Malaga coach Manuel Pellegrini often leads his football clubs into uncharted territory.
He took Villarreal to the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2006, earned Real Madrid their highest ever points total in 2010, then last season shepherded Malaga into the Champions League for the first time.
This season, he secured wins over AC Milan, Anderlecht and Zenit St Petersburg as Malaga became the first side through to the knockout stage - then guided them past Porto to reach the quarter-finals. But for a couple of terrible refereeing decisions against Borussia Dortmund, Malaga would then have gone on to play Real Madrid in the semi-finals.
This is the Malaga who appeared to be imploding at the start of the season and later sold several of their best players including Santi Cazorla, Nacho Monreal and Salomon Rondon.
The Malaga who won’t be playing in Europe next season because of financial irregularities under their new Qatari owners - owners who have also revolutionised the club.
The Malaga who appreciate Pellegrini for being one of the few stable influences during a turbulent, exhilarating couple of years.
Pellegrini, 59, is rightly regarded as one of the best coaches in football. I’ve interviewed him several times, and on these occasions he has explained his life in football to me. His calm personality, character and spirit are reflected in his teams.
Born in Santiago, he combined a moderate playing career with seven years of studying to be a civil engineer. “It’s a very orderly discipline where you have to work in a logical manner,” he recalled.
Football was always his true vocation, although he has had to change his approach somewhat. “My mentality is rational rather than emotional but I tried to be become more passionate, tried to care more about human relationships. When I started to be a coach I expected a lot, maybe too much in terms of physical approach, tactics and technique. There was too little emphasis on human relationships.”
Part of his learning came at an FA coaching course also taken by Sir Alex Ferguson at Lilleshall in 1988.
Inspired by Benfica’s legendary 1960s Chilean trainer Fernando Riera, Pellegrini managed eight teams in Chile and Ecuador before moving to Argentinian giants River Plate in 2002. He joined Villarreal in 2004, moved to Real Madrid in time to welcome Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka in 2009, then went on to Malaga a year later.
“He was a winner in South America and he arrived with the mentality to achieve,” said Villarreal midfielder Marcos Senna, who worked closely with Pellegrini. “He never thought: ‘Oh, this is a small club.’ His line of thought always was: ‘I am going to make this team big.’”
Pellegrini puts his relaxed style down to having a varied life.
“I’m not obsessed by football,” he states. "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 be prepared for that and know more than just about football. 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. Each afternoon, after resting, I study, read and watch movies, as well as other sports. At night I dedicate two more hours to football and at eleven I turn the lights off."
Yet it’s for the attractive football played by his teams that Pellegrini has become renowned.
“Aesthetics are important,” he stresses. “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.”
Malaga have spent serious money on big name players, but Pellegrini’s particular talent lies in getting the best from players who have underachieved at previous clubs. He did it with Juan Roman Riquelme and Diego Forlan at Villarreal and he has made a series of astute loan moves and free transfers this season after Malaga’s free spending stopped last summer. Needing to recoup, they haven’t spent a penny since.
It’s harder to have sympathy for the devil, to respect a football club who buys their way to success, living well beyond their means, spending vast amounts and not paying their bills, behaviour which earned them the UEFA penalty - but the Malaga story isn’t quite that clear cut.
They have been a footballing success, they’ve lifted the spirits in a part of Spain where the economic crisis has hit hard, they’ve overcome several setbacks after the initial flush of funding and made it to the Champions League quarter-finals. They have been a joy to watch this season.
No surprise, then, that Manchester City are apparently so keen to secure his services as the replacement for Roberto Mancini, though if reports are accurate Napoli, Chelsea and perhaps even Barcelona might yet make him offers to block a move to the Etihad Stadium.
Wherever he ends up next season, one thing seems certain: next time Pellegrini takes a club to the last eight of the Champions League nobody will be in the least bit surprised.
- Sports & Recreation
- Manuel Pellegrini
- Real Madrid