Pellegrini: To play well is to win
After successful spells in his native Chile and in Argentina,
54-year-old Manuel Pellegrini has been head coach of Spanish club
Villarreal since 2004.
In this interview, he talks about his 'project' at the Yellow Submarine, his footballing principles and discusses the prospect of one day taking charge of the Chilean national team.
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FIFA magazine: In 2004 you joined Villarreal and embarked on an ambitious project but one which you have always approached calmly. Almost four seasons later, there is no doubt that your time in charge has been one long success story. How would you assess your time at the club?
Manuel Pellegrini: When you join a club, you come with a lot of expectations and the desire to transmit your footballing beliefs. I knew that this was a solid and coherent project and I have given it all I've got.
Like life itself, this project has had its highs and lows, but you have always come out of it in the best possible manner. Did you ever consider leaving Villarreal when you were going through a period of bad results?
First of all, if you analyse the past four years, I don't know if there have been any lows. In the first season we qualified for the Champions League after finishing third in the league and reached the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup. The following season we reached the semi-finals of the Champions League, came seventh in the league and played in the Inter-toto Cup, although we did not qualify for the UEFA Cup.
Last season was difficult in some respects because we did not
live up to the expectations we had created for ourselves and
because of certain external factors. It was difficult, but we
finished fifth. There is currently a lot of dissatisfaction even
though we've spent the whole of the season in the Champions
League places. What low points? I don't think we have ever been
through periods where we thought that things weren't working
out. There have been no internal problems either. It may be that
externally we have fallen short of our objective, but I am very
satisfied with the work we have done and with the attitude of the
That raises two issues. First of all, is your greatest achievement to have instilled team spirit? And secondly, do you believe that you have particularly improved the team from a psychological standpoint?
My greatest achievement has been to obtain commitment from the players. Here everyone plays the same except Barcelona; we had to ensure commitment to the system because that is always very important to a coach. From a psychological standpoint, I think that the team has good moments and bad ones depending on the results. There was a crisis here last year and the squad were not happy. There are 25 different people and they all think in a different way. The most important thing is that they are all committed to reaching a particular target.
Those who are only interested in results say that winning is the only way to play well. I want my players to play well to win.
Do you not think that being solid in defence and quick on the counter-attack is also good football?
To play well is to win. I've always said that. But you have to consider the manner in which you won. A pragmatic coach is someone who praises the team for time-wasting and drawing fouls and is not interested in the cohesion of the team. I respect that idea. But do I want to play like that? When I am asked about that footballing philosophy, I neither understand it nor do I accept it.
My best example of playing well is against Barcelona and I'm
not just using it because we won the last match against that great
team [3-1 away]. We never asked for the stretcher, we didn't
waste time when taking free kicks or throw-ins, the team wanted to
keep playing to the point of being irresponsible if you want to put
it like that. Logically, if you have a good defence you usually
play well. I can understand why people praise that approach. Some
people come and play like that at the Madrigal and they deserve
some credit because winning is the only way to play well.
Which would you prefer, to win the league or to come second playing magnificent football?
Aesthetically speaking it is more important to win the league, but there is less chance of winning the league if you don't play well.
This Villarreal side, your Villarreal, stands out because of its 4-4-2 system, but you constantly adapt this formula as you go in search of victory. Do you believe in tactical systems?
They are useful, but not to win. They can be used to bring a certain mechanical quality to the play, but to win you clearly need the individual skills of the players you have inserted into the system. I personally think that tactics are intelligence applied to the game. We have played against Barcelona several times using a second striker like Robert Pires and we have won, but then that same system and team that beat Barcelona were thrashed by Zaragoza.
Effectiveness and performance is also decisive. My idea is that you can put defenders, midfielders or even a forwards on the wings, the important thing is to occupy the space. You have to sacrifice a striker, but it is better with two attacking midfielders because they create more fluidity in attack.
But it all varies, the name may vary, but not the system. You
make tactical changes at particular moments in a match in an
attempt to change the game. There's a cliche in journalism that
says that the ball suffers a lot. I don't understand that. The
ball can't play, if Barcelona have the ball you have to find
another way of beating them. The best way to do damage to an
opponent is to get in behind them through runs from deep from
Eguren or Pires with Guille Franco playing with his back to goal.
But it is the team performance that wins matches, never the system.
When you arrived here, you made one remark that has been repeated ad nauseam: "I don't believe in projects of more than three years". You have now been here for four years and have extended your contract for another two.
That comment comes from a statistic that says that 98 per cent of coaches do not last more than two years at a club. You have to develop more short-term projects, although there are exceptions such as Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger... But in this project I have targets, maybe not specific ones, because we are trying to close the gap on the big clubs in La Liga. There was no reason not to carry on. However, not all seasons are identical. You have to live for the day, I can't predict the future, which is defined by the present.
You have suffered a lot of adversity in one season, as happened last year with the crisis with Riquelme, the cruciate ligament injuries suffered by Gonzalo, Pires and Nihat and your poor position in the table. But despite everything, you decided to carry on because the board continued to believe in you.
Without the board's support it would have been difficult to carry on. Furthermore, the president was of the same view and gave me a new contract last season. We shook hands and continue to move forward. But I wouldn't like to go after a bad run, but leave the club in a healthy state after everything we have achieved in this time. People have got into the bad habit of seeing the team high up the table fighting it out with the big clubs.
From what you say, I gather that you never considered leaving the club.
The possibility of leaving is always there. There are always offers but I have been coherent because I am happy at this club and I still have things to offer it.
Imagine that the same thing happens to you as to Juande Ramos, you receive a dizzying offer from another club halfway through the season and have to decide whether to take it.
I was in that very situation this season and decided to say no. That's not a criticism of Juande Ramos, it's my point of view. If I don't feel committed, I say goodbye and I go. Ramos made that decision and there's nothing else to say. I have a commitment with this club and I intend to honour it.
One of the most important features of your project over the last few seasons has been the large number of Latin American footballers who have played for you alongside the Europeans. Aside from their quality, is their ability to adapt quickly a decisive factor in their performance?
I would not make any distinction between Latin American and European footballers. We have tried to bring a good level of performance out of all the players in the squad. Then you have the youth players. Others have not performed well but that is not so much to do with nationality as with the requirements of the technical staff and the work the player puts in.
Another distinguishing feature is Villarreal's youth system. During your time at the club, players such as Cazorla, Hector Font, Arzo, Marcos and Bruno, virtually one a season, have come through.
I think it's very important to prioritise youth development. Training players is very important for the club and luck-ily for the coaching staff, players have emerged who strengthen the club's work and commitment.
Your compatriot Matias Fernandez is a future prospect. However, the fact he is 21, has a lot of quality and is promising player but needs to be looked after or, to be more precise, polished detracts from his image quite a lot.
Yes, polish is the word. He has many qualities, but in Chile people thought that he would be a great success despite his youth. He arrived here and encountered a different type of football and a heavy playing schedule. I knew that he would need time to get used to everything. He has realised that he needs to be calm.
Could the pressure on the player have been an obstacle?
Possibly. People criticise his performances and he is surrounded by a great deal of expectation. It is up to the coaching staff to assess his work. He is a work in progress, he has the ability to be successful. But I don't think that the praise affects his performance, you can tell it hasn't gone to his head. He is very serious in that regard.
Speaking of Chile, do you intend to coach the Chilean national team one day?
I would love to. If the opportunity arose, if both parties were amenable I would like to finish my career coaching the national team, but both parties would have to be willing. Right now, my mind is on Villarreal.
There has been speculation that this may happen when your contract with Villarreal expires.
It coincides with 2010 but I live in the present, not the future. We'll see what happens.