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Manuel Pellegrini

Real Betis, 2020–

It was the experienced and respected Manuel Pellegrini, perhaps arriving in Seville with a point to prove, Real Betis turned to when recruiting a new manager to lead them into the 2020/21 La Liga season. The Chilean was sacked by West Ham in December 2019, the first club he struggled at since so impressively enhancing his reputation while at Villarreal.

Having built Villarreal’s best ever team, he continued to succeed to varying degrees at Real Madrid, Malaga and Manchester City, before a move to China’s Hebei China Fortune preceded him heading to London, and Betis has become the ideal next move. He has inherited a squad in which full-backs Emerson Royal and Álex Moreno, and Sergio Canales, Guido Rodríguez, Borja Iglesias, Joaquín and Nabil Fekir already appear capable of providing the core of the entertaining team he is expected to build.

Playing style
Preparation is one of the crucial aspects of Pellegrini’s management. He tends to favour a 4-4-2 system that evolves into a 4-2-3-1 when his teams attack, and one that features a passing game built from the back and geared towards retaining the ball for as long as possible. He instructs his teams to play from the inside of the pitch to the outside, and then to attempt to again bring the ball back inside when even further forwards; his wide players become particularly influential when doing so, through their full-backs pushing high, and their wingers forcing the opposing defenders back.

Pellegrini demands his players believe in themselves, because of his belief that a collective confidence breeds a big-team mentality and inspires that team to be greater than the sum of its parts. He memorably transformed Villarreal, previously a small club, into one of the best in Spain and, for a period, Europe. While there his strategy involved using two strikers who alternated their runs and operating as the most advanced attacker; their full-backs consistently made overlapping runs. Constant movement across his teams’ attacks are another familiar theme, which, in front the link-up play that exists in midfield, creates the spaces their strikers require to run into.

At Real, Pellegrini adapted his approach to most commonly use a 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-1-2, both of which represented particularly attacking in-possession shapes and featured freedom for either Kaká or Rafael van der Vaart, and Cristiano Ronaldo playing behind Gonzalo Higuaín, Karim Benzema or Raúl. Xabi Alonso, complemented by Marcelo and Lassana Diarra, provided the link between their defence and midfield.

Real’s game was quick and organised, and featured third-man runs and triangles to generate spaces in between the lines (below), and a change of pace in the final third to pursue the spaces that were created in behind. The dramatic overhaul of Real’s squad in that summer of 2009, however, meant that the Chilean struggled to use a consistent XI and had to remain patient while new signings settled.

His next position came at Malaga, where he organised his team to defend with a 4-4-2 and to attack with a 4-2-2-2 designed to encourage both numerical superiority in the final third and attacks with both width and depth. Joaquín and Santi Cazorla would support attacks led by Isco, Julio Baptista and Ruud van Nistelrooy, who worked to occupy the opposing defenders and therefore to create spaces for their teammates; the full-backs behind them also advanced to create those sought-after numerical overloads.

Málaga demonstrated the leading principles he wants from his teams. Build-up play from defence; a compact defence with a medium or high block and an intense press, ideally featuring a numerical superiority intended to crowd opponents out. When attacking they worked to pin opposing central defenders back, and to generate width and depth by spreading players across the pitch before looking to create imbalances in the opposing defence with intelligent movements. It was also relevant that Malaga had high-quality players with a diverse set of skills, inviting Pellegrini to change his team’s strategy according to the demands of each game. A high technical ability is another necessity, as was shown when possession was progressed through the lines of their structure; a direct approach remains only a last resort.

City, who Pellegrini inspired to the Premier League title in his first season in English football, regularly started with a 4-4-2 that involved them attacking with a 4-2-3-1. Fernandinho started building play, Yaya Touré was encouraged to advance and lead their attacks, and winger Jesús Navas worked to occupy the full-back so that passes could be played to the influential David Silva and Sergio Agüero. Similarly to Malaga, numerous players attacked into the inside channels, where Agüero and another – perhaps Samir Nasri – drew the opposing central defenders out of position to create space for those advancing from full-back (above).

Off-the-ball movements and the positioning of players was crucial to them regaining possession and attacking without sacrificing momentum. When regains were made, Agüero and another worked to split their opposing defence (below) and to create the spaces they required to shoot, pass, or progress possession.

In his most recent position as manager of West Ham, his team attacked with a 4-4-2, defended with a 4-1-4-1, and often adopted a 4-5-1 when transitioning into defence. They sought to quickly attack after regains often made via their mid-block, and offered the same changes of pace, width and depth in attack witnessed with his previous teams.

Declan Rice was often relied upon to operate between their defence and midfield so that those in front of him could attack with greater freedom. Occupying the opposing central defenders, to create the desired spaces, was again a priority; one attacker could often be seen running in behind those defenders while the other supported, in combination with a further teammate.

Pressing and defending
A consistent feature of Pellegrini’s best teams has been an organised and stable back four that provides the security those further forwards require to attack. In the same way that they contribute so much going forwards, when his teams are transitioning into defence, their full-backs move to limit the spaces that exist in central areas, contributing to them regularly defending with a line of five and also to the intense press Pellegrini often demands in wide areas of the pitch (above, at Malaga). The player closest to the ball is instructed to close down the relevant passing lanes; those around him engage in that high press.

At the tip of City’s midfield, Kevin De Bruyne demonstrated what was often required of those further forwards when he continued to support attacks while remaining aware of the potential counter-attacking threats City’s opponents posed. He also formed triangles with Touré and a wide midfielder while Fernandinho, not unlike Rice at West Ham, remained between defence and midfield.

Manuel Pellegrini

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