The name Manuel Luis Pellegrini Ripamonti isn’t a new one in the world of football, and his recent appointment as manager to Manchester City was met with a largely positive response from fans and neutrals alike. There are some who believe that he may not be up to the task of managing big money and big ego, but most seem to have the faith that this serious, soft-spoken Chilean is capable of making the kind of intelligent decisions City need to move to the next level in European football.
Prior to his appointment as the Villarreal manager in 2004, Pellegrini had developed impressive credentials in South American football – League Championship with Liga Deportiva (Ecuador), Argentina Champions and Copa Mercosur Champions with San Lorenzo de Almagro (Argentina) and the 2003 Clausura Championship with River Plate (Argentina). He may not have won any trophies of note during his managing career in the La Liga but he has the track-record of consistently managing teams with little history and less money (The Malaga project for all its cash infusion ultimately failed) in difficult conditions but still getting them to perform to the best of their potential.
Villareal went on to get a historic third place finish during Pellegrini’s first season in charge, reached the semifinals of the Champions League in 2006 (beaten 1-0 on aggregate by Arsenal after Riquelme saw his penalty saved by Jens Lehmann in the dying minutes of the game) and even managed a tremendous second place finish at the end of the 2007-08 La Liga season with a Champions League quarterfinal appearance in early 2009 (Again losing to Arsenal, this time 4-1 on aggregate).
Impressed by his abilities, Real Madrid signed him on in 2009 but at the Bernebau, even with a then club record of 96 points (broken by Mourinho’s 2011-12 team) he was unlucky to come up against Pep’s second season at Barcelona and lose the title by a mere 3 points. He was unceremoniously dismissed at the end of that season and there was much said on both sides regarding the ill-fit of their relationship. However Pellegrini’s likeable, balanced personality, his disciplined coaching approach and excellent man-management ensured that he remains a fan and media favourite in Spain.
In November 2010, Pellegrini took over at Malaga, an ambitious project backed by Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani. The Chilean continued his impressive run and Malaga secured Champions League qualification for the first time in the club’s history during his first full season in charge, becoming the only manager to lead two different teams to the UCL quarter-finals in their debut seasons.
However the almost fairytale was not to be. Al Thani reportedly withdrew his financial backing and the club faced an unprecedented crisis incurring debts of about 84 million pounds. Star players like Santi Cazorla, Joris Mathijsen, Salomon Rondon and later Nacho Monreal and others were sold to pay off a bit of the money but team and squad members were regularly unpaid. UEFA confirmed that the club would be barred from playing in Europe for the 2013-14 season (the outcome of the club’s appeal is still pending) for failing to pay creditors, players, staff etc on time.
However a recently released statement from the ex-Malaga chief Fernando Sanz defended the Qatari owner and insisted that he was committed to the fortunes of the club.
“Sheikh Abdullah has no intention of leaving and has never even considered doing so. His main objective is to develop a more solid club for the future in compliance with Fair Play regulations and maintaining economic stability according to UEFA and the LFP.”
How stable the future of the club is and how successful they will be in pulling themselves out of this hole remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: During such turbulent circumstances, it is a wonder that the team yet again reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League losing in a dramatic last-minute fashion to eventual runners-up, Dortmund. Felipe Santana’s winner dangerously skirted the offside line and Malaga raged against the decision that sent them tumbling out of the competition.
One fairytale campaign had to end for the other to continue and it was a hard loss for the club, its fans and also Manuel Pellegrini who had lost his father a few days before the game. So perhaps the unusual crack in his other reserved public demeanour could be excused. He accused UEFA of not wanting a banned team in the semi-finals while Al Thani accused them of racism. Malaga ended up with a 6th place finish in the La Liga earning them a Europa League spot they may have to give up depending on the result of their appeal against the European football ban.
Pellegrini could have easily pursued other managerial options once it was clear that the problems wouldn’t just go away. But he exerted his loyalty, maintained his promise to the Malaga players and once again got the best out of his squad in a very difficult situation. This ability to consistently overachieve and coax successful performances from limited resources has been well-documented as has his ability to do so without being a terror in the dressing room. Ask any of the players that have played in one of his teams and they will say that Pellegrini commands respect by his calm, extremely professional and down-to-earth demeanour, even under pressure. He is not one to court the limelight, preferring to work quietly behind the scenes.
However that doesn’t discount a steely will under the surface and the high expectations he sets for himself and consequently his players.
“You have to show authority to be a coach, but I can be a dictator and a democrat … A dictator because footballers have to obey you, but a democrat because I have to convince them if I want them to do it.”
Pellegrini is nicknamed “The Engineer” on account of his degree after his own career as a football player ended and it shows in his scientific, incisive, methodical coaching approach. His teams showcase an entertaining, attacking style of play but there is equal defensive solidity and you can see that he knows when to inspire and when to demand. His comments also make it perfectly clear that he is not willing to be flexible when it comes to his foundational football principles,
“… to be attacking, to try to take control of the game, to take responsibility, to be attractive. There are small differences of course, depending on what players you have, but there is a footballing concept and a concept of spectacle that is non‑negotiable.”
With tumultuous times under previous manager, Roberto Mancini (highs, lows and equal amount of problems and arguments that slowly but surely escalated into a bigger problem), it may be to Manchester City’s benefit to have a different sort of manager, one who brings to the table what Manuel Pellegrini does. Jesus Navas has already arrived from Sevilla, as has Fernandinho from Shakhtar Donetsk while Carlos Tevez has left for Juventus. The rumours that Isco would follow his manager to the Etihad weren’t entirely without basis but an offer from Real Madrid proved to be too much to say no to. Edison Cavani has been linked with the club (though Chelsea still seem to be his preferred destination) and the new manager also seems to be keen to give more playing time to Edin Dzeko who was rumoured to be leaving. Even with a possible stay for the Bosnian, Pellegrini needs to strengthen his side’s attacking department. Sevilla’s Alvaro Negredo has emerged as the top target to replace Tevez while Brazilian Fred and Benfica’s Oscar Cardozo are other possible targets. With new managers for three of the top 4 Premier League clubs, there is a lot of pressure and expectations in what will be a much more open title race than before. A few quick results would certainly make the transition easier for Pellegrini, and he is quietly confident that he can continue the consistency and stability that has characterised his managerial career so far.
“There are three things I demand from a footballer: respect, commitment and performance … I’m convinced that I will be able to implant my style of football in the fifth country I will be coaching in.”
This is a manager that I respect and want to see succeed even if he is at a rival club to Arsenal (please don’t hurt me!) so I wish him all the luck.