. Dividing the field vertically into three, you’ll have the left flank, the middle and the right flank. Pellegrini further divides it into five; you’d have the left flank, a space between the middle and the left flank, the middle, a space between the middle and the right flank, and the right flank. This vertical cross section is referred to as the Half space

Pellegrini believes in having players occupying all five channels when attacking irrespective of his assigned position in the formation. Over the years, the number of goals Pellegrini’s teams have scored by attacking through the halfspaces is staggering. In the formation, the wide players are naturally occupying these positions. Their positioning in the halfspace allowed a great combination with the overlapping fullbacks on the wings and the central midfielders. Also, it was very difficult for defenders to mark the interiors. If the fullback was to move centrally to track Cazorla’s movement, he opens up space for the overlapping fullback on the wings. Central midfielders also shuttling across to pick up Santi’s movement will open central space for the other midfielders.

In the defensive phase, the yellow submarines varied their tactics depending upon the opponents. Generally, they defended in a 4-4-2shape. Villarreal exhibited great horizontal compactness with the wide players occupying more central positions in a narrow shape.narrowKnowing Barca would look to build play and circulate the ball in the middle areas they remained horizontally compact and shuffled to cover space depending on the position of the ball. When the ball was lost, they’d press opponents aggressively to regain possession. It was very effective. Screenshot 2015-06-02 19Pellegrini however played down his system being the secret behind their success. “They are useful, but not to win. They can be used to bring a certain mechanical quality to the play, but to win you clearly need the individual skills of the players you have inserted into the system. I personally think that tactics are intelligence applied to the game.” He went on to say: “We have played against Barcelona several times using a second striker like Robert Pires and we have won, but then that same system and team that beat Barcelona were thrashed by Zaragoza. It is the team performance that wins matches, never the system.”

In the 2007-08 season, Villarreal peaked under the Chilean. Despite losing arguably their two best players – Riquelme and Forlan, Pellegrini set another club record, breaking the one he had set three seasons ago. The yellow submarines finished the season in second place just 8 points behind league winners Real Madrid and an impressive 10 points ahead of Barcelona. “If when I had arrived at Villarreal I had said we would get to the semi-final of the Champions League or finish second in the league, they would have said we were mad.” Villarreal surpassed all expectations in his time there. With a net spend of just eleven million euros during his time there, that is 2.2M on average per season, Villarreal were never expected to do as well. In his time there, the small club from Valencia qualified for the Champions League twice, broke the Spanish duopoly by finishing above an under-fire Barcelona team and never finished below 7th place. Madrid were interested, and after reportedly failing to secure his targets Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho, turned to the Chilean.

Real Madrid picked up 96 points in his first season scoring over a hundred goals in the process. In any other country, at any time that would guarantee you the title. Not this time. Pellegrini was competing with a very astute technical and tactical team from Catalonia. Barcelona were playing a brand of football the goods will be pleased at under Pep Guardiola, and had a certain Lionel Messi supported by peak Xavi and Iniesta. Their rivals had just completed the first ever treble in Spanish football. They won 6 trophies in 2009, and had already defeated the Madrid giants 6-2 at their own home the season before. They were brutal. Pellegrini was expected to compete with one of the greatest teams in history.

Ten years ago, Madrid appointed a South American manager whose preferred tactical system is the 4222. Vanderlei Luxemburgo, a coach with great pedigree arrived to evolve Madrid’s tactics with an albeit grown squad. He focused very much on attacking down the middle with his wide players moving in-field opening up space for advancing fullbacks. He failed, and five years down Madrid went down the same route from a tactical POV with Pellegrini who took his 4222 formation to the Bernabeu, and like he has done throughout his career, alternated with the 4231. Higuain and Benzema were the preferred attacking two, with Ronaldo and Van Der Vaart or Granero in the other wide position. In the home game against Osasuna, Pellegrini started with a 4-2-3-1 formation. Ronaldo started on the left, Kaka central and Granero on the right behind the striker. In the second half, he switched to his much preferred 442 in favour of a goal replacing Kaka with Benzema.

Pellegrini varied Ronaldo’s position often. He would sometimes start as a right winger, another time on the left and later on tried the Portuguese winger in a forward position with Higuain. He also tried the 442 diamond in the El Classico. Alonso played at the base of the diamond with Gago and Marcelo either side of him. Van Der Vaart played behind Ronaldo and Higuain. Pellegrini has often spoken of one his forwards occupying a wide position, he used Ronaldo in this role. Higuain stayed up top throughout however his strike partner Ronaldo often dropped between the lines and made wide runs, given Marcelo space to attack centrally.

Madrid for all their attacking potency, couldn’t touch Pep’s Barca in this game nor in the league. They finished the season trophy-less and Pellegrini was sacked. Let’s face it, Perez + no success = instant sack, what the hell, even Perez + trophies = sack. He’s a bit weird. Anyway, Madrid got knocked out of the CL at the initial knockout stages and lost 4-1 to a lower league side in the CdR. Pellegrini didn’t have the backing from the local press and Perez. The powerful Madrid president apparently sold Arjen Robben and Sneijder without contacting Pellegrini in favour of galacticos Ronaldo and Kaka. He never seemed to have full control over there. His success however at Villarreal meant he landed another job instantly, this time appointed by Malaga to steer-head their latest project.

In July 2010, Malaga were taken over by Sheikh Al Thani, a multi-millionaire from Qatar who invested millions into the club in a bid to make them a superpower. In his first season, Malaga finished a respectable 11th. In his second season, things came together. The likes of Santa Cruz, Isco, Cazorla and Demichelis were brought in to achieve success under Pellegrini. The Chilean didn’t disappoint this time. He took Malaga to fourth place in La Liga with a club record-breaking 58 points and secured a Champions League spot for the little Andalusian club. It wasn’t all roses for Malaga. Their multi-millionaire Qatari investor withdrew his funds from the club in a mini-crises period. Pellegrini, as ever kept his cool on the touchline and kept his players in good niche to take them into the Champions League for the first time ever.

Malaga became only the second side to reach the knockout stages in their debut Champions League campaign. The first? Villarreal, under Pellegrini. Their road to the quarter finals won the heart of many football fans. The little Spanish club displayed some good tactical and technical quality in the CL. The Chilean stuck introduced his 4222 system to the club but often alternated with the 4-2-3-1 formation, and on a couple of occasions used a 4-4-2 diamond with Isco at the tip and Toulalan at the base. He brought his South-American philosophy to La Rosaleda and generally overachieved in a period in which the club was in limbo.

His tactics at Malaga was very similar to his Villarreal side. He played his playmakers in wide roles and gave them tactical instructions to move into central areas. The central midfield pairing of Toulalan and Camacho had good technical ability but also grit and defensive astuteness to balance the attacking movements of the team, in particular the fullbacks Monreal and Gamez. Screenshot 2015-06-03 07Monreal became one of the best fullbacks in the county when Pellegrini was there. He made good use of the space on the flanks when marauding forward to provide width, freeing up Eliseu in this game against Barca. The Portuguese drifts central, Monreal overlaps and pulls Alves wider affecting Barca’s defensive compactness. Isco makes a dangerous run into the space between fullback and centerback. From a defensive angle, Pellegrini played with a highline which means pressure in midfield. The highline is like a coin, as in it has two sides. Pros: It allows a team to be vertically compact which is useful in pressing. Space between defense and midfield is minimal as well. A long ball behind the defense often as a result of poor pressing( AVBs Tottenham & Chelsea) leaves defenders often in 1v1 runs vs forwards and in a situation where the forward has good pace you’re fucked as a defender. Malaga held a good line and pressed opponents aggressively as they entered the midfield area. They allowed opposition little time in possession as they entered their half. 

Santa Cruz says: “Pellegrini came and the club started to play a different way from what it was used to. He obviously plays a very attractive football, he loves the possession of the football. It comes with a lot of practice. That way of playing gives you the chance to really compete in the Champions League.”

“If you ask me if the next life I want to be a football coach, I would say ‘no’, I’d want to be an artist. A writer, painter, sculptor. I would like to do things I do not know today, things I would like to know. I think that’s why I end up reading so much, because in this way I have experienced other lives.”

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2 thoughts on “Il Engineero| Pellegrini’s Spanish Utopia

  1. Pingback: Manuel Pellegrini: Everton's dream managerial target? - Everton Alerts

  2. Pingback: Everton Prospective Manager Search: Who will it be? - Everton Alerts

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