How Manuel Pellegrini guided Riquelme, Forlán, Senna and co to stunning heights at Villarreal

How Manuel Pellegrini guided Riquelme, Forlán, Senna and co to stunning heights at Villarreal

Florentino Pérez’s managerial appointments across his two spells at Real Madrid almost always spark mass debate. From the trophy-laden likes of José Mourinho and Rafael Benítez to the bizarre appointments of Carlos Queiroz and José Antonio Camacho, there are often eyebrows raised when the time comes. One man left fans on the fence at the start and the end of his tenure in the hot seat: Manuel Pellegrini. 

The Chilean came to the Spanish capital on the back of an excellent time at Villarreal. He was innovative and modern, nicknamed the “Engineer” for his creativity and academic background. His spell in Madrid was both frustrating and undoubtedly promising, and given the circumstances – an incoming president after Perez’s re-election and an abundance of new gálacticos and their massive egos – for some, he remains the one that got away.

His spell at Villarreal suggests that there was certainly more to him than Real Madrid afforded the world to see. Had it not been for the availability of Mourinho at the time, there may have been a case for Pellegrini to be given a longer stint, but that chapter was closed abruptly, much to the disappointment of the Chilean.

Up until 2004, when he headed El Madrigal, Pellegrini had spent his entire career managing in South America. Born and raised in the Chilean capital, Santiago, he studied civil engineering, which, along with his tactical astuteness, contributed to the aforementioned nickname. Along with pursuing his education, a 13-year playing career with one club, Universidad de Chile, was solid, while he would add 28 caps for his country to that.

Pellegrini moved into management soon after retiring as a player and spent much of the 1990s in his native country, including two separate spells at  Palestino. Other stints took in sides such as Universidad Católica and his boyhood club, Universidad de Chile. Away from home, he spent time with LDU Quito in Ecuador before moving to Argentina with San Lorenzo and River Plate in the 2000s. 

At the time, Villarreal were a relatively young club in the Spanish top-flight. Founded in 1923, it wasn’t until 1998 that they were promoted to LaLiga. After a few years around mid-table, the opportunity to appoint Pellegrini, a manager with a gleaming reputation that could only be eclipsed by his exceptional qualities as a person, was seen as a step forward. Having won big trophies previously, the appointment was met with optimism. 

The club already had valuable links in South America, evidenced by a squad which included Rodolfo Arruabarrena, Diego Forlán and their superstar, Juan Román Riquelme, who was initially there on a temporary deal from Barcelona. There were four more South Americans in the side, many of whom were signed by the new manager, and adding a South American to lead the coaching staff created the perfect blend.

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Fernando Roig, the Spanish billionaire whose began work with the club in 1997, the season in which they were promoted, was passionate about leading the charge. His main source of wealth was the Mercadona supermarket chain which had done well in Valencia, but unlike most modern-day football club owners, he would divide his time and attention amongst his team and business ventures.

When Roig bought the club, they were struggling in the second tier, had huge debts, a small, broken stadium and were largely anonymous in their own region. He is an immense figure in the club’s history, and his impassioned backing of the Villarreal project changed the landscape.

In an interview with The Independent in 2019, Pellegrini spoke highly of his former employer, heeding the effort Roig put in to be successful: “First, as an owner of the club, you must choose a style of football. After that, you must find the managers that will work with the young players in your team in that style. After that, you must put a manager in the squad with the same mentality. They followed me, what I did in South America, and they came for me. That is why I was so happy in that club. The mentality of the president is of a big team, that is why it was so easy to work there.” 

With a solid first transfer window, a competitive squad, and the backing of a boss looking to progress as much as possible, Pellegrini enjoyed a historic first season at El Madrigal. Although the ending was magical, they started poorly, and the recovery is a testament to the manager and his squad. They failed to win any of their first five matches, including an opening day defeat to rivals Valencia. Even after Pellegrini’s first domestic win against Real Zaragoza, they were still in patchy form, winning just seven times in the first half of the league season. 

Their early-season slump could perhaps be credited to their participation in the Intertoto Cup, in which they consistently used their preferred starting team, eventually progressing through to the UEFA Cup. It was a good way to hit the ground running at his new club, and Pellegrini impressed many in his first few months in European football. However, it came with a few drawbacks. Prior to the all-Spanish final, Villarreal had to play Odense in Denmark, Spartak Moscow in Russia and Hamburg in Germany, and perhaps the early start to the season and incessant travelling got the better of the players prior to the league season. 

Villarreal’s form picked up after the Christmas break, winning all their games until February. This run included a famous 3-0 home win over eventual champions Barcelona, and showed the world the true talents of Pellegrini. The Chilean deployed a tight 4-2-2-2 formation, emphasising defensive work and using the impeccable talents of Marcos Senna. Riquelme was often deployed down the left, but most of his best work came from cutting inside and supplying his forwards. It was no surprise that Forlán scored twice in this game, while Riquelme bagged two assists. They were forming quite the partnership.

Further wins followed, including an away success against nearby Levante and a 3-1 win against Valencia, where Riquelme bagged a hat-trick and avenged the opening day defeat. After an inconsistent first half to the season, Villarreal were in strong contention to finish in a Champions League qualification place, and they were aided by the instabilities of their rivals – Real Betis, Espanyol and Sevilla. 

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Although their record against the aforementioned trio in the second half of the season was poor – a goalless home draw to Betis; an away defeat to Sevilla; a win against Espanyol – they capitalised on the other results and achieved their highest league finish ever. Less than a decade earlier, this team was in the second tier of Spanish football, while just six years before, they were relegated back to the Segunda. Now, with the smart management of Pellegrini, who took the squad beyond their capabilities, they were to play in Europe’s premier club competition. 

One of the most improved players, and arguably the story of the season, was Forlán. A derided figure during his spell with Manchester United, Forlán was revitalised in Spain. With fewer physical demands and a fusion of South American and European football under Pellegrini, which involved more mobility and using more of the ball, the Uruguayan would strike 25 goals, winning the Pichichi along the way.

The next season would start early, too, although this time, it was in the more prestigious Champions League qualifiers than the Intertoto Cup. Up against them were David Moyes’ Everton, who had surprised many by making it this far. The first leg was a tense affair as Luciano Figueroa and Josico’s goals cancelled out James Beattie’s strike and gave the Spaniards a 2-1 away success. 

The second leg, however, was full of drama. Despite Villarreal protecting a lead, they didn’t sit back and would strike early through Juan Pablo Sorín. Mikel Arteta, on his return to his native country, struck the equaliser for the Merseysiders and soon after that, the drama would begin. Everton would win a corner after Arteta’s goal: another for them would level scores on aggregate, cancelling Villarreal’s away goal advantage.

Duncan Ferguson scored from the corner and ran off to celebrate, but Pierluigi Collina disallowed the goal for a foul by Marcus Bent. Replays suggested it was actually Bent who was fouled and not the other way around, which caused controversy and disgust amongst the small group of travelling Everton fans. In stoppage time, Forlán would score the winner and send Villarreal through to the group stages of the Champions League, while a few days after the game, Collina would announce his retirement.

The aftermath perhaps took the shine off what was an incredible achievement for Pellegrini and Villarreal. In the group stages, they were drawn against Lille, Benfica and Manchester United, but before that, they had to commence their league season.

Just like the previous campaign, this too started slowly with Villarreal failing to win any of their first four games. In the Champions League, they opened up with two goalless draws against Manchester United and Lille. The run after that was impressive, however, especially domestically. From the end of September 2005 to the new year, they would lose just once – a home defeat to Barcelona. In the Champions League, they crawled into the next round, drawing four of their six group games and winning two crucial ones. In the process, they condemned traditional favourites Manchester United to elimination and added another feather to their cap.

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While Pellegrini’s team ended the year strongly, they couldn’t carry their form into 2006. They weren’t helped by injuries to key players and defeats to mid-table Racing Santander and Celta saw them lose ground. While their domestic form was stuttering, they were strong in Europe. After winning their group, Villarreal were set for a third return to the UK to face Rangers. In the first leg, Riquelme and Forlán struck important away goals in a 2-2 draw. The advantage was important, as a 1-1 home draw a fortnight later put them through to the quarter-finals.

This was a different Villarreal to the previous year. Pellegrini put more emphasis on the defence, setting up in a 4-3-1-2, giving full freedom to the slow-motioned genius of Riquelme, the heartbeat of the side. He played in the hole behind Forlán and José Mari, while behind the Argentine, there was the strong set-up of Senna, Sorín and Tacchinardi.

Following the victory over Rangers, Villarreal were drawn against Internazionale. They made the perfect start in the first leg in Italy, Forlán scoring within the first minute. But they didn’t have the lead for long as Adriano equalised moments later, before Obafemi Martins’ winner in the second half.

The slender advantage was taken apart in Spain. Rodolfo Arruabarrena scored just before the hour mark and their solid defence held out until the end. By virtue of the away goals rule once again, Villarreal surprised the world and made it to the last four of the Champions League in their very first participation in the competition. 

Arsenal awaited them in the semi-final. Kolo Touré scored the winner in the first leg, while in the second, Riquelme missed a penalty – one of the final shots of the game – to signal the end of their glorious odyssey. It represented a great season for the club, a marker on the map, despite a poor league campaign where they finished in seventh and failed to qualify for Europe. 

One of the key incomings of the next season was Cani, a 25-year-old creative midfielder who’d enjoyed a successful season with Zaragoza. This season was a lot less exciting than the previous two, but it ended strongly. With good results infrequent – where they’d often take a step forward and two back – they languished in upper mid-table. That was until April 2007, when they went on an eight-game winning streak until the end of the season, inclusive of wins over Barcelona, Sevilla, Valencia and Athletic.

In the end, they finished in fifth and earned qualification to the UEFA Cup, but before all of that could begin, they had a busy summer to contend with. Forlán, their predatory striker who scored nearly 60 goals across three years, would earn a move to Atlético Madrid. Riquelme, who had a dispute with the club’s management, left the club in February 2007 on loan to Boca Juniors, before making that move permanent in August. There were some arrivals too, most significantly Diego Godín and Joan Capdevila, who would spearhead a new-look defence, while Pellegrini would promote from within. 

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Perhaps the most important signing was that of Santi Cazorla. Born in the small town of Llanera, Cazorla started his career at Real Oviedo before being snapped up by Villarreal prior to his 18th birthday. Having made a few appearances under Pellegrini, he would move to Recreativo in 2006. Cazorla impressed there, which prompted the Yellow Submarine to trigger a clause in his contract where he could return for a paltry €1.2m.

Villarreal were far more consistent this season than in any of Pellegrini’s previous ones in charge. He would bring back the 4-2-2-2 that worked well in his early years, having lost the creativity of Riquelme. Instead, the front four consisted of Cazorla and Cani, who were supported by the two forwards, Giuseppe Rossi and Nihat Kahveci. To back them up, Pellegrini also brought in the experience of Robert Pires. This was a formidable attacking outfit, and it showed. 

They started the season strongly despite a 5-0 defeat to Real Madrid in the second week of the campaign. The Valencian club managed their league and UEFA Cup duties well, their most impressive display a 3-1 success over Barcelona where the midfield pairing of Senna and Bruno Soriano proved to be vital. Other than that, they were impressing in the UEFA Cup, where they finished as group winners. 

After the winter break, Villarreal would carry on their good form. Over the previous three seasons, their main issue has been consistency, but with a well-balanced mix of youthful vigour and experience, Pellegrini would guide his troops to new heights. The club prioritised LaLiga over Europe, going out in the second round of the UEFA Cup, but their domestic form kept improving. 

Villarreal completed a league double over Barcelona, beating them 2-1 in the return fixture at the Camp Nou. It was a game that highlighted the qualities of Godín, in particular, who was one of the standout performers. Beyond that, wins over Atlético Madrid and Valencia solidified their place near the summit. Kahveci, the Turkish forward who replaced Forlán, was in superb form, scoring 18 times – more than the Uruguayan – and finishing amongst the league’s top scorers. 

In the end, Villarreal achieved a historic second-place finish, comfortably clear of third-place Barcelona, but still significantly behind champions Real Madrid. Due to the unlikely nature of it all, there wasn’t much belief that they could mount a title challenge, and unexpected defeats combined with the sheer quality of the champions only made the feat tougher. Nevertheless, the club were back in the Champions League – and Pellegrini’s stock was rising. His smart management, tactical astuteness, work in the transfer window and likable personality was praised across Europe.

To build on their excellent season, Villarreal would head to a much-travelled region again. Of the seven signings made that summer, three were from South American clubs, maintaining the Spanish outfit’s links with the region. However, despite impressing in the transfer market, it was another underwhelming season as they, perhaps inevitably, failed to build on their league standing.

In Europe, drawn with Celtic, Aalborg and Manchester United, they scraped through to set up a first knockout round clash against Panathinaikos, who they overcame 3-2 on aggregate. For the second time in Pellegrini’s tenure, they would make the quarter-finals of the Champions League, and for the second time, they would face Arsenal. 

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This encounter, however, was far less close than the first one in 2006, with Arsène Wenger’s team running riot. After a 1-1 draw in the home leg, where they scored the opener, they were unable to cope at the Emirates as Theo Walcott, Emmanuel Adebayor and Robin van Persie scored to end the Spaniards’ hopes.

Their inconsistent league form meant that they were battling it out with Sevilla, Atlético and Valencia for two places in the Champions League. With Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona unstoppable and Real Madrid chasing, the big two were in a league of their own. Until the final three months of the season, Villarreal were in a good position to make it to the Champions League, but the final few months cost them. 

A selection of poor results cost them dearly: a 3-2 defeat to Atlético, a 3-0 defeat to Almería, a 2-0 loss to Málaga, a 2-0 loss to Sevilla, a 0-0 draw against Valladolid and a 3-3 draw against Barcelona, all coming within the final two-and-a-half months, resulted in Villarreal finishing fifth. It would spell the end of Pellegrini’s tenure at the club, one which had seen the Yellow Submarine become one of Europe’s most feared sides.

One of the great legacies of the Pellegrini era was their success in the transfer market. The example of Forlán comes to mind, who was signed for €3.2m and was later sold for €21m. His Uruguayan compatriot, Godín, was brought in for €800,000 and later sold for €12m, while there was also Cazorla, brought back on the cheap for €1.2m and later sold to Pellegrini’s Málaga for a club-record €23m. 

Pellegrini’s ability to identify potential in younger players was also vital to his success. The likes of Cani, Diego López and Giuseppe Rossi came in with limited experience at the top but would shine at El Madrigal, becoming some of LaLiga’s finest talents. From what he inherited, Marcos Senna was undoubtedly the star of Pellegrini’s team, rising from a largely unknown quantity to one of Europe’s most intelligent, calm and consistent midfielders, winning international honours with Spain along the way.

Pellegrini’s career after Villarreal would see a glorious move to Real Madrid, who recognised his potential but didn’t give him enough time. Later on, he would work with Arab royalty, first from Qatar when he was at Málaga and then with the Sheikhs of the United Arab Emirates at Manchester City, before his move to China and then a return to England, where he is currently at West Ham.

There is little debate, however, that despite winning trophies elsewhere, it is his work at Villarreal that is considered his best – at least his most pioneering – and the Yellow Submarine faithful recognise that, many anointing him their greatest manager.

By Karan Tejwani @karan_tejwani26

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