In a world where Donald Trump leads a presidential nomination race and Claudio Ranieri wins the Premier League, the argument whether nice guys do actually finish last becomes increasingly divisive. The image of a self-loving magnate rallying an overzealous crowd, against one of an endearing father figure hoisting a trophy with his underdog team, are contrasting enough to begin with. To witness these incredible events at the same time simply boggles the mind. What a time to be alive.
But this is not about The Donald™ or Signor Ranieri. This is about a slightly more reserved man, who, at the time of writing, is probably at home spending some quiet family time in Santiago, Chile after what has possibly been the longest season of his career.
This is about the most charming man in football, Manuel Pellegrini.
I am, of course, biased in labelling him as such. I support the club he has just spent three seasons with, Manchester City FC. But not many would disagree.
Pellegrini has been an absolute gentleman throughout his time in England. He was always respectful of the opponents (sometimes too much). He was always warm and affable with the journalists. And most importantly, he was always open, engaging, and approachable to the players. City supporters loved him, and others had a hard time hating him. He was Mr. Nice Guy.
But was he too nice? Was he too tame in managing the millionaire footballers he was in charge of? Had his approach led to complacency among the players?
These are some of the questions that have been heavily debated by football pundits and fans — these two are interchangeable — towards the end of his third, and arguably most tumultuous rollercoaster of a season with the club.
Perhaps the answers lie in the following three lessons in management from Pellegrini’s time and Manchester City. Lessons that might not only be relevant to football teams but also organisations in general.
1. Keep calm and win the league
When Pellegrini joined City in June 2013, he inherited a team of players who were at the peak of their career but had not maximised their potential. Additionally, some players had fallen out with the previous manager Roberto Mancini, a more emotionally-charged figure. The squad was divided, and this affair was, unfortunately, less than private with the media harping on it to no end. Thus, the introduction of a likeable personality like Pellegrini in the changing room was a breath of fresh air, and brought in some much-needed stability.
He became an instant hit. Pellegrini shaped the team to play breathtaking football, and the 2013/14 season was a record-breaking season for the club. City became the fastest club in the league to score 100 goals in all competition, the first to do it by mid-season, and went on to lift the Premier League trophy for the second time in its history.
The feat, however, did not come easy. They had to compete for the title with Liverpool whose players were in the form of their lives, rallied by the unending devotion of their loyal supporters who, despite their illustrious history, have yet to taste the glory of winning the Premier League title.
It was a cat-and-mouse race between City and Liverpool, with one team overtaking the other at the top of the table towards the end of the season. The drama was enthralling for football fans in general, but not good for the hearts of the supporters of both clubs.
The glaring difference, however, was in the manner in which Pellegrini and his Liverpool counterpart Brendan Rodgers approached the two-horse race. Pellegrini appeared to have maintained his composure well throughout the campaign; downplaying their chances at every opportunity, while highlighting their focus on each game, one at a time. Some call it mind games, while others, just see it as ‘slow and steady winning the race’.
Rodgers, on the other hand, was a bit public about his feelings. And this, at times, was perceived as over-confidence from his end. A reputation that would prove to cost him dearly… not to mention a plethora of quotes in the unforgiving media that would haunt him later. (E.g. “My biggest mentor is myself because I’ve had to study, and that’s been my biggest influence.”)
Pellegrini’s composure can be attributed to his 25-year experience in management. But you don’t need two decades to develop self-control — although it helps. The stress of managing a football club is unimaginable. Nevertheless, any visible sign of a leader cracking up under pressure can easily destabilise his team. And this applies beyond football.
Sure Pellegrini’s less colourful character made his press conferences dry and monotonous. But ask any football fan and few would prefer winning the media over winning matches. Pellegrini can be credited for handling the emotions well, and absorbing the pressure which, in turn, had allowed his team to play some of the best football ever played in Manchester City blue.
2. “I prefer to lose a title than lose my word.”
In February 2016, Manchester City won the Capital One Cup after beating Liverpool (again, sorry) on penalties at Wembley. The hero of the day was one Willy Caballero, City’s second choice goalkeeper.
Just before the final, Caballero was the man in goal for City in a 1 – 5 drubbing at home to Chelsea in the FA Cup. In his previous league game for the club, City lost 1 – 4 to Tottenham Hotspur. So he was not exactly the best goalkeeper in the team, let alone in the league.
In the Capital One Cup, however, Caballero had played all the matches leading to the final. Fans were torn about having him in between the posts, mostly opting for first choice Joe Hart, England’s Number 1. While Caballero deserved to play in the final, given his contribution in the tournament, he was not in his best form and a trophy was at stake. You simply want your best XI in such an important game, sentiments aside.
Pellegrini, however, was firmly decisive on who he wants to play in goal that evening. And from his track record, the supporters can realistically expect this. So there were no surprises when Caballero’s name was announced in the starting XI teamsheet an hour before the game. Supporters were worried, but not surprised. It was practically Pellegrini and Caballero against the world… as if football managers were not prone enough to fingers pointing at them already.
After 90 minutes, the game levelled at 1 – 1, and after extra time, the match went on to penalties. Out of the four penalties taken by Liverpool, Caballero saved three, winning City its first silverware of the season. He was thrown into the air as the hero of the day, and the football community could only apologise profusely to Manuel and Willy.
The experience would go down in football history as an invaluable lesson in loyalty. The story had all the narratives of sticking to your man and staying true to your word. It might not be the popular decision, but it could well be the right decision. The call did not come without a risk. But it was a well-calculated move that seems to balance the interests of all the stakeholders involved. Plus it is him and his backroom staff, and not us supporters who deals with the players every day.
“I prefer to lose the title than lose my word,” said Pellegrini after the game. “My word is more important than football.”
3. When succession hampers success
Midway through the recent 2015/16 season, Pellegrini’s third season with Manchester City, one of the biggest news of club’s history was announced. Pep Guardiola, one of the most-wanted managers in the world, was announced to become the next manager for the club, in the 2016/17 season. And this announcement was confirmed at a press conference by none other than Pellegrini himself.
The breaking news, while exciting for the club’s supporters, did not come without questions surrounding its timing. City were still well in the running for four trophies at the time, including the holy grail, the UEFA Champions League. The decision to make such an announcement during a time when so much was still at stake worried the supporters, given its potential impact to the harmony within the squad. Will the players give their all, when their future with the club is in limbo?
City’s performance went downhill pursuant to the announcement. Apart from winning the Capital One Cup, City meekly surrendered to Chelsea in the FA Cup, bowed away to Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-final (the furthest they’d ever made in the competition), and just about made it to the top four of the Premier League.
It was an underwhelming achievement given the investments made by the club. Many attributed to the Guardiola announcement as the turning point of the season. Pellegrini recently provided his take on the matter in an interview after his last final and farewell match for the club.
“One of the most difficult things to finish this season was after they announced this club will change (manager) next season, was the atmosphere inside the team,” he said.
“Of course, it is not easy when you are at that moment involved in all competitions for the players to read every day that “11 players will go out, these are coming, these are finished”,” he added.
The announcement was made early with the intent of clearing the air over the speculations made over Guardiola’s arrival at City. The aim of the official statement was for everyone to get over the gossip and go back to work. None of these happened, and the opposite materialised instead. On several occasions, the players looked casual or even uninterested on the pitch.
The announcement had only further amplified the uncertainties surrounding the players, and one could only wonder if things would have turned out differently had the rumour of Guardiola’s move to City been left to take a life of its own as just that: a rumour. Then again, ‘differently’ could also mean worse off. Hindsight is always 20/20.
This Charming Man
Manuel Pellegrini’s tenure at Manchester City began brightly with the team playing some of the most explosive football that the league had ever seen. He transformed the squad into a unit that was effectively breaking record after record like nobody’s business. The promise was for him to deliver five trophies within his 5-year contract. And with three trophies in three years, it’s fair to say that he has reached his target.
The end of the Pellegrini Era, however, was somewhat marred by the underperformance of the players, who never really had to bear the brunt of the supporters’ wrath. The manager was consistently the easy target, but Pellegrini has always been mature, professional, and accommodating in receiving harsh criticism from the fans and the media. Never once did he deflect the blame to the referees, unlike the majority of his counterparts in the league.
Pellegrini shall forever be remembered as one of the more likeable figures in the league, and there has been few of these… for good reason. As far as football managers go, Pellegrini is the exception and not the rule. He stands out because he is the nice guy out of a sea of fiery managers out there in the game today. And supporters buy into this visible emotion as it easily translates into passion. No fan likes to see his or her team lose, but most can swallow the bitter pill of losing out after a good fight.
As a City supporter myself, while there was always Pellegrini the manager whom I would vehemently question, there was also always Pellegrini the person whom I would endlessly love.