Saints boss tells us about his background
The following interview with Southampton manager Mauricio Pellegrino appeared in the pre-season edition of our matchday programme, SAINTS...
In the life of Southampton’s new manager, Mauricio Pellegrino, football has not just a been passion – it has also been a vehicle for driving himself to become a better person and to face up to his greatest inner fears.
For a game that can often be viewed in shallow and simplistic terms, there is no doubt that the 45-year-old from Argentina brings an impressively deep perspective to it.
“Always I have used football as a challenge in my life – to learn something more, to do something more,” said Pellegrino, at the start of a fascinating insight into his philosophy on the game and how it has affected his life.
“This journey has allowed me to be here. Now the big challenge is to be in another completely different culture, with different languages and a different culture of football and this is something that makes me feel alive.”
Pellegrino was born in Leones, a small village in the province of Cordoba, in central Argentina, where his dad worked as a farmer. It was there that he found his love of the game.
“I discovered the football there in that moment,” he said. “I was playing football in the streets, in every single corner where there was some space – in the park, everywhere.
“I was discovering new people, and football was the vehicle for getting to know different people little by little.”
i use this career as a challenge with myself.mauricio pellegrino
It was also, as he found out, a way of allowing him to break through his own personal barriers.
“I am an introverted person I think, but in my childhood it was even worse,” he said. “Now I try to use this role as a manager and a coach to beat my shyness. I try to beat myself, and I use this career as a challenge with myself.”
Pellegrino’s first taste of organised football came when he was about 12, and even at that age he felt aware that it was teaching him valuable lessons.
“I was really disappointed because, at the beginning, I never touched the ball,” he said.
“I played as a left winger. I never touched the ball and I didn't enjoy it too much, but little by little I was gaining confidence in myself, in my characteristics and I started enjoying it.”
Pellegrino, who would eventually become a centre-back, had enough ability to progress from Sarmiento Leones to the famous Buenos Aires club of Vélez Sarsfield.
“I started another completely different life then – it was maybe the hardest moment in my life, when I moved from my village to Buenos Aires,” he said.
“But, for me, it was also maybe my most important moment in my life, because I grew a lot and learned a lot about myself, to beat barriers, to be better every single day. I discovered myself and how I reacted in front of different problems and I can say today that was a really nice moment for my life.”
After a decade in Buenos Aires, Pellegrino switched to Europe in the 1998/99 season, joining Barcelona on loan, before moving permanently to Valencia, where he spent six years.
His successful playing career, which included being capped for Argentina and winning the UEFA Cup, would end with short spells at Liverpool and then Alavés.
"When I was 27, 28, I can say I enjoyed until that moment,” he said, reflecting on his playing days. “After that, instead of being happy, I started to suffer a little bit in my profession as a player, because always we want more, more, more, more and this ambition I couldn't manage in a better way.
“I couldn't express how I felt in that moment. For that reason I like always to express to my players you have to give your best, you have to be professional, you have to challenge every day and work hard, but also try to enjoy – because one thing is not separate from the other. You can do both things.
“When you do your maximum, when you give everything, you feel something in yourself that is great. This is incredible, these feelings.”
It seems clear from how he speaks that Pellegrino knew relatively early on in his career that coaching would be his destiny.
"In 1999, I started doing the licence and I played until 2005, but I did it as a curiosity,” he explained.
“You never know when you are young what you want to be ten years after, but in my deep feeling always I thought that I would try.
“When I finished I can say that the football left me, but I didn't leave the profession. The football left me, because I didn't have too many opportunities to play when I was 34, 35.
“My wife told me, ‘Ok, you can be proud of yourself. You played 15 years and you can say goodbye and start your new life.’”
Within a matter of months of finishing his playing career, Pellegrino had started working as a coach with young players at L’Eliana, a club in a small Valencia village.
to be a teacher is something that is never finished.mauricio pellegrino
Pellegrino, who speaks with a powerful mixture of intensity and charm, explained: “I knocked the door and I said ‘I want to work, I need a team in front of me to express what I feel.’
“It was incredible, because all my energy I directed there and, little by little, I was discovering myself in a completely different role. I realised that to be a player helps you in some details, but it's not enough.
“For me, you had to be prepared every day. To be a teacher is something that is never finished. My players are completely different to my generation. I've got the same problem with my boys. Their generation is more or less the same with my players and they are completely different from us. We are no better, no worse – only different.”
Pellegrino would progress again to Valencia, where he coached the under-15s in their academy, before being invited by Rafa Benítez to join his staff at Liverpool and then Internazionale.
"It was a wonderful moment in my life,” said Pellegrino. “When Rafa called me to be his coach I didn't think too much about the opportunity to come back to England, in Liverpool, and work with him.
“It allowed me to work with professional players and some who I had been in contact with as teammates. I shared a lot of time with Rafa – three years as a player, three years as an assistant, and it was a period where I learned a lot of things.”
Indeed, throughout his career, both as a player and as a coach, Pellegrino was always conscious of absorbing information that could help him become better.
"I can say that everything for me, every challenge in my life, never in my career was anything easy for me, but this way to go directly against my own fear and my own barriers allowed me to grow, grow, grow every day,” he said.
“When I came to Europe, I discovered other ways to teach and other ways to understand the training sessions, other philosophies and when I discovered that I asked a lot of things.
“I was more open-minded and I always admired a lot the manager, because during my childhood or when I was a teenager they changed my habits. Always I wanted to be like them, because always I thought if they had influence on me, I think I can be an influence for my players too.
"Every day I think that I would like to be a better manager tomorrow than today. This is my challenge for right now.
“You know, in the past, not too many people asked you ‘How do you feel?’ It was always ‘You have to do this, you have to do that.’
“I imagine for you it is more or less the same – how many teachers asked you ‘Are you happy with studying?’ ‘How do you think?’ ‘How do you feel?’ ‘There is something you don't understand?’ ‘There is something I can help you with?’ No, nobody asked that.
“For that reason, they never teach us to learn, to improve in different ways, or to express our fears. For me, to express our fears is a synonym to be brave.
“A small example: "Good morning boys, how are you?" "Fine, fine, fine, fine, fine". Everybody says fine. Does anybody say the truth? Nobody says 'I've got a problem with my wife' 'I've got a problem with my father, with my child, with my girlfriend.' 'I don't feel with confidence.' 'I miss my family.'
“This is something I have learned in my life – try to express how you feel. Try to challenge your doubts. Try to be better tomorrow than today. Because the problems in every single organisation are human, not technical. This is something that I believe.”
Pellegrino’s approach has been refined in his own previous jobs as a manager, first at Valencia, then back in Argentina with Estudiantes and Independiente, and, most recently before Saints, with Alavés, who he helped to a record ninth-place La Liga finish last season and a first ever appearance in the Copa del Rey final.
“Always I am doing my maximum, my best, to be a better manager and a better person and to give to my players better tools to help them, because if I help them they will help me,” he said.
“I believe that all my jobs in my past allow me to be better. In my mind, the relationship to be a manager, coach or a teacher is more or less the same. We are not teaching just about football, about tactics – we are teaching about personality, about behaviour, about habits, about rules, about lots of things. We are educating also.”
Yet Pellegrino is acutely aware that, by himself, he cannot implement everything he wants. He is a firm believer that he must make others share his vision and pull in the same direction.
"The top football is not for everybody. You have to be prepared, you need a lot of energy every day, you need knowledge, you need capacity, you need personality, you need energy, but not just me – we need 100 people working together, and this is something that is really difficult to achieve,” he said.
Helping him do that, though, are coaches Carlos Compagnucci and Xavier Tamarit, who have followed Pellegrino from Alavés.
"I need people to delegate my tasks, to delegate my work, because I need the people to be better,” he said. “We are a staff that brings our ideas.
“We have to mix our ideas with the culture and adapt with the ideas of the club. We have to change, because every single club is different – the objectives, the model of play, the culture of the people.”
i've got the confidence i can improve the team.mauricio pellegrino
It is a challenge that Pellegrino has loved in his first few weeks as Saints boss.
"I have enjoyed it a lot, because I am knowing a lot of different people, new players,” he said. “We were analysing the players before we came here, but when you are training with them you know that the human contact with them is completely different. You have some feelings when you see people on the TV, but it is different when you are man to man with them.
“I am really happy because they gave me in those days a lot of attention, a lot of capacity to be ready to train hard, and this is something that we have to do every day.
“I need the players, because the value of the manager is inside of the context. I've got the nice context at Southampton and this is something I would like to translate.”
And, as he prepares to embark on his first season at the helm of Southampton, Pellegrino is enthusiastic about what the future could hold.
"I've got the confidence that it will be a great season,” he said. “When I heard of the chance to come here, the first thing I did was to go on my computer and start to see a couple of games.
“I saw players with quality, with talent – young players. The way of Southampton is to bring in young players to play with the players from the academy and maybe the strength to keep the same players for a couple of seasons will be our maximum strength in the future, and this is something that I like, because I think I can help them to be better players, as individuals and as a team.
“I've got the confidence that I can improve the team. It’s small steps, because we are in the moment that the team are fighting in the top ten and to improve that is a lot of cost – money, work. But I've got the confidence that we can do it.”
Don't forget to pick up your copy of SAINTS on each matchday at St Mary's for more in-depth interviews and features. Or visit saintsmagazines.co.uk to order online.