Pellegrini finds right blend for Villarreal
Some years ago there was speculation linking Manuel Pellegrini to the job of assistant coach at Manchester United. Whether or not there was any foundation to the rumours, it didn't happen, and Old Trafford's loss has been Villarreal's gain.
The entire population of Villarreal could comfortably fit inside the Emirates Stadium. But under Pellegrini, the little club has played host to some of the most attractive and effective football in Europe, become a consistent force in La Liga, pushed Arsenal all the way in the semi-finals of the 2006 Champions League, and now meet Arsene Wenger's men a round earlier.
Pellegrini, a 55-year-old Chilean, has been steering the remarkable 'Yellow Submarine' (Villarreal's nickname) since 2004. He is the longest-serving coach in the Spanish first division, and he has shown that, despite some high-profile failures, South American coaches can make a success of European club football.
Pellegrini is a million miles away from the rustic roughness of Luiz Felipe Scolari and has none of the desperately forced sophistication of Vanderley Luxemburgo. Unlike the two Brazilians, who came unstuck at Chelsea and Real Madrid respectively, Pellegrini cuts a suave, collected, urbane figure. He comes across like Roger Moore in 'The Saint' - and Villarreal fans should be willing to supply the halo!
In fact, if he so wished, Pellegrini is the ideal man to work out how to suspend a halo above his head. He is a fully qualified civil engineer. "It's a profession," he says, "that firstly teaches you to think, and secondly, to put things in an order of priorities with a logical sequence to solve problems."
But if the study of engineering has given him an intellectual framework, over 35 years of practical experience in football have moulded him as a coach.
Pellegrini the player was a centre-back, a one-club man who spent 13 years in the blue of Universidad de Chile. As a coach, he took charge of a number of Chilean teams, but his career really kick-started when he moved abroad.
A decade ago he moved up to Ecuador to take charge of LDU of Quito. After taking them to the championship he went down to Argentina to join San Lorenzo. The local press were suspicious and he was irreverently asked if he had come to finish the building work on the stadium.
Instead he led the club to the Argentine title and to the Copa Mercosur, a since defunct Uefa Cup equivalent. It was the club's first international title - and also the first ever achieved by a Chilean coach. He then won the title with River Plate before embarking on his European adventure.
The early months were not easy; Pellegrini believes that "for a coach the adaptation is much more difficult than for a player". But he had arrived at the right club, one small enough not to be hostage to short term pressures and headlines.
"Villarreal is the perfect club to work and develop a project," he says. And the project is one for which Pellegrini is tailor made.
In the long term Villarreal are looking to develop their own players. But their short-term strategy was to go South American. Before Pellegrini joined the cub, Villarreal were specialising in bringing players across the Atlantic. With his intellectual curiosity and extensive experience of the game in his home continent, the Chilean has hit the right blend.
"Always putting priority on treating the ball well, we've also added more mobility," he says. "It's a mixture of South American and European football."
In the current team, South American players supply skill but plenty of steel as well. The little Argentine playmaker Ariel Ibagaza is a delightful, twinkle-toed player on his day and Mati Fernandez is a young Chilean attacking midfielder with enormous potential.
He has not found the adaptation to Europe easy - as a player who loves to turn and run at the opposing defence, he has found much less space in which to surge than was the case back in his homeland. But given enough room he can be highly dangerous, breaking forward and shooting powerfully like a junior Kaka.
At the other end Diego Godin is a Uruguayan centre-back out of the top drawer - unflashy, but hard and classy. And it could be that the key players against Arsenal will be the central midfield duo of the highly rated Brazilian (now naturalised Spanish) Marcos Senna and the fiercely competitive Uruguayan Sebastian Eguren, who will have the task of interrupting the London club's passing.
Pellegrini will be aware that the odds are in Arsenal's favour and has been keen to stress that domestic football is no less important than the Champions League - it is performances in the former that will get them back in the latter next season.
Saturday's 3-0 defeat to Almeria was a blow, but Pellegrini will take it in his smooth stride, absorb the lessons and try to engineer Arsenal's Champions League exit.
Comments on this piece in the space provided. Any other questions on South American football to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) I expect you watched, as I did, open mouthed as Argentina were thumped 6-1 in La Paz by Bolivia. In truth, the scoreline probably flattered the visitors as Carrizo was incredibly overworked and the woodwork was rattled. To me Argentina looked awful defensively, the left-back Papa was atrocious - I hear he is a fine crosser of the ball and he looked fairly quick, but apart from that his covering was poor, he was weak in the tackle and lost possession on numerous occasions, is he seen as the long term solution at LB - I would have considered maybe Zabaleta from Manchester City as RB and maybe Javier Zanetti on the left. Is Emiliano Insua of my club Liverpool seen as a potential international left back? And Heinze must go. Agree?
A) I do agree on the last point. I've never been a big Heinze fan, even when he was being lauded in England. To my mind, at the top level he's too slow to be a left-back and not commanding enough to be a centre-back - and he throws himself to the floor all the time (see Bolivia's first goal).
He's undoubtedly a spirited battler - Maradona loves him for this, though says that he won't be selecting him at left-back. Personally, I find the De Michelis-Heinze combination too slow as a pairing, and I think this is an area Maradona will have to look at.
Papa is to my mind more of a left sided midfielder than a left back and I have the same view of Zabaleta on the other flank. Papa is not really a defender - was a bad selection for the Bolivia game, where there was no point in picking attacking full-backs. He is not a long-term solution, but it's a problem position at the moment.
Insua didn't do his chances any good with a rough time recently in the South American Under 20s - he captained the side, played the last few games at centre-back but didn't do well in either position. Monzon played in the Olympics, but I'm not sure if he's the tightest defensively.
Maybe Maradona might be tempted to stick with a back three, the formation he played at home to Venezuela. He has the pace of Angeleri at sweeper, or he could have a look at Boca's highly promising Forlin in the back line, then he can go with the lung power of Jonas Gutierrez at left wing-back.
Q) Having watched most of the South American qualifying matches last week, I was struck by how fast, frenetic, and physical every game was. In fact, if the TV screen didn't tell you the names of the team, then you could quite easily have believed you were watching matches from Europe in my opinion.
Would you agree with me that South American football, more than ever, is losing it's identity in terms of style of play, at least at international level?
A) It's an interesting point. The nationalism factor and the level of competition mean that South America's World Cup qualifiers have a tendency to be frenetic affairs. But there is a wider style point, and it has to do with the physical development of the game and its impact on the old style, foot on the ball playmaker.
The consequences of Holland 74 continue to ripple through South American football - that pressure they put on the ball, depriving the opposing playmaker of the time and space to choose his options. I saw an interview with Pellegrini (see above) where he was talking about this as the last great tactical innovation, and it's a widely held opinion over here.
I recall when he was in charge of Ecuador, Luis Fernando Suarez arguing that the physical development of the game meant that these days anyone can complicate matters by packing the midfield. So, in his view, playing well meant attacking and defending well down the flanks. So Ecuador, who used to have an old style number 10 in Aguinaga, became a side that secured the centre of midfield with two battlers, and looked to break quickly down the wings. Colombia these days have no Valderrama - Macnally Torres is a fine player, but his task is to slip through the killer pass, not dominate the rhythm of the game from centrefield.
These changes have taken place in Brazil, too. A couple of weeks ago 1970 great Tostao wrote that "the games in Brazil are increasingly truculent, tense, rushed and of lower quality. Exchanging three passes has become a synonym of slowness. The strategy is to get the ball forward quickly and win a set piece. The problem is not just the lack of individual talent. It's also the lack of understanding of what it is to play good football".