“I won more Premierships alone than the other 19 managers together” ranted Jose Mourinho after a 3-0 loss to Tottenham in Manchester United’s third match of the Premier League season. He continued “three for me, and two for them two”. One of the “them two” Mourinho referred to is obviously Pep Guardiola’s record breaking title run with Manchester City last season. The second manager is current West Ham boss Manuel Pellegrini, who lead City to the title in 2014 and is back in the Premier League after two seasons in China And whereas Guardiola’s City is favored to repeat as champions, the 64-year-old Pellegrini sits in last place of the table with no points through four matches.
After their 2-1 loss against Bournemouth in the second match of the season, Craig Bellamy criticized how the West Ham center midfield pairing of club captain Mark Noble and new signing Jack Wilshere were unable to affect the match without the ball due to their lack of pace (or, as this viral clip shows, a lack of stamina). It’s a daunting criticism considering that West Ham and Pellegrini spent a club record of $130 million over the summer transfer window to prepare for a Premier League competition ever more focused on athleticism and speed. A common theme heading into this upcoming season centered around the difficulty of foreign managers adapting to the league, but the idea applies equally to players. The star signing, Lazio winger Felipe Anderson, expected “a lot of strength” and “a lot of force”. Out of West Ham’s nine signings, only four had previous experience in England.
That they’ve only scored two goals thus far is most concerning, as Pellegrini’s strength is in his offense. He promised a return to “attacking” football upon his signing with the club. Defensive liabilities aside, Pellegrini teams always entertained. He implemented a famous 4-2-2-2 formation featuring a “magic rectangle” with Villarreal over a decade ago, balancing stability and movement appropriate for that era. It become his defining characteristic used to not only overachieve with financially smaller sides, but go toe to toe with Real Madrid, Barcelona, and beyond.
The simplicity and elegance of that magic rectangle was focused around the movement of his interior playmakers that ranged from Riquelme, Isco, Joaquin, David Silva and Samir Nasri. During his Premier League title winning run in 2014, his side was described as a goal machine whose style was “death by geometry” (they scored 102 goals that season). Yet the emphasis was how they played in possession, the brilliance of its individual creators in creating triangles and overloads in pulling opposition defenses in and out of position. Their off-ball shape relied upon Toure and Fernandinho covering space and retrieving the ball as opposed to a systemic pressing system that defines today’s era, a significant blindspot that has already costed West Ham points and may sink the Pellegrini project in its first season.
In defending Pellegrini’s slow start at West Ham this season by saying that he doesn’t have the quality of his previous sides, Pablo Zabaleta actually unintentionally criticized his manager. His title winning City side featured Sergio Aguero and Yaya Toure alongside Silva, with a total roster salary estimated at $300 million. West Ham did try to add quality over the summer, especially with the Anderson signing for $43 million. The winger, one of the revelations of 2015 Serie A season, does his damage on counter attacks and his pace should translate in England. But the $22 million Andriy Yarmolenko already looks outmatched by the physicality of the league. Plus Pellegrini’s idea of turning Wilshere into the next Andrea Pirlo is concerning as that skillful passing is a luxury for a side currently in relegation. Wilshere may have worked on those Villarreal sides, but that was a different era entirely.
One can understand the club’s thought process in bringing Pellegrini back to England after two seasons in China. He stated his goal was to “build a new club” at West Ham, going so far as to bring in his technical director from Malaga. But considering their context, they hired a manager for the wrong team with their lack of individual ability as opposed to a manager focused on a modern, pressing style able to outperform their quality. There may have been more optimism had Pellegrini taken over the same side years ago, but at Bellamy and others have emphasized, Premier League sides are defined by their activity or passivity without the ball as opposed to flowing movements with it. It is early, but the ambitious project to remake the club already looks outdated in scope and in tactics.
While the 2013 Champions League quarter finals second leg matchup between Malaga and Borussia Dortmund may not have changed history in regards to the rapid rise of Jurgen Klopp’s high pressing style into the mainstream, perhaps it would have slowed it down. Even looking back now, the result is cruel: Malaga, away, were up 2-1 with four minutes of extra time. Marco Reus pulled back a goal in the 91st minute. Felipe Santana then won the match for Dortmund in the 93rd minute off goalline scramble.
Dortmund would go on to beat Real Madrid in the semis before losing to Bayern Munich in the Champions League finals. Yet along with Dortmund winning the Bundesliga the season before and with Germany winning the World Cup the following summer, a new style of play had been cemented. It turned on a matter of minutes in Europe, with Klopp admitting that Santana’s match winning goal was offsides. Regardless, the pressing style defeated Pellegrini’s approach with the ball, and dominant club and international sides adopted Klopp’s influence since.
Pellegrini made his name with an earlier run in the Champions League, this time in 2006 with Villarreal. His small side captured the purists’ imagination with an entertaining style lead by Riquelme, making it to the semifinals before losing to Arsenal after the Argentine missed a penalty. When the two sides met again in the quarterfinals in 2009, Pellegrini discussed the importance of he and Wenger’s attacking philosophy. The link between the two managers - Wenger four years older than Pellegrini - is appropriate as they were lauded for their emphasis on the beauty of the game but were ultimately doomed by a lack of innovation and urgency out of possession.
We can extend this idea of managers who once pushed their eras struggling in today’s game. Mourinho also came of age during the mid-2000s with a three player center midfielder formation that outsmarted the two box to box midfielders in a typical 4-4-2 shape. Rafa Benitez won the 2005 Champions League with a then forward thinking 4-2-3-1 formation that is now the default formation of basic European sides. The Spaniard spent last season overachieving with Newcastle and spent the summer battling ownership for transfer funds. How long do managers have at the top of their game before getting usurped by the next generation? And why do managers who were once at the forefront of tactics stop innovating?
We know intuitively that times and eras change. Nothing exemplifies that idea as much as sports in which results are tangibly measured between wins and losses, between a side being on top of the table and another having lost four consecutive matches. The table simply is what it is. But even the most possession based managers like Guardiola and Maurizio Sarri emphasize how their teams must retrieve the ball as quickly as possible, a distinct contrast to Pellegrini. The critics say that Pellegrini needs to “become brutal” to survive this season in England, both in his docile personality and in his side’s physicality and activity out of possession. His struggles at West Ham this season doesn’t diminish his Premier League title four years ago, as Mourinho reminded us. European soccer became more brutal, and Pellegrini’s geometry never changed.