The Question: What Does Pellegrini Bring To Manchester City Tactically?

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With Manuel Pellegrini having spoken of a verbal agreement with Manchester City to take over as their new manager, Squawka scrutinises his philosophies and tactical evolution on European soil. What can the blue half of Manchester expect from the Chilean?


During the 2010/11 La Liga season, Villarreal (El Submarino Amarillo) finished in fourth place, thus qualifying for The Champions League. Many tactical gurus stood up and took note of the fantastic football being played at El Madrigal stadium. Villarreal’s attacking, fluid and magical football left many people in awe, shifting from a traditional 4-4-2 shape to a narrow, yet creative and adventurous 4-2-2-2, orchestrated by Juan Carlos Garrido.

However, Manuel Pellegrini used a similar strategy during the 2006 Champions League campaign (and throughout a significant part of his tenure) in which Villarreal reached the semi-final.

El Submarino Amarillo’s system under Pellegrini was primarily a 4-4-2 come 4-2-2-2 system with four defenders, two holding midfielders, with two advanced and creative players situated behind two strikers; a typical South American 4-2-2-2 when in possession, with the creative attacking midfielders retreating to either flank to help out in the defensive transition. A system revolving around a 4-4-2 when defending, morphing into a 4-2-2-2 in attack.

The key to the entire system revolves around the ‘interiores’ – wingers who move into central positions when their side have regained possession. While the central area of the pitch features a zone of creative talent when in possession, the interiores also have a crucial defensive duty; they are required to help out down either flank as soon as the team lose the ball.

As the interiores drift inside to position themselves close to either striker, forming intricate passing triangles, the wing-backs push forward to supply natural width. This can often force opposition full-backs to become extremely narrow, grouping up in a tight four man defence, which in turn exposes gaping holes throughout the wide zones. If the wing-backs decide to play safe, advancing slowly up either flank, both interiores have licence to drift out wide, dragging players with them and freeing themselves up for passes from deep. It’s this fluidity throughout the attacking zones that can cause teams all sorts of problems.

One obvious flaw when utilising creative and adventurous wing-backs is the space left behind them as they advance down either flank. Every system has a flaw, but Pellegrini attempted to counter such a threat by positioning two defensive midfielders slightly ahead of the central defenders. Their role was to guard the defence and remain central at all times; rarely did they attempt to move anywhere else. It was simply their job to remain central, guarding the defence, while also being available for any pass. A pivot for passes to be sprayed vertically, horizontally or diagonally, as well as keeping the defence solid with crucial blocks and interceptions.

As for the strikers, both should be blessed with great pace and off the ball movement, allowing them to link up superbly with both interiores and wing-backs. If one of the now central attacking midfielders drifted wide into available space not yet filled by an advancing wing-back, one of the strikers would drop deep into midfield, drawing out opposition defenders. This space would then be exploited by the other striker, or the second interiore surging into the box from deep.

While Manuel Pellegrini’s 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 was an impressive, creative and fluid attacking system, one must not forget the defensive aspects. Balance was needed, so a different shape was created when possession was lost. Manuel Pellegrini’s system (followed by Garrido) was incredibly fluid, with the wing-backs and interiores playing a crucial part throughout the attacking and defensive transitions. Off the ball movement, creativity and attacking intent; beautiful to watch.

Real Madrid

After five years at Villarreal, Pellegrini made the switch to Real Madrid but found his one year in charge a frustrating experience. Real Madrid’s effort to sign large global names forced Pellegrini to build a system around global stars, instead of purchasing players better suited to his tactical ideals and concepts.

The 4-2-3-1 formation was very much present during his time at Los Blancos, with the midfield diamond deployed on occasion, such is Pellegrini’s desire to utilise situational width rather than a fixed set of wide players. The diamond formation could be seen as a 4-2-2-2 with the central quartet rotated by ninety degrees, thus keeping in-line with his tactical ethos of a creative central midfield spine spearheaded by two strikers.

While Real Madrid were blessed with the likes of Kaka, Rafael van der Vaart and Cristiano Ronaldo, they finished the 2009/10 season empty-handed, leaving Pellegrini to say goodbye after less than a year in charge.


The most promising sign for any Manchester City fan must surely be Manuel Pellegrini’s tactical flexibility, shifting throughout a variety of formations during his tenure at Malaga. From the 4-3-1-2 formation that he often deployed at Villarreal when blessed with the creative talents of Riquelme, to his usual 4-2-2-2 with Isco and Eliseu as the two hard-working interiores. As well as the two aforementioned formations, Pellegrini utilised the 4-2-3-1 formation superbly to beat Valencia 4-0 last November (see image below), while also deploying conservative 4-4-2 / 4-4-1-1 formations throughout Malaga’s successful 2012/13 Champions League campaign.

While the injury to Eliseu mid-way through this season forced Pellegrini’s hand somewhat, changing from his traditional 4-2-2-2 to a 4-4-2 diamond, the switch highlighted what an astute tactician the 59-year-old really is. Eliseu had given Malaga drive, energy and defensive cover down the left hand flank, but the switch to the midfield diamond allowed Isco to dictate play in a far more advanced position – a position he thrived in, scoring nine goals in 37 appearances.

Manchester City?

While we can all make assumptions about Manuel Pellegrini’s possible formation at Manchester City, it will probably morph depending on various factors – opposition and squad injuries. In contrast, Roberto Mancini’s efforts to utilise the 3-4-3 formation during the 2012/13 season (having trialled it throughout pre-season) rarely worked.

So what can we conclude? Well, Manuel Pellegrini’s preferred philosophy has often included:

  1. Overlapping and adventurous wing-backs.
  2. A creative central midfield quartet. Two reliable defensive midfielders with a wide range of passing, positioned behind two advanced tricky players.
  3. Two free roaming strikers.

All wrapped up in either a 4-2-2-2 come 4-4-2 formation, with the midfield diamond and 4-2-3-1 formations thrown in for good measure. A creative and imaginative framework centred around a solid defensive foundation. Sounds good doesn’t it Manchester City fans?

Sam Johnson
Sam Johnson


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