Manuel Pellegrini leaves behind something permanent as he heads off in search of something mythical.
The 59-year-old was hired as Manchester City’s manager Friday. His first official day on the job is June 24, but he’s already hard at work trying to fix what’s broken at City and ensure that his achievements surpass those of his predecessor, Roberto Mancini. Should he hit his targets and those of the club, the man known as the “engineer” will have built a legacy as one of the greatest soccer coaches of his era.
Pellegrini is almost universally admired by players he has coached over the last 25 years. His resume boasts numerous instances of success which he achieved both in South America and Spain. His sterling reputation in Europe was forged over the last nine years, as he took unfancied Villareal and, most recently, Malaga deep into the knockout rounds of the UEFA Champions League. Neither club will ever be the same now that Pellegrini has passed through, and the feelings are mutual, according to the BBC.
“I’m not leaving because of financial ambition, but because of a project that will let me feel fulfilled,” Pellegrini said in May after announcing his Malaga departure. “On Sunday, I will take charge of my last match at the Rosaleda, Everyone has the right to follow their own path.
“My coaching staff and I have separated from Malaga but our union with this city will be eternal.”
Pellegrini’s fine work at Malaga (between November 2010 and last month) convinced the City hierarchy that he was the best man to take the club forward, but he only went there in the first place after a failed, one-year spell at Real Madrid. The Spanish giant hired him on June 2, 2009 — one day after Florentino Perez assumed the club’s presidency and embarked on a second “galacticos” period. Within three months, Pellegrini would fall out with Perez over transfers, but that didn’t stop him from guiding Real Madrid to a then club record 96 points in La Liga. The exceptional league campaign was muted by a runner-up finish to Barcelona, and a Round-of-16 Champions League exit sealed Pellegrini’s fate. Real Madrid fired him after the season, replacing him with Jose Mourinho.
Pellegrini comes to City with a reputation as a Champions League specialist. In 2006, he took one modest club (Villareal) to the semifinals of Europe’s elite club competition and came within two minutes of doing it again in 2012-13 (Malaga). His three-year contract with City gives him little time to stutter, but he should be successful if he applies the methods that saw Real Madrid rack up a record points tally. A league campaign in the mold of 2009-10, coupled with Champions League elimination in the Round of 16 would be more than enough to merit a second season, and Pellegrini’s teams are known to grow significantly in Year 2.
The factors Pellegrini needs to flourish at City are already in place. He seems to be marching lockstep with City CEO Ferran Soriano and sporting director Txiki Begiristain. The three held a number of strategy meetings before Pellegrini’s hiring was announced. City also secured the signatures of two of the new manager’s transfer targets, Fernandinho and Jesus Navas, for a combined £46 million ($72.2 million). An additional £90 million ($141 million) worth of reinforcements could be on the way in the form of Isco, Pepe and Edinson Cavani.
If there is or will be early friction between Pellegrini and his bosses, there are no early signs. The incoming manager chose the City project after speaking to Chelsa, PSG and an unnamed Russian club. City has considered top managers from England, Europe and beyond in its search for Mancini’s successor. Yet, Pellegrini’s commitment to integrating the best players from the club’s youth academy into the first team might have given him the edge over other candidates and sealed the union with City.
“Manuel is a hugely experienced and successful manager with a proven track record,” chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak said. “We have been greatly impressed throughout the selection process by his philosophy, his attitude and his commitment to the long-term development of Manchester City. I am delighted that he has joined us.”
Pellegrini’s managerial style should be a refreshing change for City’s players. Mancini’s prickly personality cost him the support of many City stars as well as the favor of his bosses. Their collective determination to take City forward in the early days of Pellegrini’s tenure will undoubtedly be higher than it was during the last days of Mancini’s reign, now that managerial uncertainty is no longer an issue.
On April 6, Pellegrini showed a herculean level of selflessness when he led Malaga in a league game against Real Sociedad. His father died earlier that day, but he did his job and only informed his players of his father’s passing after the postgame news conference. The gesture resonated in the Malaga dressing room, cementing the bond between Pellegrini and his players.
“He will be with us tomorrow and we will try everything to advance for him,” defender Martin Demichelis said of Malaga’s Champions League quarterfinal game against Borussia Dortmund, which followed the loss to Real Sociedad.
“We would like to win this one for him. First our coach did not tell us about his father passing away, that shows his greatness.”
Perhaps Demichelis delivered his assessment in such a matter-of-fact manner because his manager’s grace didn’t surprise him. After all, Pellegrini led Malaga to European qualification (for 2013-14) while a cloud of uncertainty lingered over the team. Malaga’s owners withdrew funding for the team and failed to pay players, coaches and other staff for large swaths of the campaign.
Should Pellegrini’s personality rub City’s players like it did Malaga’s, getting them to play how he wants them to should not be a problem. Pellegrini’s teams are usually well-organized, intelligent and play with purpose. They strike a delicate balance between attack and defense, which makes them hard to beat on an off day and frightening when everything clicks. Technical players like David Silva, Samir Nasri and Carlos Tevez tend to flourish in Pellegrini’s system, so the trio could enjoy resurgent campaigns next season. City’s squad is teeming with quality and more is on the way. With Manchester United and Chelsea in a period of upheaval and Arsenal trying to close the gap, City is perfectly poised to wrest domestic dominance away from United in 2013-14.
Mancini led City to FA Cup and Premier League glory in his three-and-a-half years in charge. Although he ended the club’s decades-long wait for a major trophy, there remains a sense that City underachieved with the Italian in charge. This feeling was merely crystallized by City’s repeated Champions League stumbles.
Pellegrini arrives at the Etihad Stadium on a mission to put City on sound footing in the Champions League. The key to success could lie in the one blemish on his resume. While many point to that season as a failure, Real Madrid’s league campaign — the work the team does on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis — suggests something far different.
Pellegrini wasn’t fired because he didn’t or couldn’t do the job of managing one of soccer’s elite clubs. He was fired for political reasons, as Perez was determined to hire a “galactico” manager to lead the players the club bought on his watch. Whatever went wrong between Pellegrini and Perez — the two reportedly stopped speaking in August 2009, nine months before Pellegrini was fired — shouldn’t rear its ugly head again at City. If that remains the case, Pellegrini will almost certainly win his first major trophy in Europe and find the “fulfillment” he seeks. The matter of hitting City’s target of five trophies in five years should be a mere formality.
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Photo via Facebook/Manuel Pellegrini