Don Manuel and the Invisible System
Manuel Pellegrini prefers to focus on the players and offense in an age of complex structures and a league obsessed with defensive organization. Let’s talk about how his Real Betis plays a more offensive game and optimizes for players, using player relationships instead of a rigid structure.
Written by José Pérez.
Strangely, Manuel Pellegrini chose to work in football. Born into an affluent Chilean family, he could have inherited his father’s construction firm after finishing his engineering studies and be set for life inside the bubble of Chilean middle-high-class society. His mother explained: “At first, we didn’t understand his obsession with football as a career, but we didn’t do anything to stop him either”.
Pellegrini, has rarely chosen the easier path in life. He studied engineering while simultaneously playing center-back for his Universidad de Chile club. He spent hours and hours after regular training to become a two-footed player and compensate for the osteomyelitis that affected his natural right foot.
He became a coach even though Chilean clubs would pay him a fraction of what his engineering career could. Having achieved glory in South America as a coach, he could have taken a massive offer from a Mexican club but preferred to remain in Argentina and coach River Plate. Even though River Plate could only give him half of the wages offered by the Mexican club, Pellegrini concluded that staying in Argentina would make his coveted move to a European club more likely.
Tactically speaking, Pellegrini has also chosen the arguably harder, counter-cultural path in this modern era. As systems get more complex in the elite game, Pellegrini advocates for a simpler structure. As La Liga coaches obsess over defensive structure and risk-avoidance, Pellegrini continues to be himself, with a more offensive style that takes more risk and suffers more potential counterattacks.
📆 Seven years ago today, Manuel Pellegrini won his first Manchester derby.— The Coaches' Voice (@CoachesVoice) September 22, 2020
Here, he shares the tactical setup he used in that game and how it exploited David Moyes' side 🔵 #MCFC pic.twitter.com/TiuWsqQkED
In a lecture at The Coaches’ Voice, where he explained the details of Manchester City’s 4-1 win over Manchester United in 2013, Pellegrini emphasized that he believes in player decision-making and technique over tactics.
For me, the tactical side is very important, but in the end, the decider is technique . . . I think that year, we brought together players who had great technical capabilities to be able to play this [offensive] way. – Manuel Pellegrini
Pellegrini might not be a man of systems, but as described by journalist Miguel Quintana, he fosters an invisible system. Instead of having a structure strictly defined by the coach, Pellegrini’s teams have an “implicit” system with a basic structure. The following movements will largely be dictated by the players and their natural chemistry with teammates. Let’s provide an example of this approach with Juanmi Jiménez, a player who thrives at Betis because of how he interacts with his teammates on the pitch.
Juanmi and the Value of Player Relationships on the Pitch
In this era of systems and structure, we think a lot about the proper role and position on the pitch to optimize for a player. But we must also answer an even more pressing question: who are the right partners on the pitch for a player?
Juanmi is far from a perfect player. He has a sharp instinct for goals and can sense a goal-scoring opportunity like a shark senses its prey from afar. However, he’s lightweight and lacks elite speed, dribbling, or close ball control to compensate for his size. This means he can be dispossessed rather quickly by the opponent, and it’s difficult for him to contribute during the possession phase.
Optimizing and finding a role for Juanmi within a team is a tad complicated because he is such a specific player. He doesn’t have the size and strength to fight off the opposition center backs, but he is also not a winger with a dominant one-versus-one ability. However, Pellegrini has revitalized Juanmi’s career (20 goals and assists in the last LaLiga season!) by surrounding him with all the right partners.
5 - LaLiga players with most goals this season in all competitions:— OptaJose (@OptaJose) April 19, 2022
39 - Karim Benzema 🇫🇷 (29.8 xG).
18 - Juanmi Jiménez 🇪🇸 (12.4)
17 - Borja Iglesias 🇪🇸 (13.8)
17 - Vinícius Júnior 🇧🇷 (14.9)
16 - ARNAUT DANJUMA 🇳🇱 (17.6).
He plays alongside a big, strong center forward with good link-up capabilities—Borja Iglesias or Willian José. The big guys pin down the opposition defenders and give Juanmi more spaces in the box to run into. Juanmi’s fullback partner is the fast, aggressive, creative Alex Moreno. Moreno will make aggressive overlapping runs that stretch the opposition’s defensive line, making it easier for Juanmi to make his trademark runs between the opposition’s defenders. Finally, behind Juanmi sit two of the best creators in the entire league: Sergio Canales and Nabil Fekir, ready to take advantage of his runs by slipping tense passes that slice through opposition defenders.
A classic Juanmi goal against Athletic Club (December 19th, 2021). Canales sends a lobbed pass into space for Alex Moreno, who makes a diagonal run towards goal and heads the ball to the far post. Juanmi makes a run to the far post to score, taking advantage of teammate Willian José, who’s pinning down defenders Lekue and Álvarez.
None of these player movements and interactions are rehearsed and controlled strongly by Pellegrini. The Chilean coach put together several players who complemented each other remarkably well and let their football brains and natural chemistry do the rest. This is the key to Pellegrini’s invisible system: the players and their chemistry build the structure, not the coach.
Juanmi is the most notable example at Betis, but every player on the team is optimized similarly.
Pellegrini understood that William Carvalho is more a box-to-box midfielder than a proper defensive pivot, so he paired him up with Guido Rodriguez, an actual defensive midfielder. That gave Carvalho more freedom to carry the ball forward and show his dribbling ability, which is cartoonishly great for a guy his size.
1 - William Carvalho 🇵🇹 es el jugador que ha completado más pases en LaLiga esta temporada (206 de 237 - 87%), además de ser también el que más regates ha finalizado con éxito en la competición (11 de 13 - 85%). Estelar. pic.twitter.com/x23L9vghXN— OptaJose (@OptaJose) August 30, 2022
Pellegrini also knows that Nabil Fekir cannot move the way he did back in 2015 before his injuries. So instead of forcing Fekir to do more creative tasks from deep areas, he helps the Frenchman by pairing him up with Carvalho and Canales. They will take the ball to Fekir in the final third and let him focus primarily on deciding games in the final third with his magic.
The Invisible System and Defense
While Pellegrini’s philosophy usually leads to great offensive systems, there are more question marks surrounding the ceiling of his invisible system when it comes to defense.
It’s not like Pellegrini doesn’t care about defense, mind you. Martín Demichelis, who played center back under Pellegrini at River Plate, Málaga, and Manchester City, puts it best.
Manuel is an immense coach, complete in all aspects. Since he was a defender himself, he works his defenders really well. Look at the stats, and you’ll see that his teams often concede the fewest goals too.
– Martín Demichelis
That being said, Pellegrini’s approach to defense carries two key trade-offs. First, he is adamant about maintaining his football idea no matter who the opponent is, as he stated in his lecture at The Coaches’ Voice.
The system is not really important. What is important to me is my idea about football: not compromising it because you have a high-quality opponent in front of you. Of course, we must take the opponent into account concerning the characteristics of their game. But if we consider what the opponent does as a priority over our own system, then we would be changing the team week after week.
– Manuel Pellegrini
Secondly, it’s inherently tougher to implement a player-over-structure approach in defense. One can build great attacks by fostering chemistry between three or four players, but it’s hard to build an exceptional defense without excellent coordination among all eleven players. The striker or central midfielder who does not press will put the man behind him in trouble. The winger who doesn’t press an opponent’s switch of play will make life harder for the fullback on the opposite side of the pitch. Defending well just by natural player instinct and decisions is more complicated.
Pellegrini’s Betis has a respectable defense: they are in the top half of Spanish clubs regarding goals and expected goals conceded. However, they are not one of the five best defenses in Spain, so their fifth place last season has more to do with their free-flowing offensive game. If you read some of the Betis match reports at Between The Posts, you will see that the team has a few defensive structural issues exploited by top opponents.
Sequence from the Real Betis vs. Sevilla match on February 27th, 2022. Real Betis’ high line was taken advantage of after the unpressured Diego Carlos played a long pass over the Real Betis back four. Goalkeeper Claudio Bravo was forced to rush out of his penalty area to clear the ball before En-Nesyri could get onto it. Diagram created by Charlie Tuley.
However, these are trade-offs and risks that Pellegrini accepts to implement his idea of football. He will not budge when sending his fullbacks forward, so he accepts that opponents can go behind the fullbacks to counterattack, as happened last season against Athletic Club. He doesn’t coach a highly-coordinated pressing system, which can be exploited by teams with good buildup phases like Sevilla or Barcelona. However, Pellegrini prefers to conserve that pressing energy to create more attacks with the ball instead. He lets his players naturally take a step back after scoring to conserve energy, even if it means his team will lose some control over the game.
Tifo Football recently released a video (written by the great Jon Mackenzie) about how Real Madrid’s approach to winning the 2022 Champions League runs contrary to the current tactical trends at elite clubs. Carlo Ancelotti and Real Madrid chose a more player-focused approach, while teams like Manchester City, Chelsea, or Liverpool look to control games for ninety minutes with a more complex structure.
One might think that an approach like Ancelotti’s can only work when you coach la crème de la crème, the very best players in the world. However, the success of Pellegrini at Betis shows that teams with great (but not world-class) talent can also thrive under a more player-focused approach. It doesn’t take a complex structure to bring the best out of good but more limited players like Juanmi or Carvalho; what they needed most was the right player relationships. This optimization process allowed Pellegrini and Betis to have one of the most successful seasons in club history in 2022, winning a Copa del Rey and almost clinching the coveted Champions League spots.
Even though Pellegrini chooses the harder, more ambitious path in life, he never forgets to enjoy it. To him, quality of life and other interests are as important as his football life. As he told Sid Lowe: “I ensure I dedicate a couple of hours a day not to the mind exactly but to other things: books, music, other sports, to studying history, literature, languages.” Pellegrini always remarks that his tenure as Málaga coach was the most enjoyable one from the perspective of quality of life. The return to southern Spain was surely one of the reasons that attracted him to the Betis project.
With his invisible system, Pellegrini aims to keep defying the odds of the modern era, winning games with Betis, and hopefully enjoying more warm southern Spanish evenings with a book in hand and his favorite music from the 60s and 80s.
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