London- Assuming Manchester City earn the point they need against West Ham United tomorrow, this will be Manuel Pellegrini’s first league title since collecting the Clausura with River Plate in Argentina in 2003. There will be those who suggest he has won it almost by default, merely by not falling over as Chelsea and Liverpool suffered unexpected setbacks, but winning titles is often as much about that as it is about the glamorous wins in the landmark games.
And if there has been an element of fortune about this championship, if it does feel it has been won as much by slips from César Azpilicueta and Steven Gerrard – and by the non-stop running of Yannick Bolasie and the unexpectedly cool finishing of Dwight Gayle – as by the quick feet of David Silva and the precision and languid power of Yaya Touré, then Pellegrini may see it as recompense for 2009-10 when he led Real Madrid to a record points tally, despite an impossible political situation within the club, but lost the Spanish title by default because Barcelona were going through a phase of ludicrous excellence.
What that perhaps says is that nobody should be judged on trophies alone, that there is always a context. As the former Real Sociedad manager Juanma Lillo complained in issue one of The Blizzard: “No one is looking at the process except through the prism of a result. In a race you can be first, miles and miles ahead of anyone else, and then, metres from the line, fall over. And? Are you going to write that race off? You ran brilliantly. And it’s far more complex than saying: win, good; don’t win, bad.
You can’t validate the process through the results. Human beings tend to venerate what finished well, not what was done well. We attack what ended up badly, not what was done badly.”
The doubt about Pellegrini when he arrived at Manchester City was that he had won nothing in his decade in European football – an accusation that might have been legitimate if it had been a concern over whether a 60-year-old could really adapt to new circumstances but too often seemed based on the assumption that titles won in Argentina and Ecuador are somehow worthless.
Perhaps if Pellegrini had consistently led giants of the game, if he had persistently underperformed, if his teams had habitually fallen away in the run-in, that would have been a legitimate concern but the truth – as Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain recognised – was that he had done a very good job almost everywhere he had been, from Universidad Católica, with whom he won the Copa Chile in 1995, to Liga de Quito, with whom he won the Ecuadorean League in 1999, to San Lorenzo and River Plate, with whom he won Argentinian titles, to Villarreal, whom he led to within a missed Juan Román Riquelme penalty of the Champions League final.
More than that, after the acrimony and chaos of the Roberto Mancini reign, Pellegrini was somebody who could be relied upon to remain calm and dignified – something that, his outburst at the Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson after the defeat by Barcelona aside, he has done, for all Alan Pardew’s provocations. He is, after all, a man of profound mental strength with an understated but keen sense of his responsibilities.
In February last year, for instance, after his Málaga side had lost to Real Sociedad, Pellegrini took a flight to Chile – and it was only then that his players discovered that his father had died a few days earlier: he had kept working at the club as normal, not wanting to disturb their preparation.
When he retired from playing aged 33 – having been beaten in the air by a 17-year-old Iván Zamorano during a Cup defeat by Cobresal – he did not go straight into coaching but first put his engineering ability to use by helping with the relief effort after the 1985 Algarrobo earthquake.
Players who have played for him speak of his honesty and integrity, the sense that he was prepared to make tough decisions but that he would always explain them. By and large they like him and to the list of those whose careers he has set back on the right tracks when they seemed to be going astray – a list that already included the likes of Antonio Valencia, Diego Forlán, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Isco, Júlio Baptista and Santi Cazorla – can now be added Edin Dzeko, coaxed back into the fold to score 16 league goals this season.
When he arrived, Pellegrini insisted he was tactically flexible, not wedded to one system, and although he has tended to play either 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1, there has been the odd dabble with 4-3-3.
His career has shown him to be, essentially, a pragmatist – not in the sense in which the term is often used in football as a defensive coach, but in his willingness to adapt rather than seeking to impose a set philosophy on the team. At Málaga, for instance, he played a rapid counterattacking game, while at Villarreal the approach was slower, funnelled through the playmaking abilities of Riquelme.
Love for the imposing forward
Pellegrini has historically tended to prefer a physically imposing centre-forward – which is why Dzeko has been so important as Álvaro Negredo’s form has faltered – but that aside, there have been few constants. His Liga de Quito title-winners, for instance, were largely cautious, averaging only 1.38 goals per game in the league sections of the convoluted Ecuadorean season.
Both his River and San Lorenzo title-winning sides were more attacking, averaging 2.26 goals per game. City, at the moment, are averaging 2.7 goals per game.
Pellegrini should become, at 60, the oldest man to win the league title for the first time since Joe Fagan in 1984 – although Fagan, at 63, had been part of the Liverpool coaching staff for 28 years by then. The doubts about whether Pellegrini could adapt magnify his achievement: there has been no talk of transition, just a team that overcame early defensive wobbles away from home to press hardest for the line in the season’s final month.
Assuming Andy Carroll does not – in a narrative twist that is surely too ludicrous even for this season’s standards – down City to give Liverpool the title on Sunday, the only disappointment has been the Champions League, in which City were outplayed at times by Bayern Munich and Barcelona.
Against the very best, there is still defensive improvement needed. But it may come; this after all, was only Pellegrini’s first season – and it is one he will probably end with two trophies.
More than that, with great dignity, he has created a coherent team that is good to watch and that gives the impression it is still developing.