Southampton’s chase for a new manager appears to be gathering momentum, and one man that has been most heavily touted to replace Claude Puel at the helm is Mauricio Pellegrino.
The Argentine is hardly a household name. Many will vaguely remember his days at Liverpool as a player but in terms of management, you’ll have done well to have had any recollection of his past before his links to Saints.
Pellegrino enjoyed the best season of his managerial career last term in his one and only campaign with Deportivo Alaves, who had only just been promoted to La Liga, Spain’s top tier.
José Bordalás’ departure from the club left many feeling safe in the assumption that Alaves would finish in the drop zone and return straight back down to the Segunda Divisíon. However, Pellegrino defied the odds and turned El Glorioso into one of the sturdiest teams in the country.
Often frustrating and impenetrable to their opposition, Alaves produced some superb defensive displays. Pellegrino’s experience of working under Rafa Benitez at both Liverpool and Inter appears to have paid dividends given his ability to set up a team in a well-organised and well-disciplined manner.
An aspect of the Argentinian tactician’s game plan was often pragmatism. He knew fully well that his squad had limitations, and was also well aware that in terms of quality, his side were easily one of the worst in the league. This inevitably led him to deciding that grinding out results and simply settling for closely-contested outcomes would be the way forward for Alaves.
In the end, Pellegrino’s philosophy proved to be the perfect match for the demands of the newly-promoted side.
The hand Pellegrino was dealt was a rather testing one. He was tasked with keeping afloat a squad mixed rather unevenly with young loanees, sub-standard players that were suited more to the second division and only hints of individual quality. However, he made the most of what he had and performed well.
He played a big part in developing Theo Hernandez and Marcos Llorente, two young players on loan from the bigger Spanish clubs, and helped them to refine their games.
He made Alaves difficult to break down. A deep defensive block was the prominent feature in the majority of their La Liga games, and a counter-attacking mentality was largely employed.
In Pellegrino’s mind, defence comes first. His general footballing philosophy is that you simply must not lose. Whether it be in his homeland or in Spain, he was more focused on playing “safely” than going out on a limb to take all three points.
Ultimately, this approach worked for Alaves. Pellegrino managed to give his players a certain sense of belief and belonging in the top flight and through drilling his tactics into his players’ mindsets, he achieved results. Defending became second nature, and this helped them to a commendable ninth placed finish in La Liga.
He led them to a Copa Del Rey final through using similar tactical approaches and never really showed any adventurism. He stuck true to his philosophy and, to his credit, it worked. They did lose the cup final to a rampant Barcelona side, but it was an impressive achievement nonetheless.
The decision for Pellegrino to leave Alaves at the end of the season was one that was met with understanding and gratitude from the Spanish side’s fans. They know he is destined for bigger and better things, and they know fully well that he got the absolute most out of his men during the 16/17 season.
Going off this, it’d be easy to say that a move to Southampton would be the perfect next step for a young, ambitious manager.
However, you can just draw too many similarities to what has been and gone, and what frustrated Saints’ fans the most.
Pellegrino got to a cup final and finished respectably in mid-table. Puel did exactly the same on the south coast. Both deployed a cautious style of play, both showed a certain sense of stubbornness and neither side’s season made particularly good reading when delving deeper than just the positions on the table.
Alaves scored just 41 goals all season despite their ninth-placed finish – only three teams scored less. However, on the other end of the spectrum, only three teams conceded less than them. This shows that much like Puel, Pellegrino is a manager that has clearly impressive organisational skills but is one that leaves a lot to be desired when his teams are going forward.
Therein lies the issue. “The Southampton Way” has always consisted of particular values on and off the pitch, but no one value is more important than the style of play. Last season, the standard of football and overall viewing was nothing short of dreadful, aside from a few rare occasions.
The club have been stated by the ever-reliable outlets to be actively looking for a manager that suits these beliefs. They’re claimed to be after an ambitious manager that will be keen on deploying attacking, attractive, high-pressing football.
Simply put, Pellegrino doesn’t fit the mould of this and is more similar to Puel than he is to Pochettino; the paradigm of what Southampton’s board want from a manager.
Rather ironically, Pellegrino and Pochettino are footballing acquaintances. The pair met on a coaching course out in Spain many years ago and shared several discussions over the game. The casual lunch-time chats often turned fiery and passionate, with Pellegrino having an answer for whatever Pochettino would propose, and interesting tactical battles were to be heard by onlookers.
Perhaps these conversations were so well-argued because the pair’s styles are absolutely juxtaposing. Pochettino’s vibrant attacking football coincided with intelligent pressing has made both Saints and now Tottenham easy on the eye, whereas Pellegrino’s recent ventures have been far less attractive, more gritty and with a “don’t lose at any cost” mentality.
This is a further reason for Pellegrino, in my opinion, not being the man to lead Saints forward. Attacking football is now necessary and it’s difficult to see the 45-year-old revising and then totally revamping his set managerial philosophy.
Defending has been ingrained into Pellegrino’s footballing mindset from day one. He was a defender as a player, worked under one of the world’s most notoriously defensive managers for a large chunk of his career in the game and has now shown on the managerial stage that he prioritises organisation.
It’s hard to find a justification to a claim that Pellegrino is a better manager than the departed Puel. It’s also difficult to say that the former even plays better football than the latter – something that the Frenchman was bemoaned heavily for.
No-one can deny Pellegrino’s achievements with Alaves, and it’s certainly going to be interesting to see just how he fares as he gains more and more experience as a tactician.
However, it’s extremely hard to see how he is well matched to The Southampton Way – he leaves too many boxes unticked. He may be young, ambitious and a seemingly good man manager, but he lacks European experience, is overly defensive and is arguably not an upgrade on his potential predecessor.
I think it’s an appointment that the board should overlook for the time being.