Last weekend was a strange one for Manuel Pellegrini. He saw his Real Madrid side push aside former employers Villarreal at the Bernabeu with ease in a 6-2 win, albeit for a nervy few moments when Nilmar pulled it back to 3-2. The result saw Real keep the pressure on frontrunners Barcelona, but the performance saw Pellegrini fall foul of the Press.
The campaign to remove Pellegrini from the Madrid hotseat is heating up and it looks like his first season in charge of los Galacticos will be his last, regardless of whether he wins La Liga, the Champions League, both or neither. The 56-year-old will find himself in distinguished company, taking the same route as previous ‘successful’ Coaches such as Jupp Heynckes, Vicente del Bosque and most recently Fabio Capello to all leave after relatively positive campaigns. Pellegrini’s position has come under question from the ever-influential Spanish paper Marca that feel he is no longer the man for the job. Last week’s Last 16 defeat to Lyon was – as Marca put it – brought on by negative football, ignited by Mahamadou Diarra’s selection and compounded by the overall defensive approach to tactics on the side. Pellegrini hit back by claiming his Real Madrid side is the best the city has seen in 15 years – claims backed up by statistics showing his Blancos have scored more and conceded fewer than any previous Real Madrid side of the past 15 seasons. Marca subsequently polled Real Madrid fans to show the majority disagree they are the ‘best’ side.
Unfortunately for Pellegrini, there are reports that this stance by Marca has come about after conversations with some of the club’s own leading figures in the boardroom – there are voices from inside the camp advocating his removal. Simply put, Pellegrini’s a sacked-Coach working and will do well to keep his head down, win something with the team and leave at the end of the season with his dignity and footballing credentials intact. A war with the Spanish media only has one winner and it is generally thought this is the Chilean’s only season at the helm. Pellegrini has performed admirably in a situation most Coaches would, for the names at his disposal envy him, but – for the pressure and control exerted on him – not. The former Villarreal man has managed to gel a team of superstars with meteoric egos into a cohesive and – despite what Marca say – attacking unit that is showing signs of playing to a style. It may not be to the style the Press and their Real fans may demand, but he has looked at what he has, put £56m, £80m, £35m and £30m together and created a 4-3-3 formation that plays to the players’ collective and individual strengths.
Cristiano Ronaldo has excelled in the Real white, Xabi Alonso has settled almost immediately into the midfield, the defence is looking stronger and more reliable than previous incarnations thanks to heavy midfield protection and Kaka – the final piece of the summer spending jigsaw – is finally finding his role in the side. The team is showing signs of developing into one that looks to build the play on possession and fast-paced attacks – similar to the style of the blue-and-red side this latest wave of spending has prompted. But what the club hierarchy sees and what Pellegrini sees are two different Real Madrids, and even if Pellegrini is right to play with two defensive midfielders away from home for the sake of protecting his defence, this is not the side Jorge Valdano (still in favour of Pellegrini) has helpfully claimed is built to entertain first. Where Pellegrini sees a back-line with Marcelo in it still requiring security from Alonso plus one and a side with no creative midfielder capable of linking midfield and attack on the floor, Madrid sees a side with Kaka, Ronaldo, Karim Benzema on the teamsheet, and Raul, Guti and Gonzalo Higuain in reserve, chained by a defensive mentality.
A clash of ideals at the club played out through the media is hardly ideal as the team builds up momentum going into duel run-ins domestically and in Europe. If the voices of disapproval continue to seep from the club’s top level of management and Real go on to finish trophyless for another season, they cannot have anyone but themselves to blame for manufacturing the collapse.
The issue looks set to drag on through the campaign, ready and waiting to be brought back into sharp focus every time Real fail to win with significant gusto. The wider issue of what exactly the club wants and how much time it is prepared to invest to match the money it has coughed up remains. Pellegrini is showing signs of developing a Real Madrid side able to compete with Barcelona – currently one of the world’s greatest footballing teams – a hard task for any Coach. Sadly, the task of achieving this with Perez, the club’s directors, fans and its Press fully satisfied seems beyond Pellegrini, and perhaps beyond any Coach in the game.