BBC BLOGS - Tim Vickery
« Previous | Main | Next »

Pellegrini finds right blend for Villarreal

Post categories:

Tim Vickery | 07:46 UK time, Monday, 6 April 2009

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.

Marcos Senna is a key figure in Villarreal's midfield

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."

Marcelo Pellegrini

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, 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?
Neil Jones

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?
Neil Clack

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".


  • Comment number 1.

    Good piece on a manager who quietly works away under the radar and has produced a couple of really good sides at Villareal..

    I'm a Celtic fan and was struck by how much he knew about Celtic before the Champions league tie this season and how gracious he was before the game. He didn't do the usual condescending 'dangerous' / 'passionate' stuff that Celtic and Rangers usually get but spoke about individual players and their qualities.. I was quite taken with him.

  • Comment number 2.

    Hi Tim,

    Interesting point on Marcos Senna. I was wondering if there was a reason he chose to take Spanish nationality and play for Spain as opposed to Brazil. It's true he's getting on a bit but he is the type of holding midfielder Brazil are crying out for at the moment. He was Spain's lynchpin at the European Championships and I just wonder why Brazil did not cap him, or did he refuse a call up?

  • Comment number 3.

    More Great Stuff Tim,

    A very interesting Article, Pellegrini has always been a coach that I have been a fan off, a very good and under-rated coach at times, its good to see aswell that such a small club, like Villarreal, can still "cut the mustard" with the big boys in Europe?! It gives hope to all of us who support the little clubs?! haha

    As of Argentina's lack of a good defender, what about Garay(Ezequiel), big things were expected of him so I heard, he seems to of slipped off the radar?! could he be the answer in the future???

  • Comment number 4.

    Very enjoyable article, always nice in this football world of ego's and high finance to discuss someone who has succeded impressively on the highest stage but has done so both modestly and through skilled management rather than being blessed with collosal budgets or pressurised by excessive expectations.

    Tim, I still find myself curious as to whether any European managers or players have ever tried their luck in domestic South American football. The recent 'failure' of Sven G Erikkson was somewhat well publicised as he himself is high profile, but I often wonder whether any Spanish, Italian or perhaps even British journeymen players/managers have found success in your region unbeknown to us over here.

    It's not the most straight forward thing to Google and as a number of Europeans have tried their luck in Japan, the Middle East and the States it doesn't seem a massive leap to think some have gone to Brasil or Mexico.

  • Comment number 5.

    It should be a good battle then - of magerial wit as well as football skill. Arsene Wenger also has a degree in engineering (if that's what you mean by qualified) as well as one in Economics. So they have a similar "intellectual framework", and the experience of managing at this level.

  • Comment number 6.

    Nice article - it's good to the culture being brought over from South America to Europe and being integrated well.

    Alfonso the chairman also has a huge part to play - some great signings as you've outlined. This flexibility of the small club with a pragmatic view has produced a recipe for success.

  • Comment number 7.

    Nice article. Without dragging Riquelme into this again excessively, I was wondering where Pellegrini would be in his European career had he not signed JR. He made them the envy of Europe in those few years as they played better (easy on the eye and effective) football than Barcelona.

    Since JRs departure, the magic has not been the same and they suffer from lack of ball possession as highlighted by their recent defeat at the Vicente Calderon where they were pinned back completely. On that showing, I would expect Arsenal to be too strong for Villareal.

  • Comment number 8.

    Manuel Pellegrini is now Simon Templar.Brilliant!

  • Comment number 9.

    Nice piece post #7 observed. I think since the departure of Riquelme, they have lacked the possesion as well as a dictator of the game rythm. Although Ariel Ibagaza is equally a good playmaker but not the JR type of player who can control the pace of the game as he wishes..

    On the case of Argentina national team, as much as I love Maradona I think one of the biggest mistake he made was to drop JR..he might not be the messi or tevez type of player but his contribution to the team play is very important. Do you know why maradona has decided not to call Ibagaza, Higuain or Gonzalo of viallreal( though he has been injured)to the national team? I really question his team selection as Lucho is no where the type of playmaker Argentina needs at the moment....

  • Comment number 10.

    Good article Tim, just a quick question on Adriano, there's been reports that he is currently struggling and may not return to Inter in the near future, any thoughts on this?

  • Comment number 11.

    He looks like my dad...

  • Comment number 12.

    Mohtechnix, my sentiments exactly. If Argentina go down the road of playing fast attackers without someone to pull the strings, the team will lose all identity in the process of losing matches in altitude (Quito next).

    With Cambiasso in the sqaud and able to do this role it was a crying shame he or Veron never played in La Paz.

    Anyway, before Tim gets bored of this subject back to Pelligrini. Another good south American he made a top player was Forlan- and look at him go now, what a striker!

  • Comment number 13.

    The fact that a lot of the big European teams nick the talent from South America at such a young age means they never really develope their own style. Anderson, and the two Da Silvas at Manchester United spring to mind. Really talented individuals that will now be moulded into the players needed by the clubs. This is also the reason that young British players don't progress.

  • Comment number 14.

    #13 Nomadic_dan, how is this why there is no progressing young British players? My understanding from managers within the game is that often young people want it more and work harder at their game, concentrating less on their social life!

    A generalized statement I know...all the big clubs have young British talent in their academies - they just aren't good enough to make it on the whole!

  • Comment number 15.

    Another thoughtful, well reasoned article - top stuff.

    Your point on Pellegrini being given time to develop his Villareal side less affected by the pressures attending bigger clubs is resonant given Gary Neville's comments this weekend (alluding to the treatment of ex-players-turned-managers Tony Adams, Paul Ince et al). It's interesting that Pellegrini learnt his trade away from the limelight in Chile, and proved himself over a long period in Ecuador and Argentina before making the big move to Europe.

    Wenger has 25 years of management, Alex Ferguson has 35 and Martin O'Neil began management at Grantham Town in 1987. It would be nice to see ex-players with the potential to become great managers (such as Gareth Southgate and Roy Keane) start in more modest circumstances and learn their trade with less pressure and expectation.

  • Comment number 16.

    14: there are lots of young progressing english players. the under 21's just lost a two year unbeaten streak to france because they played very much under par and were without key players. everton have gosling, rodwell, baxter, vaughn, loads of youngsters. liverpool have extremely talented under 16's and under 18's: not one under 16 was let go, all will go on to the under 18 squad and have been offered pro contracts. not to mention spearing and darby who have made impressive appearances this season. man u have welbeck, evans, etc. villa agbonlahor, delfoneso among others. thats barely getting started.

    we have lots of talented youngsters. the trouble is they are very much against the world.

  • Comment number 17.

    The first time I ever saw a Pellegrini team play was probably in the mid-90s. It was U. Católica, with players the likes of Gorosito, Lunari, Acosta (from Argentina) and Rozental, Lepe, Parraguez (from Chile), if my memory serves me right. This was an awesome team, even in defeat. I remember a 5 to 1 loss to River Plate. The Argies had a pretty good team themselves but I remember being impressed by the beauty, precision and attack-mindedness of UCa. The defense, evinced by the final score, probably not so good though.

    As for Villarreal, the Spaniards in the team are also pretty good, with Diego L, Cani and Joseba Llorente being the best of the lot.

  • Comment number 18.

    Just to add something about Villarreal to make you wish you supported a team like them - they recently announced that, as a response to the financial crisis, they will not charge long-term season ticket holders who have lost their jobs for their season tickets next year. Hats off!!

  • Comment number 19.

    No. 7 - Actually they were up 2-0 at some point and kept being up 2-1 for more than 10 min after having a man ridiculously sent off. Moreover, the number of points Villareal got during 07-08 would have been more than enough to make them Primera Division's champions during 06-07.
    I really like Riquelme but he seriously has some issues. Demanding to train by himself, on his own schedule, was a little too much for Pellegrini to put up with. He's an amazing player - as shown by the way he single-handedly gave Argentina two of its earlier victories in this qualifying campaign while not even being in Villareal's bench - but Villareal were right to let him go.

    17 - Ah! Lunari! What a player he was. I saw him live in the pitch for Colombian side Millonarios. His technique and great touch made him keep a special place with the fans in Bogota even though he only played 6 months with us.


    I'm surprised that you highlight Matias Fernandez's contribution so much. He's great but even Cani has had more minutes this season. Ibagaza's arrival has definitely pushed him back in the pecking order. I do agree, however, that Fernandez has great potential and he should stay with Villareal for as long as he can.

    Pellegrini is great and I would only hope we can get them as head coach for Colombia's qualifying campaign for 2014.

    Great article this week, completely switching the topic from qualifiers and, more importantly, it barely mentions Brazil!

  • Comment number 20.

    I forgot to mention that I do believe that Villareal-Arsenal and Bayern-Barca are by far the best fixtures of this round of CL games. These are the two games where the most attractive football will be played.

    Also, with Rio Fernidand out, I do see South-American tasting Porto having a shot.

  • Comment number 21.

    @17, Joseba Llorente is a great player, I really wish Athletic had tried to go for him in the summer. They also have Jozy Altidore who Sean Wheelock raves about constantly on the phone-in.

    For a small club Villareal have done outstandingly well, I wonder if the same could happen over here.

  • Comment number 22.

    another entertaining article, tks tim, you have an amazing knowledge of South American soccer. i'm happy for pellegrini, he was immensely successful in Argentina and always came across as a perfect gentleman. Why did he unload Riquelme? Now to coach Utd would be a different kettle of fish. I reckon vwery few men do it. I also reckon that Ferguson must be one of the greatest managers of time. Anyway, with regard to Mohtechnix's query about why Maradona doesn't play Higuain in the national team, i head a comment on an argentine soccer program yesterday that Maradona's son in law, Aguero, doesn't want Higuain in the team. If an Argentine soccer journalist says it, there must be something in it and it would be par for the course for Maradona. He had a feud with Ramon Diaz for years and Diaz, a great striker if ever there was one, never got into the national squad. I also heard Chilavert giving Maradona the works as a coach yesterday. "Chila", who is not afraid of controversy, said that "the national team is too big for Maradona." We'll see. Btw, Paraguayan soccer must be among the best in the world today. A lot of Paraguayans play in Argentina and they all good to great players.

  • Comment number 23.

    That's a great Article
    As I understand Pellegrini and Wenger both have Engineering degrees,albeit Wenger has a Master's in Economics.But that's not the point of my comment.The point is,both managers,with their intellectual assets have different visions of the beautiful game,and yet they both are very successful in what they do.
    Pellegrini has been very successful in a way that, on a tight budget,he managed to take Villareal to the top 4 teams in Spain.Competing with the likes of Atletico Madrid,Espanyol and Valencia who have a bigger budget.
    Wenger has done the same with Arsenal.
    The encounter should be entertaining and interesting tomorrow! I recall the last game between Arsenal and Villareal in 2006 being one the best semi-finals ever played in the Champions League.Am sure both managers are working their magic out for another great encounter!Can't wait!

  • Comment number 24.

    I am looking forward to Villareal v Arsenal on Tuesday evening. well remember their last encounter April 2006 Jens Lehmann saved Riquelme's penalty.Pellegrini has a good mixture of S.American and Spanish talent and a talented Yank Jozy Altidore currently on loan Xerez 2 years ago Sean Wheelock pointed him out as one to watch out for before 2007 U20 World Cup.
    Mr Wenger says to watch out for Arsenal old boy Robert Pires.bad news for us no RVP but Theo is fit. August 2005 Arsenal were looking to buy Urguyan Sebastian Viera Villareal's goalkeeper but Mr Wenger lost interest when h failed a medical.Lets hope the Gunners can sink the Yellow Submarine.

  • Comment number 25.

    20. I think its difficult to predict which games will be the most entertaining. I also think Man Utd-Porto will be an entertaining tie and might not go the way people expect. I actually think that Arsenal-Villarreal will be tight in both legs. There weren't many goals the last time they met in 2006, and Villarreal got two 0-0 draws with Man Utd earlier in this season's Champions League. Villarreal can be compact and difficult to play against when its necessary. There is a fallacy that South American football is always open and attacking, South Americans also know how to kill games as well, and Pellegrini as a coach is no exception.

  • Comment number 26.

    # 13 - Nomadic_dan: man, i totally agree with you. and the example you mention is perfect. when anderson started to shine in gremio, he was even compared to ronaldinho gaucho. but he has since been transformed into a tough midfielder with some skills. this phenomenon is, many times, expressed as "player A or B 'evolved' when he went to europe, where he learnt 'tactics'", which eventually means he was moulded in a different style.

  • Comment number 27.

    #2 - danprevett

    Senna moved to Villareal from Sao Cantano (sp?) in 2002. Dont know if he got any youth caps for Brazil. He took a long time to adapt to Spanish football, and his indifferent form led to a lack of international call-ups.

    He took Spanish nationality in early 2006 after residing in Spain for a certain amount of time (I think its 2 years for South Americans but Im basing that on football manager lol :-) ) and was selected for the Spanish WC'06 squad.

    Happens quite often with players from South America, they take a long time to adapt to different playing styles from around the world, and take second nationalities from spending enough time in the country. I think Japan have an international Brazil-Japanese player called Alex who did the same but Im not sure.

  • Comment number 28.

    Villareal obviously have had some big financial backing, but they've invested it well, on a youth scheme and recruiting good South American players.

    And who better than someone who has managed successfully in Chile, Ecuador and Argentina to know the South American market.

    I'm surprised that the Boca Jnrs pair, Sebaatian Battalglia and Martin Palermo wasn't very scuccessful at Villareal. Battalglia especially as I thought he would make a good holding player in Europe, but he couldn't adapt apparently.

    Was Riquelme's last minute penalty miss v Arsenal in the Champions league semi-final a defining moment in his career?

  • Comment number 29.

    Regarding a South American style of play and identity at international level, that's intersting that Pellegrini still sees 70's Holland as the last great tactical innovation.

    I thought Argentina under Pekerman tried to remain loyal to a traditional paaing style with a playmaker, and did very well with it at World Cup 06, until they met the dynamism and power of Germanay

    Same with Basile's Argentina in La Copa America 07 - lovely trditional Argentinian/ South American short passing football and dribbling until they met 'European' Brazil in the final who were too strong for them physically.

  • Comment number 30.


    Thanks for that info. I am aware of a few Brazilian's who have gone on to represent other countries; Eduardo, Alex, Deco etc. Not many would walk into Brazil's first team though. I guess Senna made the right choice though with a Euro medal already in the bag!

  • Comment number 31.

    Hi Tim, Great Column, you didnt mention that San Lorenzo also won the Copa Sudamericana under Pellegrini in 2002 I rememeber because I was at the first leg of the final in Medellin, (against Nacional) we lost 4-0, and I think the return leg was a 0-0 draw...

  • Comment number 32.

    #16 : Johnny Evans is a fully fledged Northern Ireland international. Other than that, your point is valid.

    Sometimes Tim, I wonder : if the South Americans had the money - would they come to the UK/GB looking for talent?

  • Comment number 33.

    Number 2: Marcos Senna never played at this level in Brazil. He played for some small clubs from the São Paulo State and when he got a chance at traditional side Corinthians he didn't last long and was dismissed by V. Luxemburgo shortly after the coach took control of the team. If I'm not wrong he then moved do São Caetano, a medium team at the time, and did just well over there before joining Villareal.
    When he became Spanish citizen in order to play for their national team, he did it because he really had no hopes of being called for the Brazilian National Team. The same ocurred to Portugal's Deco plus a few others.

  • Comment number 34.

    I thought Villarreal were excellent in the first half against Arsenal tonight. Pellegrini has got them drilled very well and they play very good football. Senna is class. That said, Arsenal did dominate the second half (what a goal from Adebayor, by the way!) though Villarreal could have sneaked it at the end.

    All the media over here will no doubt be backing Arsenal as favourites, but their defence is definitely shaky, so if El Submarino Amarillo can get an early goal again who knows what might happen. Everything to play for! It's great to see two fantastic footballing sides, so I can't wait for the second leg.

  • Comment number 35.

    Villareal were very impressive tonight. I had expected the least Arsenal would get from the game was a draw. I wasn't so sure watching the match though. Villareal were playing pacey football, and without a team of pacey players I might add! Very sharp fast passing to be seen from all their players. I felt Arsenal may suffer from a taste of their own medicine in this game; A game which at times showed the difference between accurate pretty passing and fast penetrative passing.

    I don't agree with 34 above however. Arsenal's defence isn't shaky in my opinion. It took a class drive from Senna to beat an injured Almunia. You can't always close down a player who has developed a knack for finding and area of space in the pitch to shoot from. Would also point to the statistic of Arsenals unbeaten run so far, but then statistics are lies, damned lies.

  • Comment number 36.

    35. I don't want to turn this into a debate about Arsenal but I just thought I'd qualify my comment about Arsenal's "shaky" defence. It's true that a strong defence has contributed to their unbeaten Premier League run, but I've just noticed that there always seem to be one or two occasions in every match where mass panic sets in between the two centre backs and the keeper, as if they've never met each other before. You can usually get away with it in the Premier League but you're less likely to in the Champions League. That's just what I meant.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.