West Ham boss Manuel Pellegrini is looking on the bright side after the club’s grimmest week of the season.
League leaders Liverpool are in town on Monday, but the winter transfer window, which he wants regulated almost out of existence, is shut. However, Declan Rice has a brilliant future and Europe, he says, still beckons.
First to the misery of being knocked out of the FA Cup by AFC Wimbledon. He describes a ‘look at what you could have won’ feeling as Wimbledon drew a Championship side in the last 16.
West Ham boss Manuel Pellegrini is looking on the bright side after the club’s grimmest week
Pellegrini wants the January window changed after uncertainty around Marko Arnautovic
But, with young talent like Declan Rice, Pellegrini wants West Ham in the top six eventually
‘We watched the draw together having dinner ahead of the Wolves game,’ he said. ‘The reaction when it was Wimbledon v Millwall was, “Oh, look what a chance we’ve lost”, but it’s too late now.
‘It is something that has happened to every big club and you can say it to the players 10 times before the game, they will never believe you. In football, if you give time and space to any player of a professional level — be it Premier League, Championship or League One — he’ll score a goal.
‘There is still nothing worse than losing a game, that feeling when you wake up the next morning.’
At least it’s now February. At least the transfer window is shut. Pellegrini has been left fuming by clubs showing interest in players, for whom they then don’t meet the asking price.
Pellegrini says a rule should be introduced where players cannot play for two clubs in a season
‘The transfer window brought a lot of damage to this club. The focus went away from the team, and I’m not just talking about Marko Arnautovic, there were others considering leaving.
‘If two clubs are in agreement over a transfer, I accept it, but if it’s just one club turning a player’s head only to then not offer an amount of money that matches what he’s worth, it’s different.’
Would he scrap the winter window? ‘I would regulate it. Stop clubs doing as many deals as they want to. I would make it so that a player cannot play for two clubs in the same season. It doesn’t seem serious to me. Let clubs change one player. Or let them change a player who is injured.
‘We’ve lost Andriy Yarmolenko and Carlos Sanchez for the whole season, so let that be a change. Primarily, I blame the rules that are based on the financial side — the more money that can be earned the better. There has to be some respect for contracts and supporters.
‘Secondly, the agents have a responsibility to not be constantly dizzying players’ heads, so as to make money. It’s fine they do it, but at the end of the season.’
Pellegrini praised Rice, who earned a new five-and-a-half year contract in December
Manuel Pellegrini has lost five Premier League games against Liverpool, more than against any other club.
West Ham have conceded four goals in each of their last four Premier League games against the Reds.
Not everyone is looking elsewhere to see where the streets are paved with more gold. Rice signed a new five-and-a-half year contract in December. Was Pellegrini sure as soon as he took over that Rice would play a major part this season?
‘No, I wasn’t, not 100 per cent,’ he said. ‘I saw him play well last year but I saw him make a lot of mistakes, too. That’s normal in the first season. He has proved himself and shown what an important player he can be. We had a very bad first game against Liverpool and he started that match, but the thing I made clear to him was that the defeat was not because of his performance.
‘He has become a big player for us and he has a massive future. He is a mix of technical ability and power and he can play as a holding midfielder, as a midfielder or even a central defender. He always wins his physical duels. He commits very few errors with his passes.
‘Perhaps with time he will improve his vision of the whole pitch to improve his passing range because it’s one thing to never give the ball away and another to always give the best of all possible passes. He’ll improve that in time, but he is already very consistent.’
Can he lead, too? ‘There are many ways to lead,’ says Pellegrini. ‘You can do it with your quality, your record in the game, your personality, by what you say, or by the way you are playing.
‘Right now, Declan is leading by the way he is playing. He doesn’t talk because he’s still young but he shows leadership on the pitch with his performances.’
He feels that West Ham should be ambitious and aim to penetrate the Premier League top six
I put it to Pellegrini that for supporters who see their clubs stuck in the tumbleweed of mid-table season after season, the homegrown player can start to feel like a trophy. He doesn’t see West Ham condemned to that perpetual exclusion from the top six.
‘When I arrived at Villarreal in Spain, if I’d said we were going to reach the Champions League semi-final and finish second in the league, they would have locked me up. If Leicester had said three seasons ago they were going to win the league, then they would have been crazy, but they did it.
‘You can make that jump in quality. It’s not about compromising and saying, “Well, they’re the six big teams and we have to stay down here”. If you’re not signing a single player then OK, but if there is investment, then why can’t you make that jump?
‘Yes, you need time, but the clock started ticking from the first minute we arrived. We can’t say, “No, we need three years to do anything”. You have to try to do it in the first year and if you come up short then you address those shortcomings and go again.’
Pellegrini brought Samir Nasri to West Ham despite clashing with him at Manchester City
Some supporters might wonder if Samir Nasri is really the type of player who can help the club make the leap.
‘I had some big fights with Nasri at Manchester City because I always demand that a player plays to his level,’ says Pellegrini. ‘If you’re a “talentoso” player it’s not enough to play well. You have to play very well because that’s your level.’
All of Pellegrini’s teams have had play-makers — Joan Roman Riquelme at Villarreal and Isco at Malaga. He has always had faith in the flawed maverick.
‘You need your goalscorers, of course, but those talented players are what make the team work. Nasri is one of those. To me he seems a lot more mature than he was at Manchester City.’
Has the ban for doping served as a wake-up call? ‘I think it made him understand what he was letting slip away,’ says the manager.
Nasri also brings European experience. ‘The hardest thing is when you take on a team that is not accustomed to European football.’
He points to West Ham filling the London Stadium as proof they need a big club mentality
Pellegrini wants players with a big-club mentality. ‘This is a big club, much bigger than people think. There aren’t many clubs who could fill the London Stadium every week.
‘There was a survey published recently (Uefa’s financial report for the 2017-18 season) that had West Ham as 10th in Europe in terms of attendances. That’s during the whole of last season when the club was battling relegation, finishing 13th. Imagine what would happen with a good campaign.’
If he admits it cannot be achieved on the ‘never never’, will a return to form from Arnautovic be the key to a special end to this season?
‘That’s what we’re hoping to get from him — that he repeats last season, when he started in average form but then concentrated 100 per cent on his football.
‘He is another player who, because of his natural ability, can get more from his career than he has. His physical characteristics, his technical ability, the fact he scores goals, it’s a formidable mix and let’s hope he does it in these last 14 games.’
Pellegrini won the Premier League with Manchester City and has enjoyed success in Spain
It all starts with Liverpool. Are Monday’s rivals title favourites? ‘They are five points clear and they are not in either of the cups. They have everything in their favour,’ says Pellegrini.
‘When Manchester City won the league (with Pellegrini in charge, pipping Liverpool), they had more games to play. The credit belonged to City that season, they didn’t win it because Steven Gerrard slipped!’
There is still a sense from Pellegrini that he never got credit for that title. ‘I think I’m seen as someone who is respectful, successful, who never tries to be the star. I have a good relationship with the players because it’s never first me, second me, third me,’ he says, when asked how he thinks he’s perceived in England.
There’s a roundabout named after him in Malaga for getting them into the Champions League quarter-finals, and he has that title winners’ medal at City. What could he achieve at West Ham that would be the equivalent?
‘Get the team into Europe,’ he says. ‘It’s been a bad week, a very bad week, but we have to get over it. You don’t strive to get a roundabout or a statue, but those things come as a consequence of having done things the right way and having left a club better than you found it.’