“Sheikh Mansour went to Spain in a Lamborghini, brought us back a manager, Manuel Pellegrini.”
That was the chant that used to ring out across the Etihad on a weekly basis from Manchester City fans for their former gaffer and it was a chant that only intensified in noise and meaning as the Chilean guided the Blues to a Premier League title in his first season in charge. Let’s not forget too – because for some reason it has been largely forgotten – that it was a title won in some considerable style with a team that put six past Arsenal, six past Spurs and four against Manchester United. All told there were 102 goals scored in the league alone that year, just four less than Guardiola’s all-conquering team managed this term.
Why then is the 64-year-old not regarded in the highest esteem by the City fan-base? After all, as introductory seasons go that’s as spectacular as it gets surely? It’s certainly enough to place him on the same plateau of affection that Roberto Mancini and Pep Guardiola are held – his predecessor and successor who also brought in league championships – yet instead a manager who inhabited the dug-out for a third of City’s post-takeover era elicits mostly apathy. Yes there remains a fair few who didn’t rate him and who have stuck to their guns on that, and yes a few more openly admired him. But in comparison to his direct peers Pellegrini is afforded no extremes. He was a stop-gap. A caretaker.
So what the hell happened in the following two years to diminish a standing that was destined for legendary status? There are no easy answers to that. In fact things are going to get a little muddled from here on in.
This week Pellegrini has signed a three-year contract to take charge at the London Stadium and West Ham supporters are rightfully viewing this as a significant coup. They’re excited because they know the basics about his style of management. They know too about his achievements and how they were achieved.
When he joined City back in the summer of 2013 that was pretty much the summation of our knowledge also, minus of course his relative success in England that was still to come. For those ignorant to his impressive track record in South America and then beyond, the La Liga buffs in the ranks soon caught the rest up to his staggering work at Villarreal, where he briefly broke up the Real Madrid/Barcelona duopoly with a second place finish, and his guiding of Malaga to an unprecedented Champions League spot. Once that was established we were informed of two facts: that he favoured attacking, attractive football and that his nickname was the ‘Engineer’ due to his methodical, esoteric studying of the game. Only one of these turned out to be fitting.
During that 2013/14 season Yaya Toure was little short of magnificent and bossed every midfield alongside new signing Fernandinho who settled immediately. Up front Alvaro Negredo enjoyed a stonking debut campaign and with Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko scoring for fun opponents were often swept aside in swashbuckling fashion. It was a blast and better yet Pellegrini was proving himself to be a welcome antidote to Mancini whose histrionics and divisive ways rankled at the end. By contrast the Chilean was unfailingly courteous and pleasant: a gentleman no less. A word of warning is due here though to Hammers everywhere because that pleasantry led to some seriously dull pressers. When placed under the media glare Pellegrini could send a hyperactive kitten to sleep.
That though was a very small price to pay and the second season was entered into with a huge dollop of optimism and this even after a compromising transfer window that disappointed at the time and greatly disappointed thereafter.
It was buoyancy that swiftly foundered because Toure had become mortal yet Pellegrini insisted on sticking with a two man midfield that not only exposed the Ivorian but in doing so exposed the defence behind him. On the rare occasions when a three-man midfield was employed City invariably looked in much better shape but Pellergini – in a similar manner to Sven Goran-Eriksson – seemed to have one set-up that he favoured and a severe reluctance to change it even when it was costly. Was this down to an intractable nature? Or was he limited? Doubts set in.
It was doubts that began towards the end of the previous season. In Munich in the last game of City’s Champions League group commitments a fourth goal against Bayern would have put the Blues top and thus avoiding a dangerous seed in the last 16. Instead – bafflingly – City played a final half hour negating their hosts with the entire coaching staff unaware that finishing top was possible.
As bizarre a sentence as this is to write it’s also one that happens to be true in this instance. An ‘Engineer’ – who reportedly spent every waking hour studying his opponents down to the finest detail – couldn’t count.
That second season was the very definition of a damp squib and consequently the song still chimed out but with notably less enthusiasm. City finished runners-up in the league. They exited the Champions League at the final 16 stage having been drawn with Barcelona.
The third season started brightly but soon reverted to what was now becoming type. On their day City could be imperious and wonderful to watch but with the complete absence of a plan B they unravelled before sides who had sussed them out. In November a wide-open formation against Liverpool had fans fearing the worst before the opening whistle and those fears swiftly manifested itself in a 4-1 drubbing with Jurgen Klopp coming out of it looking like a genius. He wasn’t. He simply set his side up as he always did and Pellegrini refused to compromise despite it clearly amounting to suicide.
That February it was officially announced that Pep Guardiola would be arriving at the season’s end and that was that for Manuel. It says something quite pertinent that his players stopped playing for him from that juncture onwards while the fans stopped caring enough even to resent him for his one-dimensional management. He departed to a half-empty stadium after the final home game. In truth he deserved better than that.
West Ham have every reason to be excited by their new appointment. His principles are sound and their array of attacking talent will flourish from the freedom he will afford them. But if things go awry don’t expect any tough decisions or changes made. The Engineer will just keep chug, chug, chugging on; a little bit lost but always unfailingly nice.