Football Features

Manuel Pellegrini: La Liga’s suave veteran Hollywood star leading Real Betis’ revolution

By Ruairidh Barlow

Published: 17:12, 8 December 2021


As time eats away at us all many, if not most, actors wither a little.

It’s a rule that applies both to their stardom and their ability to maintain success in a ruthless industry that is almost by definition ageist. There is, however, the rare exception. The suave, veteran Hollywood star that is not immune to the ageing process but instead uses it to their advantage, adapting and finding a way to apply their ingenuity to their new roles.

They become revered institutions in their own right, a charming addition to whichever production they grace.

In Seville, Manuel Pellegrini cuts that very figure. The eldest statesman of La Liga is the chief catalyst behind Real Betis’ ascent from 15th in 2020 to sixth last season. Despite the added complication of the Europa League this year, they now lie third.

Statistically, he is their best ever manager. No manager of the club with more than 20 matches to their name can boast a win rate of 52.3% – only last season’s top four have more points than Betis in 2021 (72). That run has them a point ahead of reigning Spanish champions Atlético Madrid in the table, with a seven-point cushion between themselves and Barcelona.

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It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how this revolution has happened: there are no obtuse differences that analysts can hold up to the audience by way of explanation. Like those venerated film stars, Pellegrini hasn’t been outdated by new techniques and changes within the business. Instead, his ability to make the world a simpler place for his players continues to flourish. Much more than a tactical method to which Los Verdiblancos are married, the mantra that Pellegrini preaches is a way of thinking.

Within the camp, the phrase repeated like a prayer is ‘cabeza fria’ [cool head]. A picture of tranquillity himself, Pellegrini has transmitted this quality through the squad ahead of any other ideas. The Chilean knows he can organise a team, where he focuses his attention on teaching his players to think like a big club. Before the recent victory against Barcelona at Camp Nou, Betis’ final training session had ended in applause: “We told them we were going to beat Barcelona.”

If forced to put Pellegrini’s team into a box, the labels on it wouldn’t reference pressing or direct or possession football. It’s less of a universal positional approach, more an attitude of adventure. Although he shows a particular penchant for a marauding full-back, few managers don’t nowadays. Real Betis handle the ball well, defend as a block often and always show an ambition to win. Often beginning with a lopsided 4-2-3-1, this morphs and moulds to the needs of the game and by proxy, the position of Sergio Canales within that structure.

Across the entire Betis squad, there’s a case to be made that every single player has performed to a higher standard since ‘El Ingeniero‘ (‘The Engineer’) arrived. Uniting artisan footballers like Nabil Fekir and Canales is a luxury for any manager but it’s everything around them that is so promising. Composed largely of disrespected and sometimes disdained veterans, the defence is competitive. Places in the starting line-up come at a premium.

William Carvalho, once again at the level that sustained so many links to the Premier League, struggles with Mexico captain Andrés Guardado and Copa América winner Guido Rodríguez for minutes. Across the team, every position is keenly contested and therefore constantly under threat.

Take for example substitute Juanmi. Or at least that is what everyone thought he was, especially after going a month with a singular league start. Like an antidote to the attackers of the modern game, the former Southampton forward has no standout physical attributes, nor does he pass or dribble with any special dexterity. In all honesty, the 28-year-old doesn’t even have an established position. With Juanmi, it’s all about patience. Most regularly on the left side, Juanmi jogs into position – maybe pauses in place for a second – before the ball arrives for the finish. Coolness personified, intelligence in relatively slow motion.

Vinícius and Karim Benzema represent the complement of players that can better his nine La Liga goals, an exclusive table to be dining at. Not even the best two players in Spain so far can better his goals per 90 minutes ratio (1.00). Outperforming his xG by a mighty 4.59, if this trend becomes permanent the whispers of a national call-up may develop into a noisy debate. With Fekir second in La Liga for shot-creating actions (73) and Canales fourth for progressive carries (106), the metrics confirm Betis’ ambition to win come who may.

All of these measures of success and the atmosphere of revelry did not arrive without a slog. The victory over Barcelona and their league position come almost exactly a year after Pellegrini was timidly asked if he had considered stepping aside. Posed off the back of seven defeats in nine games, at the time it didn’t seem as surreal as it does now. Naturally, Pellegrini rejected this notion. Remarkably, his answer showed no concern nor hostility to the question. Pellegrini, unfazed, matter-of-factly explained that he was more determined in his work because of the results.

After a poor week of three straight defeats recently, he told the players that they weren’t as good as people said before and they’re not as bad as people will say now. That consistency, the refusal to be swayed by success or setback, is as close as you can get to a magic touch in this story.

Becoming ever more Hollywood, football desires new ideas and fresh philosophies in its managers. Every manager must be an intense ideologue. Pellegrini is one of the few who survive through the eras. The Chilean has honed his craft to the point that directors keep going back to him ahead of more fashionable options.

Disarming with his charm, Pellegrini continues to manage football teams with the same class he always has. The position of Real Betis tells you that not many do it better.

Article produced by Ruairidh Barlow in partnership with La Liga Lowdown, your home for Spanish football in English with reporters based in Spain. Find them on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown

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