The Curious Case Of Manuel Pellegrini, The Manager Who Can’t Win Or Lose

Manchester City FC v VfL Borussia Monchengladbach - UEFA Champions League

It was right around when Manchester City went 1-0 down to Watford just about an hour into what had been a surprisingly close match this weekend when I began wondering Is Manuel Pellegrini about to be fired?

The question felt a bit strange when asked of a man who has largely met both of his big remits: winning and doing so with style. Yet halfway through a league season that early on looked to be theirs to run away withand hasn’t been, it seemed theoretically possible that a club as ambitious City would’ve judged their current manager ill-equipped to carry them across that final threshold into the super elite. But then I remembered that City have all but taken out a full-page ad in the Manchester Evening News expressing this very sentiment for over a year now, and that Pellegrini’s status as City coach has way more to do with the career choices of a certain other former La Liga manager than anything he himself does or doesn’t achieve. Manuel Pellegrini has very little to do with the fate of Manuel Pellegrini.

It would be difficult to argue that the Chilean coach is anything other than an exceptional manager. After making his name in South America, Pellegrini came to Spain, taking the Villarreal job, and was an instant success. During five seasons at Villarreal, he led the club to their highest ever finish in La Liga (second place, in 2007-08), got them qualified for the Champions League for the first time in their history, repeated the feat again, and even reached the semifinal of that competition once with the Yellow Submarine. Those exploits earned him a shot at Real Madrid, where he coached Cristiano Ronaldo in the Portuguese forward’s first year at the club. Despite being fired there after only a single season, Pellegrini was able to take a squad full of attackers and mold a cohesive unit out of it that earned the Blancos their most points ever in a league season at that time. Since it wasn’t enough to best peak Barcelona, he was cast aside. As his points record in Madrid and the instability there since he left demonstrate, the way things went down there impugn the club itself more than the coach.

Nevertheless, Pellegrini had been dismissed. He remained in Spain, taking over at nouveau riche Málaga. His success there mirrored his stint with Villarreal, as his Málaga team enjoyed their highest ever league finish, made it into the Champions League for the first time, where they overperformed by making it to the quarterfinals. That Pellegrini did all of this under an extremely tumultuous institutional regime (not only were Málaga’s riches new when he came aboard, they were also short-lived; club owner Abdullah ben Nasser Al Thani quickly decided he didn’t actually want to burn tens of millions of Euros every season making his team competitive and instead began selling off the most valuable players he had recently brought in) made his accomplishments all the more impressive.

That was the history of the man who took over for Roberto Mancini at Manchester City in the summer of 2013, one who had unquestionably earned his stripes at the level just a step or so below the game’s true pinnacle and acquitted himself pretty well during his brief spell in that most rarefied of air. Everywhere he’d been, Pellegrini brought improved performances, savvy transfer market dealings, a keen eye for spotting and developing young talent, an expressive and attractive style of play, and, if not trophies per se, then at least finishes impressive enough to feel like silverware. Pellegrini was quite nearly the perfect candidate to take City where they wanted to go.

That “quite nearly” business has always been the rub during Pellegrini’s time in Manchester, however. For as close to ideal as Pellegrini was, there was always City’s literal ideal, Pep Guardiola, wandering around just a fingertip’s length outside of their grasp.

When City’s new owners bought the club in 2008, they made it their express mission to replicate the environment that produced Guardiola’s Barcelona. In order to emulate that era of Barcelona in playing style, in homegrown talent, and in trophies, City sought out many of the prominent figures who had a hand in making it happen—hence the hiring of Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano, two former high-ranking Barcelona board members, as City’s director of football and C.E.O., respectively; hence the heavy investment in the youth academy; and hence the club’s unyielding pursuit of Guardiola himself.

Since Guardiola left Barcelona in 2012, City, like practically every other big club in Europe, have pined for the Catalan coach. The Sky Blues quietly-but-not-so-quietly pushed for his signature during his sabbatical away from the game while Mancini was still in charge (much to the Italian’schagrin), but were snubbed when he chose Bayern Munich in January of 2013. After missing out on him then, City settled for Pellegrini that summer. Their courtship of Guardiola hasn’t stopped since.

When times looked rough towards the end of Guardiola’s first season in Germany, coming off the back of Bayern’s humiliating 5-0 aggregate loss to Real Madrid in the Champions League semifinals, reports in Spain suggested that Guardiola more or less had an open offer from Begiristain to join City whenever he decided to ditch out on Germany. These rumors swirled about not even a month before Pellegrini would win the Premier League in his first season in England. While Guardiola’s second season in Germany went more smoothly, the manager still found himself the subject of all kinds of reports that he was Manchester bound, either as soon as that summer or not until the 2016-17 season, when his Bayern contract was set to expire. Pellegrini—who finished his second season in England with a comfortable though somewhat disappointing second-place spot in the league and was knocked out of the Champions League in the Round of 16 yet again—still received a one-year contract extension. To all appearances, the extension served as something of an apology to Pellegrini for the rampant and obviously true speculation that his bosses had spent so much time hunting down his replacement.

The cycle has continued this season, though what were Guardiola-to-City whispers are now a deafening din since the Spaniard has confirmed that he will not coach Bayern next season and has every intention of plying his trade in England. The odds overwhelmingly favor Guardiola finally taking up the offer of his old pals in City’s front office and coaching the Citizens next season. Under no conceivable circumstances could Pellegrini or his team do or win anything to convince the club leadership not to consummate this long-standing flirtation.

None of this is to say that City have done anything necessarily wrong here, or that Pellegrini deserves more deference for the job he’s done. There are sensible arguments that say, barring a return to the team’s early season form in the league resulting in another EPL title and a deep Champions League run, the Chilean should be fired in the summer regardless of whether the club lands Guardiola or not, just as there are sensible cases arguing the opposite. And Pep Guardiola is Pep Guardiola: the man who helmed one of the best club teams of all time, who took a Bayern team fresh off winning the treble and improved them, and who has inspired both of the last two World Cup winners, which featured players and tactics heavily indebted to Guardiola himself. Pellegrini has done well but not transcendently so, and with the money City can throw around, they have every right to demand something better. Nobody would argue that Guardiola isn’t exactly that.

And yet it’s still odd, watching City this weekend going down a goal against Watford—a match they eventually stormed back to win, mind you—or when losing to Everton in the League Cup yesterday—only a 2-1 scoreline, which sets them up pretty well for the return leg at home—and wondering if any of it really matters. With Guardiola’s figure looming so near on the horizon, it’s difficult to imagine that the club would sack Pellegrini midway through the current season, throwing away the continuity of his work in favor of a short-term replacement who likely wouldn’t do any better. In the other direction, the only cognizable turn of events that could see Pellegrini continuing on as City manager next year would be Guardiola choosing Manchester United as his English destination.

Pellegrini is locked in a strange limbo, a realm borne not of his own deeds but those of another. There’s nothing he can do to either win or lose his job. Seriously, City could win the treble themselves and if Guardiola still wanted the job, it would almost certainly be his—and for good reason. Does this make it easier for Pellegrini, removing the pressure endemic to the position? Is it harder, trying to motivate himself and his charges when everyone knows he’ll likely be gone soon no matter what? Luckily for him, this has largely been the case for the entirety of his tenure in Manchester, and he’s coped with it well so far. All Pellegrini can do is live in the present, for the future’s not up to him.


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