Manuel Pellegrini has a few aliases. City fans called him ‘This Charming Man’ while his time managing in South America and Spain earned him the moniker of ‘The Engineer’. But Pellegrini considers himself ‘The Apprentice’ as he says he is always learning and evolving.
And while some may be sceptical about his seemingly sabbatical spell in China, we should be interested to see what he has discovered in the land of the rising sun. The man from Chile is, without a doubt, the most decorated manager we have ever had in the hot seat. After cutting his teeth as assistant manager of the Chilean national team, as well as managing the under 20 side, he started his managerial career by taking charge of Universidad Católica.
He led the side to the Copa Interamericas trophy and a Copa Chile title in his two years at the club, before moving on to Ecuador to manage LDU Quito. In Ecuador he masterminded a Serie A title win as well as putting in impressive displays in the Copa Libertadores – the South American equivalent of the Champions League.
His success in Ecuador drew attention from South America’s bigger leagues and San Lorenzo came calling from Argentina. He took control in 2001 and led the less fancied side from Buenos Aires to a Primera Division title as well as their first ever international honour by winning the Copa Mercosur – the UEFA cup of South America. This caught the attention of San Lorenzo’s bigger neighbours River Plate, whom he took charge of in 2002. He spent just one season in charge of Los Millonarios, but helped guide them to his second Primera title in two years.
Having forged a reputation in his home continent, Pellegrini was prepared to travel across the pond for his next managerial role. The call would come from Villarreal in Spain. His arrival was met with little fanfare and many expected his transition from South America to Europe to be slow and paved with difficulties. But his time in charge of ‘The Yellow Submarine’, between 2004 and 2009, coincided with some of the best years in the club’s history.
In his first season they finished third and reached the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup. The following year they reached the Champions League semi final, losing to Arsenal over two legs. He would achieve top five finishes in his next two seasons and most notably broke the Madrid/Barcelona monopoly of the top two by finishing second in 2008.
But what was more impressive than helping a relatively small side in Spain consistently sit at the top end of the La Liga table, was the manner in which he did it. Pellegrini, as we have heard since his arrival in east London, likes to set up his teams to play attacking and entertaining football. He does this by utilising a 4-2-2-2 formation, sometimes referred to as the ‘Magic Rectangle’.
Pellegrini likes to play a traditional and defensively solid back four, with two defensive central midfielders in front of them. Ahead of them are two ‘wingers’ but the Chilean likes his wide men to drift inside, leaving space on the flanks for the full backs to exploit. Riquelme and Santi Carzola were players deployed in this role during his time with Villarreal and lead to some wonderful link-up play with the forwards like Diego Forlan, Paolo Rossi and one time West Ham striker Guillermo Franco.
With the full backs pushing on and helping the attack, the two defensive midfielders sit deep, creating a solid four to see off any counter attacks. When out of possession the walls of the ‘magic rectangle’ would squeeze in to win the ball back. His approach not only earned him a great deal of respect among the managers guild, Sir Alex Ferguson apparently once reserved a seat for Pellegrini next to him at a dinner function so he could talk tactics with the ‘Engineer’, but also admiring looks from La Liga’s big two.
In 2009 Pellegrini was named as manager of Real Madrid, and while he only lasted a year, he wrote his name into their history books by recording a then record points tally of 96. But they still finished runners up to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side, and, as is the way in Madrid, he was dismissed for failing to win the league or the Champions League.
Nonetheless his reputation remained intact, and in some ways enhanced, due to his newly discovered ability to manage uber egos such as Ronaldo, Kaka, Van der Vaart, Higuain and Benzema. A number of clubs and national sides were interested in obtaining his services. But it was the ‘project’ beginning at another unfashionable Spanish side that appealed to him the most. His desire to continue to learn and test himself, led to him accepting the manager’s position at Malaga.
Here Pellegrini further developed his tactical acumen, switching between his tried and trusted 4-2-2-2 and a 4-2-3-1 depending on the opposition. Again his philosophy to have a front four that would drift and switch positions led to some superb play and results. He brought through youngsters like Nacho Monreal and Isco, paired them with rejuvenated players like Joaquin and Julio Baptista and went out and attacked teams.
Malaga finished his first full season in charge in fourth place, having won a club record 58 points. It also gave them their maiden bow in the Champions League. The following season they would finish sixth and reach the quarter final of Europe’s premier club competition losing to Borussia Dortmund. The success he achieved with Malaga is even more impressive given the backdrop of financial instability he had to contend with.
Joaquin stated: ‘Without Pellegrini it might never have happened. It wasn’t just about the fact that we’re winning but how we were playing. “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 was the central piece in this jigsaw.’
Unfortunately for Malaga, Pellegrini harbored ambitions to once again test himself, to learn about a different league, with different cultural expectations and demands. And the call of Manchester City was too loud to ignore. Manuel served the Citizens for three seasons as manager. In his first year, he won the League Cup and Premier League title, scoring a then record 102 goals in the process. Again this was all done with the same philosophy that had served him so well in South America and Spain – the other team can’t win if they’re busy defending.
City finished second the next year, and won the League Cup in his final season but it is perhaps their record in the Champions League where he impressed most. Before his arrival City had never made it out of the group stages, but in his first two season they reached the last 16 but lost to Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona on both occasions.
His final season saw him produce their best performance in the competition to date, when they went out in the semi final to Real Madrid. He made way for Pep in 2016 and spent the last two seasons in China with Hebei China Fortune. Over the course of his managerial career, Pellegrini has never finished outside the top seven when he has been in charge for the full season.
His win percentage has never gone below 41 per cent – we have only ever had one full time manager go above that – Billy Bonds with 43 per cent. He has won four League titles and six cup competitions. And he has done it all playing on the front foot, calculating how to get the best out of his players attacking qualities.
Encouragingly he also has a habit of elevating sides accustomed to mediocrity to new heights – San Lorenzo, Villarreal, Malaga and City’s record in the Champions League are all testament to that. Let’s hope that ‘The Apprentice’ has learned enough over his acclaimed career to help turn our fortunes around too. They’ve been hiding far too well recently.