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Does Mauricio Pellegrino fit the bill at Southampton?

Kaustubh Pandey has a look at whether Mauricio Pellegrino will fit the bill at Southampton.

When Southampton announced the capture of Alaves boss Mauricio Pellegrino, the reactions were rather mixed. While the appointment was certainly coming and work was being done behind St. Mary’s closed doors, but Premier League fans didn’t know how to react to the appointment of someone who has graced the country only as a player in the years gone by.

If the axing of Claude Puel from the helm of affairs at the South Coast club wasn’t surprising enough, the club’s board ended up leaving many perplexed by acquiring the signature of a manager who had begun to turn a lot of heads. It could well be a case of the club taking a familiar road of bringing in an unknown commodity from foreign lands to eventually prove that it was all worth the effort.

Pellegrino, by name, does sound like a fuse of former Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini and the current Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino, but has succeeded in carving out a reputation of his own of late. We run the rule over whether the Argentine fits the bill for the club from the South Coast or not.

What’s his style?

Often described by many as being a student of the beautiful game despite being as you1g as 45 now, Pellegrino is one those guys in football who may have enjoyed a good playing career but was never that good a player. If there’s anything that Pellegrino oozed during his playing days at clubs like Valencia, Liverpool and Barcelona, then it’s professionalism and leadership. It’s said that he had the aura of being a manager much before he actually became one; such was his presence despite being a lanky and a rather gawky player.

He carried on that attribute of his to his management style, learning a lot from the managers he worked under or worked with. And having played under the likes of Louis van Gaal at Barcelona, Rafael Benitez at Liverpool and Valencia and Marcelo Bielsa at Velez Sarsfield, Pellegrino gives an impression of being a manager who combines all the traits that his former mentors displayed. Being a medley has probably made him the man he is today and what Southampton can probably proudly call a complete manager.

Alaves was Pellegrino’s third managerial job and his success at the Vitoria based Basque club is well documented by many already. It was only a one-season stay, but the impact he made saw the Argentine draw links with a host of bigger clubs all across Europe. But, what stands as a testimony to his brilliance as a manager is how Pellegrino’s side reached the Copa Del Rey final, only to be defeated by Barcelona. The loss wasn’t an embarrassment at all, as the Catalans had endured a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Alaves in a La Liga game back in September. It was that game at the Nou Camp that proved how tactically astute a boss Pellegrino is.

That became a vital feature of Alaves’ league run and the fact that the club finished as a high as ninth is a clear reflection of that. El Glorioso showed immense flexibility in the ability to adapt to different formations and styles, be it a three at the back shape or a flat back four, all the formations seemed well-rehearsed and the side looked just as compact and fluid in all of them. Manu Garcia, who happens to be a Alaves hometown hero, praised Pellegrino’s tactical nous, saying: “He’s a very complete coach; not many have the tactical awareness of the game and also so much talent for group management.”

Pellegrino’s sides know how to switch formations very quickly not just in two different games, but between games as well. You won’t realise when the team has switched from a 5-3-2 to a traditional 4-4-2. It’s obvious that the role of the two full-backs is very crucial in such transitions, the duo of Theo Hernandez and Kiko Femenia excelled in the roles. So much so that they were two of Alaves’ better players throughout the campaign.

The 31-year-old Garcia also lauded his former boss for being professional enough to give every player in the side a due chance. The veteran midfielder said: “He and his staff have a lot of ‘left hand’; they have the whole team plugged in, they avoid conflict, everyone gets an opportunity.”

And this feature is one of those intangible aspects of Pellegrino’s style that has contributed a lot to the club’s rise to prominence despite having the 15th lowest budget in the La Liga. He has made sure that the squad consists of as many local players as possible to muster a sense of belongingness among a side that is well-oiled. Just because many players in the side have played regularly, they are always willing to do their best for the boss.

After the surprise triumph over the Catalans, Pellegrino was criticized for resorting to an approach that was dubbed to be ‘negative’ by a host of fans and experts alike. Alaves played a 4-5-1 formation and were very tough to breakdown, looking to move forward with pace. Pellegrino was criticized but it’s an example of pragmatism that his sides can portray despite being known to be a high-pressing outfit. The same approach was used against Atletico Madrid in both the league fixtures and Diego Simeone’s men failed to break them down as well. This adaptability in terms of which approach to adhere to is a vital organ of Pellegrino’s repertoire.

His side didn’t score too many goals, but it was in the defensive department that Alaves excelled. They had the fourth worst goalscoring record, but the fifth best defensive record in La Liga. The leading scorer- Deyverson, scored only seven times but the ninth placed finish is enough to justify how good a manager Pellegrino is, especially after working with such a tight budget.

How would Southampton benefit?

Southampton are known to be one of those clubs that lays emphasis on using a lot of homegrown players and the Saints make perfect use of shrewd signings in the market. They have endured consecutive exoduses, but their player recruitment has ensured that instead of keeling over, they have improved.

Pellegrino’s ability to work under a tight budget would make sure that the South Coast club carries on the tradition of not shelling out too much on players and still getting the desired results. More so, half of the players from the Alaves side are from the Basque country; an area that hasn’t been short of political frictions already. Pellegrino succeeded in using that feeling of commonality to inculcate a unique sense of belongingness to a team that benefitted loads from it. Most of the players haven’t climbed through the pecking order from the youth teams, but the element of unity in the side goes onto suggest how good Pellegrino is in mustering togetherness into his sides.

Under Claude Puel, if there was anything that was sorely lacking, it was a proper tactical identity. The likes of Ronald Koeman and Mauricio Pochettino moulded their Southampton sides into units that like to press and nick the ball off high up the pitch, but Puel failed to do anything similar. Although, his Saints side did reach the League Cup final and finished eighth in the league, but there were very few glimpses of football that the previous managers had exposed the fans to.

And it’s that identity and assurance that Pellegrino is very likely to guarantee. We will see Southampton press high up the pitch once again and threaten teams on the break, but we will also see the same side defend deep when the need arises. That, undoubtedly, is the kind of pragmatism that a manager requires to be deemed successful someday in the future.

With Southampton already in possession of full-backs that can effectively act as wing-backs- Cedric Soares and Ryan Bertrand, we will witness Pellegrino fiddle around with formations and use hard-working midfielders like Oriol Romeu, James Ward-Prowse and Jordy Clasie to impressive effect. With Virgil van Dijk likely to leave and Pellegrino obviously more than willing to play a five at the back shape, the Argentine can well bring one more central defender to make that happen, despite the presences of Jose Fonte, Jack Stephens and the much-criticized and loathed Maya Yoshida.

How the former Liverpool player fares would be interesting to watch, but there’s always a guarantee of Southampton reaping success with the lesser known commodities. And Pellegrino could well be another such case.

Kaustubh Pandey

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