There were around 40 people on the coaching course Mauricio Pellegrino took when he was a player at Valencia in 1999 and he wanted to know what it was that moved them to be there, so he did something he has done ever since football took him from his home in the Argentinian pampas: he asked and he listened. There were all sorts of reasons but surprisingly few matched his. For some, it was just something to do. For others, it was about money, just a job. Not for Pellegrino. He asked a friend there whether he would take it if a tiny third division club came for him. “No,” he said. “Coaching’s not your vocation, then,” Pellegrino replied.
It is Pellegrino’s. “Had it not been for football I would never have left home,” he once said. He was a little introverted, at least to start with, and one former team-mate says football is his life while he told a player who worked under him that through football he found a way to express himself. Especially through coaching, his calling. He has emerged and evolved over the years but even as a player he was a manager. Louis van Gaal once said: “He’ll make a great coach.” Although Pellegrino was not pleased, joking that meant the Dutchman did not think he was much of a centre-back, Van Gaal is not a man given to handing out compliments and he knew he was right.
Pellegrino did not always think he was much of a player, either: he was too tall, too skinny, too clumsy, he had problems with his back. But there was something about him that team-mates and coaches appreciated that took him to Barcelona, Valencia and Liverpool, and a coaching career that now brings him to Southampton via Spain and Argentina. “He makes you think,” his former centre-back partner Roberto Ayala says. He makes himself think, too, particularly about others.
The goalkeeper Santi Cañizares, a team-mate at Valencia, says: “He shared his experience with everyone: he listened and advised, analysed, put himself into people’s skin: he was practically a psychologist. He was not our best centre-back but he was the centre-back the coach most valued. He always had a positive attitude, he had no jealousy at all, no anger, it was always, always about the team. He understood tactically, he was obsessed with the team, he took responsibility: too much. He was ashamed by defeat. I’ve known very few players like that. He has three things: incredible humility, complete professionalism and he never celebrated victory.”
Pellegrino once admitted: “Football was my school of life but I had a big deficit as a player: I didn’t enjoy it.” Now he believes he can help players do so and he has changed a little but that idea played a part in shaping him. “In Argentina football is cultural,” he explained to El País. “Losing is a drama; winning is only good because it means not losing. The social rejection you feel when you lose makes us very competitive.” Winning, by contrast, blunts your edge and avoiding that is something that preoccupies him. “Obsesses him,” according to one friend.
Cañizares shared that attitude and laments its loss in the game but laughs when he recalls Pellegrino asking before the 2001 Champions League final: “What if we win? How will we get our humility back?” “Bloody hell, Flaco,” he replied. “Let’s just win first, yeah?”
They called Pellegrino Flaco, the Skinny One, everywhere except at Barcelona, whom he had joined in 1998; Johan Cruyff was the only Flaco there. Pellegrino never worked under Cruyff but he did work with Van Gaal, who swiftly saw something in him.
At Valencia, Claudio Ranieri saw it too, as did Héctor Cúper. Under him they did not win that Champions League final, and Pellegrino missed the decisive penalty in the shootout, but Cañizares insists: “To win, you have to lose first.” Two consecutive European Cup final defeats were followed by two league titles in three years, Valencia overcoming the galácticos, and the manager who led that historic side certainly saw something in him. Rafael Benítez took Pellegrino to Liverpool with him in 2005 – as much for what he could do for the team as what he could do in it.
He stayed only a season but returned as Benítez’s assistant in 2008, although one former player says he was still a peripheral figure, occupying a backseat. He watched and listened, as he always had: as a player, Pellegrino would question every decision – not because he was accusing his coaches but because he was analysing them. Never standing still, never satisfied that he had found a definitive answer.
He has said he learned organisation from Marcelo Bielsa, space from Van Gaal. With Benítez, he saw the obsession with tactics, and England from the inside, how it is played and lived, what it means culturally. The feel for the game and for his players, though, is his own – and there’s a moral element to it. “People have less religious belief and less belief in politicians: the only thing we have left to identify with is the shirt,” he has said. “That’s for life: grandad, dad, grandson united by a colour. I’m not against business, but I don’t want that cultural part to be lost.”
Players confirm Pellegrino, the son of farmers, repeatedly tells them that sport challenges the values of society, where individualism prevails. Society, he says, demands that you win, that you have the best car, the most money; football demands that you help your team-mate, even if that means not scoring, not playing, not being in the spotlight. If the team are better, you are better. Yet achieving that means engaging with individuals, understanding. “When I grew up coaches never asked: ‘How do you feel?’ But if I don’t ask a player, how am I going to know his dreams?” he has asked.
At Alavés last season, that dream was a Copa del Rey final – only the second cup final, after the 2001 Uefa Cup which they lost to Liverpool, in the 96-year history of the club from Vitoria in the Basque Country. “He transmits to the players what the club and the city mean: he has built a side the fans identify with,” says the captain, Manu García, born in Vitoria and a lifelong member at Mendizorroza. “He’s a very complete coach; not many have the tactical awareness of the game and also so much talent for group management. He and his staff have a lot of ‘left hand’; they have the whole team plugged in, they avoid conflict, everyone gets an opportunity.”
Pellegrino has two assistant coaches, Carlos Campagnucci and Xavi Tamarit, author of a book on the theory of periodisation fathered by Vítor Frade and followed by José Mourinho, among others. His fitness coach, David Rodríguez, and the goalkeeper coach, Javier López Vallejo, complete the team who have had a huge impact in Vitoria.
As García talks enthusiastically through Pellegrino’s tactical variations, his model as it shifts from 4-4-2 into 4-3-3, the multiple functions of the full-backs, the two central midfielders becoming one, the striker dropping in, the search for numerical superiority, you get a feel for the depth of understanding, the way it is mechanised, pieces interlocking, every element interdependent. “I’m 31, and of course I’ve learned a lot from all my coaches, but in just one year he has taught me to understand the game so much better than I did before – and that’s not such an easy thing to do,” García says.
“He sees the game very well. He is a strategist, he analyses opponents closely and he believes in juego posicional [a positional game]. He has a lot of faith in that approach, in defence but also in attack: respect the positions, a well-ordered team, everything under control. He likes his team to express the way he is: intelligent, understanding, ordered. He works hard during the week and the things he plans for usually happen at the weekend.”
Not that there is any guarantee, Pellegrino knows: the opposition play, too, and defeat awaits. He spent his playing career desperate to avoid it but he has come to accept it and learn from it, too; it made him who he is. He also knows that it has an impact on the way he is seen, even if he does not change. He knows there is no single answer and that virtues can soon be seen as vices.
“Football is like two people dancing: if the other person treads on your toes, you can’t lift your heels,” he says. “It’s 22, not 11. There is what you want to do and what you can do. Experience shows that good results and bad results are part of the same packet. If you’re calm and you win people say: ‘The team is doing well because he’s calm.’ If you lose, they say: ‘He’s so calm he can’t get the team going.’ You can see a prince or a frog in every player, every coach, and everyone.”
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