“I don't believe in projects of more than three years”, so said a largely unknown Chilean coach named Manuel Pellegrini when he joined Villarreal from River Plate in 2004. Five years on, and one project has been bought to an anti-climactic end, whilst another, with arguably the biggest club in the world, is just about to begin.
Two days after seeing Villarreal miss out on a Champions League spot in La Primera Division, El Ingeniero (The Engineer) agreed a deal to take over at Real Madrid for the next two seasons. Whether he lasts that long, or maybe even longer, remains to be seen; but there is no doubt that the green-eyed coach from Santiago will bring something different to the Bernabeu.
For starters, unlike so many other coaches in the modern era, Pellegrini is not a former player of the club he is set to take charge of; nor does he even possess much of a CV from his playing days. Thirteen years as a defender with Universidad de Chile might have seen him earn great affection from the chuncos’ fans, but in 1986 when he called time on his career, that is almost all he had to show for his efforts, along with a lone Copa Chile victory.
When he turned his hand to coaching instead, he still couldn’t manage to bring success to Universidad and lasted half a season in charge before embarking on a journey around his home country that would eventually lead him to Universidad Catolica in 1994. Another Copa Chile and a Copa Interamericana later, and Pellegrini was ready to move abroad, travelling north to Ecuador where he won the league title with Liga de Quito and also reached the quarter-finals of the Copa Libertadores.
Subsequent league titles in Argentina with San Lorenzo and River Plate saw Europe come calling, with Villarreal adding to their growing South American staff list by signing the Chilean up as coach. As a relative unknown outside of his home continent he was an ideal choice for a side looking to keep the budget low, but also represented something of a gamble, having never worked in Europe before.
Moving To Europe
Nevertheless, the diamond in the rough was to turn out to be the prize jewel for Villarreal, and his words from an interview with Fifa.com back in 2008 sum up his time in the south-east of Spain; “I don't know if there have been any lows.” After an eighth-place finish the season before his arrival, Pellegrini immediately guided el Submarino Amarillo into third, and also took them to the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup.
The following year they sacrificed league success for a semi-final spot in the Champions League, which, despite the fact they were cruelly knocked out by Arsenal, would arguably be the pinnacle of Pellegrini’s time at El Madrigal. Looking back on his time with Villarreal now, only a second-place finish in La Primera and a visit to the quarter-finals of the Champions League last season can even compare to the dizzying heights reached in 2005-2006.
That is not to take anything away from Pellegrini though, for it should not be forgotten that Villarreal were a club who had only been in the top division four seasons when he took over. Not only did he take them one step away from the peak of European football, but he did so on a shoe-string budget and with players who, as he himself was when he joined, were a gamble.
One of those players on whom he decided to gamble, and who will forever be associated with his time at Villarreal, is Juan Roman Riquelme. Saved from a stuttering spell with Barcelona, the Argentine would play over 100 games for el Submarino Amarillo, would miss a vital penalty in the semi-final of the Champions League, but would perhaps be remembered best for his less than graceful exit, a defining reason why Goal.com Spain editor Juan Lirman does not believe Pellegrini is the right man to take over at Madrid.
“I think Real Madrid need a coach with a very strong personality, and this is not the case with Pellegrini. The Chilean clearly kept a low profile at Villarreal and he always acted as the directors wanted him to, as happened with Juan Roman Riquelme. Pellegrini could have tried to step in and resolve the situation, with a player who was at that moment one of the top three play-makers in the world, but he just said “yes, sir” to the bosses and Riquelme left the club,” recalls Lirman.
Clearly, with Real president Florentino Perez expected to be loosening the purse strings and bringing in some big-name signings, egos and clashing personalities could be a situation Pellegrini has to deal with at Madrid. However, Martin Decaux from Goal.com in Chile believes that whilst some labelled El Ingeniero a puppet during his time with Villarreal, there is a counter-argument in his favour.
“Many people think that he actually had strong character and leadership to deal with the situation, putting a stop to Riquelme's whims and "delusions of grandeur", and treating him as just another player,” he reveals.
It cannot be denied that the Riquelme situation was a key moment in Pellegrini’s career to-date, but whatever the reasons behind his exit from Villarreal, it cannot damage the stock of the Chilean, which has rocketed over the past five years. Statistically (in terms of winning percentage) he is the second most successful South American club coach in Europe over the past 25 years, whilst, as Martin Decaux reveals, “Pellegrini is regarded as one of the best South American coaches and the best Chilean coach worldwide right now”. With Madrid and Perez looming large overhead, there are probably more questions than answers about his future right now, and one gets the feeling that the toughest times still lie ahead for the Chilean.
Name: Manuel Luis Pellegrini Ripamonti
Birthplace: Santiago, Chile
Teams coached: Universidad de Chile, Palestino, O'Higgins, Universidad Catolica, Liga Deportiva Universitaria, San Lorenzo de Almagro, River Plate, Villarreal C.F., Real Madrid C.F.
Honours: Copa Chile (Universidad Catolica), Serie A (Liga Deportiva Universitaria), Campeonato de Clausura (San Lorenzo and River Plate), Copa Interamericana (Universidad Catolica), Copa Mercosur (San Lorenzo), Intertoto Cup (Villarreal)
Even now he is coach of one of the biggest clubs in the world, Pellegrini has not forgotten the virtues of also being a fully qualified civil engineer.
"It's a profession. That firstly teaches you to think, and secondly, to put things in an order of priorities with a logical sequence to solve problems," he explains.
The Chilean graduated in Civil Engineering from the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile back in 1979.
James Walker-Roberts, Goal.com