Pellegrini’s Málaga continues to surprise

  • Málaga’s midfield diamond one of the tactical surprises of 2012-13
  • Rebirth of Joaquin in a forward role
  • A deeper role and increased responsibility for Lucas Piazon
  • Pellegrini disproves the notion that a narrow midfield is necessarily vulnerable to width.


We’re used to seeing Manuel Pellegrini send out sides with an intricate, pass-and-move flavour to them. His largely successful stints in South American club football at LDU, San Lorenzo and River Plate point to an attempt to wed European off-the-ball solidity to traditional local virtues. Similarly, his Villarreal career oversaw an infusion of Argentine-Uruguayan gambeta into a dynamic, hardworking unit.

That disposition has followed the Chilean coach to Málaga where, after steadying a troubled ship, his first full season in charge saw a familiar template emerge: mobile strikers making runs all across the front line; these in turn joining up with attack-inclined full-backs who simultaneously would bomb on; playmakers moving in from flanks to flood the middle. Salomón Rondón, Nacho Monreal and Santi Cazorla respectively were key exponents of the aforementioned roles, and although all three have left La Rosaleda since, Pellegrini has had little trouble perpetuating his model of play.

The surprise element has been that he could keep his trademark 4-4-2 (or 4-2-2-2) while seamlessly introducing the variant of a midfield diamond, as he saw it, so that he might bring closer together his two outstanding individuals whose dribbling and link-up play have confounded the well-structured defensive schemes of rivals.

Isco on account of his youthful verve has been a revelation over the past year, but equally important and nostalgically appealing has been the rebirth of Joaquín in his latest incarnation as a second-striker. Freed from most defensive duties, the Andalusian conjuror looks like an uninhibited street player, the same kid whose first steps were seldom unaccompanied by a ball in a childhood spent dribbling around the arranged barstools in his father’s tavern.

Pellegrini's classic formation: Joaquin as second-striker, Isco moving centrally from the right, and Eliseu providing balance on the left.

Pellegrini’s classic formation: Joaquin as second-striker, Isco moving centrally from the right, and Eliseu providing balance on the left.

It should be said that the loss of the dynamic Eliseu to injury (out since late January) had a huge impact on Málaga’s ability to sustain the 4-2-2-2. With Jérémy Toulalan being partnered in the double pivot by either the dilligent Ignacio Camacho or the hyperactive Manuel Iturra, Málaga’s creativity sprang forth from Isco’s wandering role from his nominal right-sided station. As both he and Joaquín would concentrate possession in the inside-right channel (combining with an overlapping Gámez and one of the pivots),  Pellegrini’s side appeared vulnerable to a quick change in play with opponents seeking an escape route via Málaga’s left. Here is where the shuttling Eliseu – a wing-back by origin – did so much to compensate, playing roughly the same wide-midfield role as did Ramires on occassion for Dunga’s Brazil, only along the other side.

The midfield diamond affords Isco greater freedom. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the position of Portillo and Piazon disrupts opponents who play wide balls out to the flanks.

The midfield diamond affords Isco greater freedom. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the position of Portillo and Piazon disrupts opponents who play wide balls out to the flanks.

The diamond variant sees Jérémy Toulalan at the base and Isco at the tip, but the real surprise comes in the wider positions. Along the right, Francisco Portillo is an admirably all-rounded midfielder upon whom his teammates can rely for a good passing option, defensive cover and goalward surges. Portillo’s box-to-box game suits the diamond to a tee. The left side, however, sees Lucas Piazon operating in what is a remarkably deep and tactically contained role for a youngster who was projected as a coming Pastore and idealised as a potential Kaká. The Brazilian’s appearances at Chelsea seemed to suggest he would thrive if not as an advanced midfielder then at least as an auxiliary forward. Piazon’s new surroundings in the diamond have required of him steady adaptation to new responsibilities, the overall effect being that ahead of Toulalan there patrol some five players of varied yet considerable attacking qualities.


As Spanish analyst and Málaga native Abel Rojas has noted, the diamond has actually served Pellegrini well throughout the season in terms of thwarting teams who would attack down the flanks. The idea is for the interiors (usually Portillo and Piazon) to anticipate and cut out the opponent’s distribution from the centre to the flanks rather than have wide midfielders simply double up and forever play a catch-up scenario along terrain of the enemy’s choosing.


If Málaga’s impressive (not to mention defensively flawless) progress from the Champions’ League group stage was testimony to the viability to these tactical foundations, when it came to the business end of the tournament, Pellegrini appeared to make a volte face.

Facing FC Porto in the last 16, the blanquiazules took to the field with a fundamentally altered arrangement. Gone was the diamond, so too the classic Pellegrini 4-4-2. The return from injury of Julio Baptista coincided with a switch to a more discernible 4-4-1-1 in which Joaquín and Isco were assigned more fixed wide roles.

From the outset, it appeared that Baptista’s relative lack of mobility would consign Malaga’s customary fleet-footed attack to torpor, although perhaps the plan from Pellegrini had been to use Roque Santa Cruz as an relief outlet from Porto’s suffocating pressing game by instructing sweeper Martín Demichelis and full-backs Antunes and Gámez to hit the big Paraguayan directly and early, thus hoping for the vertical Baptista to scavenge off the resultant flick-ons and hold-up play.

Málaga were already flat and rigid. So when Fernando dropped into defence, Porto's full-backs pushed up, driving Joaquín and Isco ragged and deep into Málaga's half.

Málaga were already flat and rigid. So when Fernando dropped into defence, Porto’s full-backs pushed up, driving Joaquín and Isco ragged and deep into Málaga’s half.

More pertinent still is the question of why the Joaquín – Isco central partnership was broken up: conceivably Pellegrini felt that with Joaquín stationed near the chalk, Porto’s explosive Brazilian left-back Alex Sandro would be discouraged from steaming on up the flank in tandem with right-sided compatriot Danilo. But power on both did; neither wing-back was fazed as Vítor Pereira’s side resorted to their well-rehearsed Lavolpe mechanism (much used by Guardiola and Busquets at Barcelona) whereby midfield pivot Fernando slotted between the centre-backs and allowed all outfield players ahead of him to push up. Shorn of the attacking thrust usually provided by Jesús Gámez (deputising at right-back was Sergio Sánchez, more of a centre-back), Málaga soon lost the battle in wide areas. Neither Isco – a trequartista by inclination – much less Joaquín, a throwback to the classical outside-forward from the Paco Gento years, were ever likely to resist such an unfavourable scenario, condemned as they were to accompanying the Brazilian bullet-trains over 60-yard forays.

It could be that Pellegrini didn’t want prolonged periods of possession in central areas, which is what you get when Joaquín peels off from the defensive line and Isco either drifts in from the flank or wiggles his way behind the opposing midfield screen. After all, such cavorting might lead to a turnover and leave Málaga open to a thunderous Porto counter. Overall the effect was that neither magician could abandon his respective post to emerge between the Porto midfield and flourish in such a rigid arrangement.

Thankfully, Pellegrini made the necessary adjustments for the successful second leg at home in La Rosaleda. The replacement of Roque Santa Cruz with Javier Saviola did at least render the attack more mobile; Saviola’s willingness to make wide runs and drop closer to midfield yielded more fluid attacking combinations and meant that Joaquín and Isco, though still largely operating on the flanks, did have an option for triangulating and moving inside. The return of Gámez to right-back was also an invaluable plus in this respect.

With Pellegrini having repeated the line-up against Borussia Dortmund in the Quarter-Final first leg, and seeing Jürgen Klopp’s formidable outfit just about frustrated, the Chilean may have concluded that this slightly less rigid 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 is better suited for taking on sides who ally possession-hogging with explosive transitions (as per Málaga’s most recent European opponents).

This may mean we do not get to see Málaga at their most pleasingly fluid from here on out. But should the blanquiazules emerge unscathed from the Westfalenstadion against the much-favoured BvB, few along the Costa del Sol will care.

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9 Responses to Pellegrini’s Málaga continues to surprise

  1. John says:

    Fantastic read, Malaga were unlucky not to reach the SF. Malaga looked comfortable as the clock clicked down against Dortmund yet one inconceivable individual mistake by Dimichelis and then one of the most disgusting calls by a linesman undone all their great work.

    I have no doubt Pellegrini will reach his potential at City, a club were he will have much more resources than he had at Malaga or Villarreal allied with the stability and power than he never had at Real Madrid.

    Great website by the way, very interesting and detailed articles.

  2. Roger says:

    Splendid piece, I have no criticisms of your work, I only wish you published MORE often. I do understand though that to achieve this depth is no mean feat and it is necessary to take a little more time with it.

    Interesting point on the diamond midfield, something I read in the comment section on zonalmarking reflected it. If you have a mobile diamond which can cover ground well then the flanks are actually a “decoy zone” whereby it appears there is vulnerability and space. The line about forever playing catch-up is neatly put, for instance, would you fancy doing that with Gareth Bale? It’s a bit of a generalisation but that attitude is a tidy microcosm for the attitudinal differences between European and British football.

    • santapelota says:

      I would like to publish more often, however I do have other commitments that keep me away from this.

      “Decoy zone” – that’s a nice way of summing up Pellegrini’s strategy here. And yes, I imagine it would be exhausting playing catch-up against the likes of Bale.

  3. DaStuDawg says:

    This has got to be one of the best football blogs I’ve ever read.

    All of your posts are so well written, and your tactical analysis is incredibly in-depth.

    Keep up the good work!

  4. John says:

    Agreed, I don’t want to sound like some kind of stalker or anything but since I discovered your blogs I have read the vast majority of your articles and I’m currently half way through reading all of your posts on the Guardian too. His Guardian username is ‘Roberticus’ in case anybody is interested in doing the same.You’re tactical insight is infinitely better than the likes of Michael Cox and co. I have to say it’s unfair the way Michael Cox has got himself a job in the media writing for the Guardian and ESPN when his analysis is actually only very basic and regularly biased or wrong.(After reading his Zonal Marking website for years I eventually got tired of it’s repetitiveness and Cox’s continual snide digs at everything related to Spanish football.

    Anyway your blog is very impressive. Keep up the good work.

    • santapelota says:

      In defence of Michael Cox, I think he does a fine job of framing matches from many leagues across Europe and beyond in tactical terms that people can then discuss. Those who want to go into further detail can then frame the discussion in more precise terms. So, I think there’s tremendous merit in this. I, for one, wouldn’t have the patience to follow all the diverse leagues that Michael Cox does. Granted, there are more detailed analyses out there – but we bloggers have to be careful to try not to read like coaching manuals (which, don’t get me wrong, I also love reading). For now, let’s be thankful that there’s something approaching a mainstream where the game can be discussed from a tactical viewpoint.

      Anyway, it’s very gratifying to hear that you enjoy reading what I write (when I eventually get around to doing that!). Hopefully, the next article won’t be too long in coming.


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