Red Hot Chilean: The man who lives for the 'yellow submarine'

Manuel Pellegrini is the highly regarded Villarreal coach who has guided his club from a domestic backwater to Europe's high seas. In an exclusive interview he tells Andy Mitten about his belief in beautiful football, his interests outside the game - and why his side won't be overawed at Highbury tonight
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Villarreal's beleaguered press officer was taking stock of a manic few days at the end of last week at their state-of-the-art training ground. "We've never had so much interest," she said. "Requests from media all over Europe, South America and many calls from Japanese magazines with similar sounding names."

Thankfully for fans of Europe's surprise Champions' League semi-finalists, there was no sign of similar stress levels on the faces of the first team practising in the Mediterranean morning sun. They were listening to instructions from a tall and relaxed figure, their Chilean coach Manuel Pellegrini, who was enjoying his role as referee.

A cartoon in a Spanish magazine last week summed up Villarreal's current position. A yellow submarine - the club's nickname - was voyaging to Paris captained by Pellegrini. "We can see the Eiffel Tower," says the cartoon Pellegrini, peering through the periscope. That is Villarreal; the team from a town no one knew sneaking up on Europe's biggest prize while the bigger ships do battle above the water. Tonight the submarine berths at Highbury where Pellegrini's side, a hybrid of Spanish and South American talent, meet Arsenal.

"We're not surprised at our progress, not at all," says the urbane Pellegrini a little later after training in a room decorated wall-to-wall with garishly coloured tiles. (Villarreal president Fernando Roig pumped his ceramics fortune into the club, which explains why the entire training ground is clad in the stuff.) "We deserve to be here and we've not reached this stage the easy way," Pellegrini continues. "We started against Everton, a strong team, but we beat them. Then we won a group containing Manchester United and Benfica. We defeated Rangers and Internazionale, both important teams. And in the last two years we've reached the semi-finals of the Uefa Cup - so we've arrived well prepared.

"We've learnt from the English teams we've played this season, especially Manchester. Villarreal play the opposite of the English style, but then Arsenal, who have no English players, play differently to English teams, who move the ball forward in a hurry. Arsenal use the ball more on the floor."

Pellegrini, who is 52, has been a student of English football for nearly 20 years and is not indifferent to the virtues of what he perceives to be the "English style". "I attended an FA coaching course taken by Sir Alex Ferguson at Lilleshall in 1988," he says in near perfect English. "I went to Italy too and found both courses very useful. I like English football - it's a very important league. I watch games on television, especially Liverpool because of Pepe Reina [the former Villarreal goalkeeper], also Arsenal and Manchester. I'm not a fan of Chelsea's style, but they have achieved much. I like the crowds in England too - they are noisy and create a special ambience. Spanish football is the best in Europe, but I hope to manage in England in the future."

Pellegrini's personality, character and spirit are reflected in his team. Born in Santiago, he combined a moderate playing career with seven years' studying to be a civil engineer. "It's a very orderly discipline where you have to work in a logical manner," he recalled. Football was always his true vocation, though he's had to change his approach somewhat. "My mentality is rational rather than emotional but in the last few years I tried to be become more passionate, tried to care more about human relationships. When I started to be a coach I expected a lot, maybe too much in terms of physical approach, tactics and technique. There was too little emphasis on human relationships."

Inspired by Benfica's legendary 1960s Chilean trainer Fernando Riera, Pellegrini managed eight teams in Chile and Ecuador before moving to Argentinian giants River Plate in 2002 and winning the title with them. He joined Villarreal two years ago, making a positive first impression.

"The manager was a winner in South America and he arrived with the mentality to achieve here what he achieved there," observes key midfielder Marcos Senna. "He never thought: 'Oh, this is a small club'. His line of thought always was: 'I am going to make this team big'."

The striker Diego Forlan adds: "He's an intelligent man, who works hard. It's not easy to be a good manager, but he makes it look easy. He's one of the main reasons why the team is doing well. He's calm and measured. He doesn't criticise referees or opponents. He is consistent with the media. And I'm always thankful because he showed faith in bringing me here." Pellegrini took a chance on Forlan when he spent £1.5m on the misfiring Uruguayan striker, who had scored just 10 goals in 62 games for Manchester United two years ago.

"He'll speak to you and take an interest in your life," continues Forlan, who is now the European Golden Boot holder. "If things are not going well, then he'll talk to you and lift your confidence. We respect his decisions. This is a happy changing-room, one with purpose. We are a team in the truest sense and we don't fear anybody."

Pellegrini puts his relaxed style down to having a varied life. "I'm not obsessed by football," he states. "The manager who just knows about football is lacking. To lead a group of players is to lead a group of people with different ways of thinking. You have to be prepared for that and know more than just about football. You have to speak a lot to the players, have to make them feel what you expect of them. Have to convince them. Therefore it's very important for a coach to have a life outside football.

"Each afternoon, after resting, I study, read and watch movies, as well as other sports. I'm just finishing a book about a princess from Seville who goes to India when it was under British rule. At night I dedicate two more hours to football and at 11 I turn the lights off."

If Pellegrini's urbane and cultured manner has more than a hint of Arsène Wenger to it, so does his attitude to football and the way it should be played. "Aesthetics are important," he stresses. "People want to be entertained and the coach has a responsibility for that. Fans come to see things they are not capable of doing. We have great movement in this team and like to use the ball. We always try to win, never to draw. We don't focus on opponents but on ourselves. I'm also sure that playing beautiful football makes it more likely you'll win.

"I have five footballers with an obligation to attack: two strikers, two creative midfielders and one of the full-backs. I've always got two players in the rivals' half to arm our offensive game. The quality has to come from the players. We have physical players, but we have players who are only about technique and harmony with their body and the ball. [Juan Pablo] Sorin [Villarreal's Argentina captain] hardly has any muscles. [Paul] Gascoigne and [Andres] D'Alessandro are the same."

Pellegrini's particular talent lies in getting the best from players who have underachieved at previous clubs. Juan Roman Riquelme, Villarreal's inventive playmaker, looked washed up after a season at Barcelona and Forlan was a figure of fun at United. Both have flourished at El Madrigal. "Riquelme's great merit was that he convinced himself that he's not a player who will play at a mediocre level," Pellegrini says. "He realised that he can demonstrate here in Europe what he did in [South] America. He needs to be fresh to create so he doesn't exhaust himself tackling. I don't want him running from box to box.

"The three years Forlan was in Manchester were very important for him. He was very young when he first went there and the experience of working with Alex Ferguson was important. He's quite a special player. He always listens to what he has to do, where he can improve. And he works hard. If I see somebody learning something it gives me a huge satisfaction."

So why have Villarreal excelled? "Because we have the mentality of a great team. We set targets in training that we achieve. We always train with the ball. In games we try not to destroy but to create. When I see 10 players playing it at first touch I'm delighted. This is a way of playing, of trying to do things beautifully.

"I like to defend against the ball, but not in our half. One thing is to stop an attack; another is to use the ball wisely. If you foul, the ball is still with the opponent."

It is highly convincing analysis, but Pellegrini is also a realist. He is flavour of the month, but there are no guarantees. "This profession is a crystal ball which can break at any time," he says. "The truth doesn't exist and one can't think he [the coach] is a professor because he's won one game. Every coach chooses the theory which he likes most and follows this. We are happy at the moment and our aim is to be happy at the end of the season in Paris."

Giant strides: Five clubs who defied the European Cup odds


1979 runners-up. Led by the English coach Bob Houghton, the Swedes' mixture of full-time professionals and part-timerswere beaten 1-0 in the final by Nottingham Forest.


1984 semi-finalists. In their first appearance in the tournament, they beat Standard Liège as well as Rapid Vienna. In the semis they led Roma 2-0 after the first leg, only to lose 3-0 at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.


1997 winners. Ottmar Hitzfeld guided the Bundesliga side past Manchester United in the semi-finals, before thrashing mighty Juventus 3-1 in the final.


2002 runners-up. Managed by Klaus Toppmöller, the unfashionable Germans, with Michael Ballack in midfield, beat Liverpool and Manchester United along the way before losing 2-1 to Real Madrid in the final.


2004 winners. Jose Mourinho's unfancied team knocked out Manchester United and Lyon en route to the final, where they defeated Monaco 3-0.