Why is Manuel Pellegrini one of the best — and most underrated — coaches in the world?

SEVILLE, Spain — When Manuel Pellegrini folds his lanky frame into a chair at the Real Betis training facility, he has time on his mind. He isn’t hurried, but his clock is ticking. The Betis manager has a Europa League match on Thursday, Girona at the weekend, and training sessions between. And he’d like to get to the Museo de Bellas Artes to see paintings by Zurbaran and Goya.

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Like all successful football managers, Pellegrini is fully consumed. But he isn’t fully consumed by football. “It is not all I have,” he says. “You immerse yourself in reading, in art, in the beach.” Those are his priorities, as urgent as preparations for his next opponent. “I always try to live as though I have just one day left,” he says. “Because I don’t know what will happen tomorrow.”

As a manager, Pellegrini isn’t often mentioned with Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, Jurgen Klopp or Carlo Ancelotti because he doesn’t have the hardware. He hasn’t won the Champions League. Despite working in Spain for parts of 11 seasons, he hasn’t even won LaLiga. In his second season at West Ham, his last Premier League stop, he was sacked before Christmas. Still, few managers have won as often as the 69-year-old Chilean. Across all circumstances, maybe nobody has.

He has done it in unique fashion, too. He found time to earn a degree in civil engineering, and then work for years in that profession, even as he was embarking on coaching. He visits art museums wherever he travels, took a managerial job in China so he could immerse himself in that culture, flew to Spain for a day while living in Manchester to swim in the Mediterranean. Such an approach over the course of a lifetime has not only fulfilled him, it has helped win football games. “If I needed to change my style of life and care about only football,” he says, “I could not be a successful manager.”

Nearly everywhere he has gone, Pellegrini has been successful. As a young manager in South America, he won the Copa Sudamericana, the Ecuadorian title, the Argentina Clausura. Since crossing the Atlantic in 2004, he has worked at six European clubs. At four of them, he has the highest winning percentage of any manager in their history.

Pellegrini has won at historically undersized clubs, like Villarreal and Malaga. He has won at Real Madrid, where he amassed more points in a single season than any manager there ever had. During the three years he spent at Manchester City, revving the engine for Pep Guardiola, he won the Premier League and two League Cups. He left with such grace that Khaldoon Al Mubarak, who runs the club, bought him a painting by L.S. Lowry, a renowned British artist Pellegrini admired.

Pellegrini wins with stars. He managed Cristiano Ronaldo, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Raul, Sergio Aguero, Karim Benzema and Kaka. He’s one of the few managers who is able to gain respect from even the most intractable talents. “I’ve never had a problem,” he says.

He also wins with unknowns. Looking back, you’ll find famous names on many of his team sheets, but most of those weren’t famous when Pellegrini arrived. “He has a way of bringing out the best in every player,” says the recently retired Argentine striker Gonzalo Higuain, who was two years into his European career when he played for Pellegrini at Real Madrid. “I was very young, and we made a quick connection. He knew how to take individuals and make them into a group. I enjoyed playing for him very much.”

Now Pellegrini is winning at Betis, a club so steeped in failure that its motto in the Andalusian dialect is manqué pierda. That shows up on Wikipedia as “even when they lose,” but it’s wrong. It’s “although they lose,” with an emphasis on the inevitable. Betis did manage to win the Spanish championship … in 1934. They haven’t even finished second since then.

In the decade preceding Pellegrini’s arrival, Betis sacked its manager on average every year. In 2019, they finished 15th, playing in their usual dismal style. Then Pellegrini took charge. He made no dramatic player moves, performed no drastic stylistic makeover, but lit a spark and led the club to fifth place.

“When he came in, everyone said he should change the system,” says Betis’s Rodri, who isn’t even the best-known Rodri among Spanish footballers. “But he didn’t. He just gave everyone their opportunity.”

In Pellegrini’s second season, Betis won the Copa Del Rey for just the third time ever. Joaquin, the captain and a childhood supporter, cried from the joy. “Let’s enjoy the moment,” he said. He dedicated the trophy to the team’s staff, the coaches and even the cooks.

This year, Betis suddenly is in the thick of the battle for the Champions League, a competition they’ve qualified for only once in their history. On the eve of Sunday’s emotional battle against Sevilla, renowned as the most intense derby in Spain, Betis stands even with third-place Atletico de Madrid at 23 points: seven points behind Barcelona, eight behind Real Madrid.

Staying there won’t be easy — Real Sociedad, Athletic Bilbao and Osasuna are all within three points. And Betis, not a squad deep with talent, also has Europa League games to play. After trampling through its group, it will be seeded for the knockout stage.

The idea of winning LaLiga ahead of superclubs Real Madrid and Barcelona remains unlikely, if not laughable. Nevertheless, given the squad full of marginal talents Pellegrini inherited at Betis, he might be in the process of creating the capstone of his career. It’s yet another triumph for a system that depends less on strategic innovation than treating his players like the grown-ups he assumes them to be.

Because, as he always reminds his players, there’s more to life than football for footballers, too.

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Valencia’s Yunus Musah misses a crucial penalty as Real Betis goes a perfect 5-for-5 to win the Copa del Rey title.

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Pellegrini is nicknamed “The Engineer,” for the obvious reason that he is, in fact, an engineer. But he believes he has the soul of a painter, or maybe a piano player. He is motivated by aesthetics, whether he finds that in the Italian Renaissance portraits he favors or a perfectly delivered cross with a spectacular finish. “In how I want my team to play, I try to reflect the admiration I have for artists and art,” he says.

Ugly football depresses him. Last winter, Betis traveled to Rayo Vallecano for a Copa del Rey semifinal. As Pellegrini stood on the rutted, poorly groomed field before the game, he felt his anger rise. “The people are buying a ticket to see entertainment,” he says. “They pay for the television rights to see an entertaining game. It isn’t that a pitch like this will damage our team. No! It’s that it will damage LaLiga. It will do damage to football.”

Unai Emery, who has coached more games against him than anyone else, says Pellegrini’s teams invariably reflect the personality of their manager. They are organized and mobile, confident enough to be creative, aware of their talent. “The idea is always the same,” says Joaquin, who played for him at Malaga and now at Betis. “To have an aggressive team that plays aggressive football, that leaves the changing room with every intention of winning. The philosophy of Manuel Pellegrini is definitive. He manages happy teams that find ways to win.”

And yet, Joaquin adds, Pellegrini has evolved since Malaga. “He has modernized because football has modernized,” he says. In Pellegrini’s 34th season, he might be a better manager than ever, which is not something that might have been said before about anyone else. “I should be,” Pellegrini responds with a smile. “I always try to keep improving. I try to improve every day.”

That started while he was at Universidad de Chile. In 1988, his first season as a manager after 13 years there as a player, he enrolled in a coaching course in England to get a step ahead. For nearly a month, he immersed himself in the tactics and strategies of the English game at the esteemed Lilleshall National Sports and Conferencing Centre in Shropshire. He returned home with a new perspective.

He also returned home to Universidad’s last game because the Chilean league was still in season at the time. While he was away, his club had played three games and lost them all. On the final day, Universidad lost again and was relegated for the first time in its history — because of goal difference. That difference? A single goal.

Pellegrini was contrite but not regretful. He was confident that his managerial future would be far from Chile. At Lilleshall, he’d learned how to create an attack in tight spaces, a tactical weapon he would carry with him everywhere he went. “Very, very important for my career,” he stresses. “The small spaces, the possession, the moving, that all started when I was in England. And I brought it back to South America, and I kept working on it.” Years after Lilleshall, he described taking the course as the best decision he’d ever made.

By 2001, Pellegrini was managing Argentina’s San Lorenzo, his seventh club. He taught his players what he’d learned in England, including ways of moving without the ball that weren’t in fashion in South America at the time. “There were some doubts from the players in the beginning,” he says. “But when they started working that way and they liked it, everything changed.”

Pellegrini has a vision of what he wants his teams to look like on the field — backs filling spaces vacated by wingers, constant movement in the penalty area. But unlike many managers, he won’t demand that they play in a favored formation, or rely on a predetermined strategy. From one season to the next, he assesses with fresh eyes. “Every year I start from zero,” he says.

Once he understands what he has, he works out how everyone will contribute. And then — and this is the crucial step, he makes that clear, “Players who don’t play too much, it’s natural that they become dissatisfied,” Joaquin says. “Manuel explains to each player inside the changing room what his role will be, and why he is important.”

It’s part of his philosophy of treating his adults like adults. It works at small clubs, where there is little expectation of achievement, and maybe even better at the biggest clubs. “A lot of people think it’s more difficult when you have a lot of successful players,” Pellegrini says. “For me, maybe 90% of being a successful manager is the way you manage the group. So you must know the personalities. How is the personality of Raul different from Cristiano Ronaldo, and different from Borja Iglesias?”

Pellegrini brings players just close enough to know their character. To his face, they call him the “Mister,” the term of respect for football managers in Spain. When he’s not around, they tend to act as if he was.

If there’s a problem inside a club, he’ll often start by doing nothing. “He has the patience to say, ‘Let’s wait two or three days,'” says David Alvarez, the athletic trainer at Betis, who worked with Guardiola at Barcelona and later at NYCFC. “If you don’t know him, maybe you think, ‘That coach is letting it fester.’ But he saw it. He knows what’s happening. His way to sort it out is to wait until exactly the right time. He doesn’t feel the pressure to hurry.”

“I know when I must talk, and when I shouldn’t say anything,” Pellegrini says. “And those moments, when you make those decisions and then communicate with the players in the proper way, those are the most important moments you have as a manager.”

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Pellegrini was already a mid-life manager, almost as old as Pep Guardiola is now at 51 years old, when he won Argentina’s Clausura while at River Plate. At that moment, he knew he needed to leave for Europe.

In his case, Europe meant an obscure Spanish city of 50,000, a club that had debuted in LaLiga only five years before, and a salary that was less than a third of an offer he had on the table from Mexico. He describes Villarreal C.F. as “a very small team in a very small town.” It didn’t matter. It gave him a bridge from South America exactly when he needed it. He was ready to learn if he could compete with the best in his profession.

Pellegrini’s first Villarreal team didn’t win a game in LaLiga until its sixth attempt. Somehow, that team finished third, behind Barcelona and Real Madrid. In 2005-06, Villarreal won a Champions League group that included Manchester United and Benfica. They beat Rangers and Inter Milan in the elimination rounds, then lost to Arsenal 1-0 in a semifinal.

In 2008, they finished second in LaLiga, ahead of Barcelona. The whole thing was like a fairy tale. Even today, Pellegrini gets emotional when he sees the yellow shirts. “It’s a club I will never forget,” he says. He thought he could stay at Villarreal forever. But Real Madrid came calling.

The understated Pellegrini wasn’t a perfect fit for the Bernabeu, but who is? Real Madrid wants its managers to live and die with the club. Then it grinds them up and spits them out regardless. Hired in 2009, Pellegrini was already the 10th Real Madrid manager of the 21st century.

He lasted a single season. Despite losing Cristiano Ronaldo for nearly two months, it was one of Real Madrid’s most productive in its history: a club record of 96 points in LaLiga, including a run of 12 wins in a row from January to April. But that streak ended with a season-defining 2-0 loss to Guardiola’s Barcelona — with Messi, Xavi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic — in Madrid. It gave Barcelona a lead it never relinquished. It didn’t matter that those 96 points were the most ever recorded by a second-place team in the history of any of Europe’s top five leagues.

“Imagine,” Higuain says, “you get 96 points and you don’t win because there was maybe the best Barcelona team ever. That’s a locura-craziness. He had terrible luck.”

One game early in Pellegrini’s tenure stands out by its sheer illogic. On Oct. 27, 2009, his team traveled to the suburb of Alcorcon, a place so close to the capital that buses run between them regularly. Real Madrid was matched in the first round of the Copa del Rey against the local team, AD Alcorcon, which played in Segunda B, the third level of Spanish football. It was the first match against a LaLiga club in Alcorcon’s history.

The game would gain unending fame in Spain as the alcorconazo. Real Madrid lost to a Segunda B team. Just that result would be the biggest embarrassment Real Madrid had experienced in years, maybe throughout its history. But not only did they lose, they lost so decisively — 4-0 — that they were unable to make up the margin in the return match. It was only the Copa del Rey, never a priority for the Galacticos. But there are many who say that, whatever might have happened the rest of the season, Pellegrini’s tenure at the Bernabeu was doomed that night.

To date, Pellegrini’s most visible triumph has been at Manchester City, where he won the Premier League. But what he did before that at diminutive Malaga might have been more remarkable.

Abdullah al-Thani, a Qatari sheikh, bought the club with the intent of challenging Real Madrid and Barcelona. He brought in big names — van Nistelrooy and Isco, Nacho Monreal and Santi Cazorla. Then he abruptly changed course, and everyone but Isco was gone.

In 2011-12, Pellegrini managed Malaga the way he’d managed Real Madrid, guiding them into the Champions League. The next season, with everyone gone but Isco, he tightened his formation into a tidy 4-4-2. He didn’t have the depth to compete over LaLiga’s full schedule, so he directed his focus on Europe. In the end, Malaga — Malaga! — advanced through the Champions League group stage and into the quarterfinals.

At City, Pellegrini was probably the longest-serving caretaker manager in football history. Former Barcelona executives Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain, the chief executive and sporting director, respectively, were stalking Guardiola. “We’ll hire you if Pep won’t come,” they told Pellegrini. Over three seasons, Pellegrini lifted City to a level at which Guardiola would be a reasonable fit. In that sense, Soriano has said, Pellegrini is responsible for everything that came after.

City had won its first Premier League under Roberto Mancini. Despite that, the club was a mess. In the early years of the Emirati regime, there were big signings and contract disputes and the public pursuit of Guardiola, all punctuated by Mancini’s volatility. “We were used to chaos,” says goalkeeper Joe Hart, now at Celtic. Pellegrini brought calm and simplicity. “You win the game when you let the good players play,” Pellegrini explains. “They make the difference.”

In Manchester, he won with an explosive attack that reached 100 goals faster than any team in Premier League history. “We played amazing football, attacking football,” right back Pablo Zabaleta says. “We controlled the game, fullbacks overlapping all the time. He trusts players who have the talent to be creative,”

So what happened at West Ham? It is the sole blemish on Pellegrini’s career, the one stop where his methodology didn’t work. He inherited a team that had finished 13th, and he couldn’t do markedly better, finishing 10th in his only full season. He had talented players — the young Declan Rice, Javier Hernandez, Arnautovic — but couldn’t piece them into a coherent whole.

“The Premier League is not like Spain, where if you have three or four special players, they can make the difference,” says Zabaleta, who followed him to West Ham. Pellegrini makes no excuses. He regrets only that he didn’t finish out the season, for the first time since he arrived in Europe.

Betis has washed the memory clean. Nowhere he has been was a better fit than Seville, a city of transcendent beauty and fairs and festivals where work and pleasure find a natural equilibrium. The Beticos are among the most fervent fans in Europe, responding to even incremental gains with an outpouring of emotion. In Pellegrini, they have found their lodestar. He is adored, especially because, for the first time in decades, Betis is up and Sevilla is down.

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Have you seen Pellegrini lately? Standing still on the touchline in a tight black shirt and sneakers, he looks like an aging rock legend, Rod Stewart’s hair cascading down toward Ronnie Wood’s crags. His tranquility seems preternatural; Iglesias, who has been playing for him since 2020, says he has never heard him raise his voice.

“Engineering orders your mind,” Pellegrini says. “It makes you understand how you must think to be successful. To understand the priority of the problems in front of you. When you make a decision in a tense moment, you must be cold, not hot. You must think like an engineer.”

He observes the game with his arms folded, gesturing only occasionally. Is Betis winning? Losing? It’s hard to tell. “In a difficult moment, he takes a pause,” Joaquin says. “He talks to us. It makes us calm. And when a player is calm, with a free mind, he plays better. If we have a secret to what we are doing, that’s what it is.”

In Helsinki earlier this season for a Europa League game, he observed an overmatched HJK Helsinki side frustrate his attack for a scoreless 45 minutes. In the changing room at halftime, he quietly suggested overlaps and underlaps, urging backs to fill vacated spaces. The final was Betis 2-0 with both goals from the resurrected Willian Jose, a player with experience at Real Madrid, Real Sociedad and Wolves.

Pellegrini is enjoying the ride. With his 70th birthday around the bend, he is not contemplating retirement. Everything he would do, he points out, he is doing already. “Reading, traveling, visiting museums, the beach,” he says. “How many years I have left, I don’t know. But I will always want to manage.”

His body of work is less like that of a manager than a painter or an author. He has his acknowledged classics, his underrated gems, the one or two noble failures. Some of his admirers, including many leading managers, marvel at what he accomplished at Villarreal or Malaga. Others extol the way he conducted himself at Manchester City. Klopp has called him “one of the most successful managers on the planet.” Guardiola pronounced himself a “huge fan.”

Nearly everyone, it seems, is rooting for him to take Betis somewhere special. To Pellegrini, those good feelings are worth more than any trophy. “I am not trying to demonstrate anything,” he says.

To anyone who has been paying attention, he has demonstrated enough. Asked where Pellegrini fits in the managerial pantheon, Unai Emery spreads his arms wide, a shoulders-shrugged emoji come to life, as if to make it clear how simple the answer is. “I think,” he says, “he’s the best in the world.”

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