I like Manuel Pellegrini. The Chilean has always come across as a person with dignity and humility. When you consider the fact that he has riled even the best managers of this era with mostly unfancied teams playing good football, the sense of rooting for him only grows. Hence, I feel for Pellegrini being sacked by West Ham.
Have West Ham made the right decision? On account of what has transpired this season, it would be hard to argue against the logic of letting Pellegrini go. Very few managers, even those at clubs that regularly win trophies, have the luxury of handpicking their director of football. Pellegrini had that with Mario Husillos. The two Davids that own West Ham went all in on Pellegrini. They backed him in the transfer market and while some may say their summer spending wasn’t the wisest, I still think they actually bought well in the summer, and in due time we’ll see the value of Sebastien Haller and Pablo Fornals to name two of their new recruits.
Some may argue that Pellegrini was a victim of both, expectations and circumstance. Perhaps there is an element of truth to this. With the money spent on the squad, West Ham were considered candidates for sixth at the beginning of the season. The problem was that there were a few other teams also expected to gatecrash the European spots, and we’ve seen the consequences at some of those clubs. Then there was the injury to Lukasz Fabianski. Until that fateful day, West Ham were riding high in the table.
It is important to note that for attacking mid table teams, an injury to a proven goalkeeper like Fabianski is a serious blow. It was immediately evident that Roberto was nowhere near good enough to be a keeper in the Premier League. West Ham started leaking goals and their form fell of the cliff. Here comes the first serious question for Pellegrini. Once it was clear for everyone to see, why did the beleagured manager take so long to bench Roberto and give third choice David Martin a chance? When he finally did axe Roberto, West Ham got a clean sheet in the win at Stamford Bridge.
But that bounce wasn’t sustained. And perhaps this is where Pellegrini’s harshest and most justified criticism comes into play. When you have a goalkeeper like Fabianski who can win you points, you can afford to play creative players who won’t necessarily track back and do the hard yards defensively. Such an approach means you may suffer some embarrassing defeats, but you will also get to delight in thrilling wins and performances, including against big teams. For a team in mid table this is fine.
There are two scenarios however where this approach backfires. The first is if you strive to be a team that finishes higher than a position between eigthth and twelfth. The second is when you’re battling relegation. West Ham started the season aiming for the former but the latter has taken over in the last two months. And yet Pellegrini stuck to his simple template, believing a variety of creative attacking players would get West Ham the results, while Declan Rice and Mark Noble were consistently getting overrun in midfield. A defence that was losing confidence with each passing game had no protection. Nothing changed. Pellegrini kept giving vague platitudes about playing football the right way and little else when it came to a sense of direction.
Maybe if Fabianski had never got injured in the first place, Pellegrini’s Hammers would still be in the top half of the table. We will never know. But a manager of Pellegrini’s experience should never have been in a position where one injury derailed a campaign so easily. Nor is too much to expect a manager to address issues and come up with solutions to problems with such an expensively assembled squad.
Does this mean Pellegrini was a failure at West Ham? I don’t think so. They finished 10th last season playing some good football, and over his season and a half the Hammers gained some excellent wins and draws against the big six. It’s just that expectations increased and circumstances changed. Pellegrini lacked the ability to inspire consistency from his players that could have taken the team to a higher level. He also lacked the gravitas to demand greater effort and discipline when things got tougher on the field. When change was needed, he seemed devoid of tactical ideas or creative solutions to address the slide down the table. Ultimately he had to go and while he may not be universally missed, for those who respect gentlemen in the game, his loss from the Premier League will be felt.