Manuel Pellegrini and Real Betis: The recipe of an engineer
Have you ever looked at something twice and seen something different both times? Perhaps it’s a painting that by accident you spend some time with and notice something in the background. Or maybe you watch a favourite film again, where you find jokes and references that didn’t click initially. The powers of perception only stretch so far and at first sight, the mind’s eye is drawn to the gross features rather than the fine details. That is the overriding sensation upon spending a little more time with this Real Betis side and in particular, Manuel Pellegrini – there are many fine details.
At first sight, exquisite Kappa tracksuit aside, Pellegrini is not a manager that inspires a strong impression. Nor by first sound; not until you are seated to listen intently, rather than in passing, do you grasp the richness of his personality. There is a way about him. Not given to the dramatics or the hyperactivity of others, Pellegrini “is very calm, he has a lot of self-control,” says Guido Rodríguez. Combined with slightly sunken eyes framed by bushy brows, ‘the engineer’ perches on the touchline like a wise old owl.
That way about him is acutely matter of fact. Casually, he responds to questions as if reciting the logistics of his day. His earthy, bass voice is what keeps you hooked to his words and the candour is refreshing. There is no attempt to push a version of events, or at least it doesn’t come across that way. On a basic level, it’s hard to disagree with much of what he says. “You have to know how to prepare yourself so that when opportunities come, you don’t throw them away due to a lack of preparation,” he tells The Coaches’ Voice. Often passions run as hot as Seville temperatures at Real Betis but mixed with Pellegrini’s peaceful character, it’s been a successful recipe so far.
Across 11 games, Los Hispalenses have made their best start since 1963. Until suffering defeat against Atlético Madrid, Real Betis had lost just four of their previous 40 matches and recently Pellegrini achieved the highest win percentage of any Real Betis manager in history. Comfortably ensconced in the European places and in a similarly good position to qualify from their Europa League group, Real Betis are so far scorning the (understandable) forecasts of a complicated season.
Much like football clubs themselves however, it’s convenient to reduce success and failure to the fortunes of one person. Considering all the variables doesn’t lend itself easily to analysis, especially when fortunes can differ so drastically from one season to the next. The culture a manager seeks to impose is enacted by the players though.
Pellegrini himself has nodded towards the international experience of Germán Pezzella and Claudio Bravo on various occasions. With the exception of the Chilean Copa and the World Cup, Bravo has won just about every competition he has competed in. For 14 years he has captained his country, a responsibility Andrés Guardado also knows.
And then there is Joaquín. Football’s cackling hyena, except with all the warmth in the world, brightens every room he walks into and every pitch he jogs on to. The quality is still there too. It was the veteran who darted in behind to create the only goal of the game on a cold night in the Basque country against Alavés. Yet having a club icon rigorously working at the age of 40 is invaluable, an example that can’t be bought in the market. “You have to appreciate his commitment and his competitive spirit,” admired Pellegrini in an interview with BetisTV. Serious he is not, but Joaquín is the fount from which a professional culture emanates.
“Cabeza fria [cool head],” is the phrase that percolates through the players whenever they enter the mix zone. It shows there is at the very least unity, that the group is consciously moving in the same direction, which isn’t always the case. While the last decade of Los Verdiblancos has generally been fun, they haven’t often come across as focused.
This isn’t without hiccups. Before the November international break Betis conceded nine times, scored none and lost three times in a dreadful week. Maintaining that composure is easier said than done in the cauldron of the Benito Villamarín, as Guido Rodríguez discovered in the Seville derby. Even if, as Pellegrini claims, the margins were exaggerated, it was a reminder of what can happen if they don’t take care of the details.
The overriding trend is one of growth however. Many of the squad have at some point been deemed as past their prime or more bluntly, no longer good enough. All of Borja Iglesias, Juanmi, Guardado, Martín Montoya, Víctor Ruiz, Bravo and even William Carvalho look closer to their best. “We were honest with William, we knew he could bring a lot more,” Pellegrini nonchalantly shrugged in a post-match presser.
More encouraging is the confidence of the youngsters. Juan Miranda is now an outlet on the left side whereas before he appeared there merely out of habit. Rodri, whose insatiable desire to go at defenders has won him many starts, demands the ball like a star and from the stars.
The one taking giant leaps is gangly centre-back Edgar González. On-loan at Real Oviedo in Segunda A last season, his opening performances were less than inspired. There was an uncertainty in his limbs, as if he was constantly twisted out of shape. It appeared as though his role would be restricted purely to emergency services. Fast-forward 10 matches and Edgar is part of the furniture, at ease with the challenge and in complete control. Ranking sixth in LaLiga for pass completion percentage (92.6%), everyone else in the top 10 plays for Sevilla, Barcelona, Real Madrid or in one case Villarreal.
There’s no genius chess move in this side, no unique change or tactical secret which got them into Europe last season. Pellegrini employs a similar shape to previous years and Betis are still to an extent based around an axis of Nabil Fekir and Sergio Canales. It’s just a group of talented people going about their work calmly and confidently. “Win or lose, we are always self-critical,” says Edgar. Beaming through his beard (no easy feat) after a brace against Valencia, Borja Iglesias stated the obvious: “We know what we have to do on the pitch and we are happy.”
On 1st December 2020, Manuel Pellegrini was asked if he had considered resigning after a sloppy Betis had fallen to another defeat against Eibar. The same defeat, laden with mistakes and lapses of concentration, feels implausible now. Currently Betis are a tuned and focused workforce, intent on leaving as little as possible to chance. Pellegrini hasn’t re-invented the wheel, which would play much better as a narrative. Yet in an era of new age management techniques, it’s the 68-year-old from Chile who has a team prepared to be self-critical, to refine the subtle components and to work smart. There’s more to them than meets the eye.
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