The lowdown on new Southampton coach Mauricio Pellegrino
New Southampton head coach Mauricio Pellegrino played under many famous coaches during his time as an uncompromising central defender. But while he took things from each of them, there are two who have had a clear impact on his own coaching style.
The first is Louis van Gaal. They coincided at Barcelona in what was Pellegrino's first taste of European football. What he saw there left a big impression on him.
“That was when I started to think to myself: 'The fundamentals of attacking play can be worked on. It is possible to rationally occupy the pitch,'” he told El Pais last year. “If a team occupy space well in attack, when they lose the ball they are still well-organised.”
One look at his Alaves side who comfortably bettered pre-season expectations by finishing ninth in the La Liga and reaching the Copa del Rey final in their first season back in the top-flight would be enough to realise that this desire for a solid structural underpinning is key to Pellegrino's work.
Alaves boasted the joint-fifth best defensive record in the division and rarely gave up chances easily. When the ball was won, they moved forward decisively on the counter attack in well-rehearsed patterns designed to get them into the final third as swiftly as possible. They were a side who often looked as if they were playing from memory.
Pellegrino's assistant Xavier Tamarit is a keen proponent of Tactical Periodization, a means of organising training sessions around four key in-game situations originally developed by Vitor Frade at the University of Porto and since utilised by coaches such as Jose Mourinho and Andre Villas-Boas. So much so that he literally wrote the book on it.
It was this systematic approach that allowed Pellegrino and his staff to quickly form a coherent team from a squad that featured 18 new signings. An away draw with Atletico Madrid, a shock victory away at Barcelona and sufficient points elsewhere saw them pull a 10-point gap to the relegation zone by the halfway stage of the campaign.
By the end of the season, that difference had more than doubled. Alaves finished in the top 10 and were closer on points to Atletico Madrid in third than they were to the bottom three.
Pellegrino's second major influence was Rafael Benitez. He played under the current Newcastle head coach at Valencia and Liverpool and then went on to join his coaching staff as an assistant during his final two years at Liverpool and then, briefly, at Inter Milan.
“Rafa is a teacher of football - one of the people from whom I learned most about the fundamentals of the game,” he told La Nacion last year. “He had the record for points and goals at both Liverpool and Valencia... His teams were always well-organised, with a good balance between defence and attack.”
Pellegrino shares Benitez's appreciation for the structural benefits of a 4-2-3-1 formation and also strives to achieve that same balance. At Alaves, his attacking full-backs were equalised by two primarily defensive midfielders, while an offensively minded winger on one side was often evened up by a more sacrificial player on the other.
But one doesn't get the impression that Pellegrino is wedded to the largely pragmatic approach that he implemented at Alaves. The range of coaches he worked under, a list that also includes Carlos Bianchi and Marcelo Bielsa, provided him with first-hand knowledge of enough different ways of working to adapt to the players at his disposal.
The quotes from Les Reed, Southampton's vice-chairman, in the press release that accompanied the announcement of Pellegrino's arrival on a three-year contract certainly suggested that he has promised a more expansive style of football at St Mary's.
“Mauricio believes with the quality we have we can play exciting, attacking football, taking the game to our opponents by playing a high-intensity game,” Reed explained.
It will, then, be interesting to see how Pellegrino's preference for structure, balance and a methodical approach to training and development, traits also evident in his spells at Estudiantes and Independiente in his homeland, can be welded to a more proactive game-plan.
There also remains a lingering doubt as to the sustainability of his work. For one reason or another, three of his four coaching jobs to date have lasted a season or less, so there is no real evidence as to whether he is capable of taking a team further forward once initial foundations have been laid.
What is clear is that Pellegrino has the same mix of dressing-room experience, Argentinian determination and Spanish schooling that made Southampton's original MP, Mauricio Pochettino, such a hit on the south coast. Time will tell if he is capable of making a similar impact but if he can adapt well, he certainly has the right attributes to do so.