Manuel Pellegrini exclusive: Ex-Manchester City boss trying to transform West Ham

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Manuel Pellegrini took over from David Moyes in the summer

In an in-depth interview with Sky Sports, Manuel Pellegrini explains how he is attempting to transform West Ham - and why striking a balance between youth development and shrewd recruitment is key.

Manuel Pellegrini lets out a sigh and shakes his head slowly. It is Friday afternoon at West Ham's Rush Green training ground in east London and their manager is reflecting on the previous Saturday's disappointing 2-0 loss to Everton. "Nobody was happy after that result," he says.

It has been a week of self-reflection for the 65-year-old. This is his 31st year in the job but every defeat still prompts the same round of introspection. What could he have done differently? How could he have avoided what he later described as West Ham's worst performance of the season?

He has spent days picking it all apart, questioning his starting line-up and the half-time changes which failed to spark a turnaround, but Monday's trip to Chelsea is an opportunity to put it behind him. West Ham held Maurizio Sarri's side to a goalless draw at the London Stadium in September. A repeat performance at Stamford Bridge would lift the mood.

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It would also put them closer to their target of a seventh-placed Premier League finish. West Ham are five points off that target currently - Pellegrini's first season in charge has not been straight-forward - but it is still a far cry from last year's relegation battle under Slaven Bilic and David Moyes. The challenge now is to continue building.

"I don't think it's time to evaluate yet because we still have six very important games left," Pellegrini tells Sky Sports. "But it hasn't been a bad season because in relation to last season, there has been big progress. I think the fans have been very happy with a lot of our performances.

"It's true that it was always going to be a transitional season because we are trying to change a lot of things, but within that transition, you have to get the maximum out of yourself. You can't content yourself by saying that we are in transition and we can't do anything more. I always try to demand more, which is why I always have the objective in my mind."

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Edin Dzeko and Manuel Pellegrini pose with Premier League trophy
Image: Manuel Pellegrini won the title with Manchester City in 2013/14

It is with that attitude that Pellegrini is attempting to transform West Ham's mentality. The 65-year-old, a title-winner in Chile, Ecuador, Argentina and, of course, in England with Manchester City, has been preaching the importance of ambition ever since his appointment at West Ham last May.

"What I always tell the players and the press is that a club that plays in front of 60,000 fans in every game is a big club," he says. "That's the mentality we have to have inside of us."

The challenge of altering a club's mentality extends to everyone, from the owners right down to the supporters, according to Pellegrini, but most important of all is the relationship between the manager and his players.

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"You create a big-club mentality with the trust of the players," he says, "the trust that the team will get results and then, when results are not good, the trust to continue with your idea. I believe that's what happened at the beginning of the season. We lost our first four games, but the group felt that we were going to continue doing things in exactly the same way to find the right results. I believe that's the reason we were able to turn it around."

In order to think like a big club, however, you need to play like one. Pellegrini arrived at West Ham with a pledge to bring in an attractive, attacking style of football. The progress has been steady rather than spectacular, but there have been stand-out wins over Manchester United and Arsenal and the underlying numbers point to a greater emphasis on possession.

Manuel Pellegrini
Image: Manuel Pellegrini is attempting to change West Ham's approach

"In some games, I've been happy, in others, not so much," says Pellegrini. "That's normal, not every game can go how you want, but I believe we have already eliminated the problems we had holding onto results in the first half of the season and, even in the games when we haven't played well, we have always tried to be the protagonists."

The furore surrounding Marko Arnautovic's future was an unwelcome distraction for Pellegrini and he has not been helped by injuries to his creative players either. Jack Wilshere, Andriy Yarmolenko and Samir Nasri have made just 12 Premier League starts between them, while Manuel Lanzini has only recently returned from the knee injury he sustained in June.

Pellegrini has a history of building his teams around playmakers, from Juan Roman Riquelme at Villarreal to David Silva at Manchester City, and Lanzini's absence feels particularly unfortunate.

Manuel Pellegrini speaks with Marko Arnautovic during a break in play
Image: Marko Arnautovic was linked with a move to China in December

"Manuel had the misfortune of getting injured at his peak moment," says Pellegrini. "He had had a very good season with West Ham and he was considered a starter for Argentina ahead of the World Cup. He is now playing again without fear, but after such a long and serious injury, I think every player needs three or four months to return to their best level."

West Ham fans might have to wait until next season to see Lanzini back at his best, but one player already blossoming in Pellegrini's midfield is Declan Rice. The youngster has not missed a single Premier League game since September, scoring twice and breaking into the England squad.

"I think what makes him special is his mental maturity," says Pellegrini. "A lot of young players relax a bit when they reach the first-team, thinking they have reached the finish line, but really it's just the beginning. I think Declan understands that very well.

Declan Rice celebrates giving West Ham a 1-0 lead
Image: Declan Rice has shone under Manuel Pellegrini

"He is a 20-year-old player who thinks like a 30-year-old. He is always listening to what he has to do to improve his game. He watches other players in his position and he trains every day at 100 per cent. Comparisons are unfair, I think, but he has the quality to become a top player."

Rice's thrilling progress has made him the new poster boy for West Ham's academy. The club have a proud history of bringing through young players, and they now hope the newly-opened academy headquarters a few miles away in Chadwell Heath will signal a similarly bright future. It is certainly a vision Pellegrini buys into.

"For me, the youth academy has a fundamental role in every club," he says. "Year after year, the prices of players are inflating more and more. With any player you don't have to buy, you can help to finance the academy for many years. You aren't going to get five or six players through to the first-team every year, but one or two is still a very high output."

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Soccer Saturday caught up with Mark Noble and Tony Cottee at the opening of West Ham's new multi-million pound youth academy

The developmental work in the academy will be supported by that of Mario Husillos, the West Ham director of football who also worked with Pellegrini at Malaga. The club are not expected to spend lavishly this summer, but Pellegrini has charged Husillos with identifying lesser-known talents in the same vein as Issa Diop and Fabian Balbuena.

"When you are in the biggest clubs and you are fighting for the best players with a lot of money, maybe the work of a sporting director is not so difficult," he says. "But in a medium-sized club like this, the identification of talented players before they go to big clubs is fundamental. I believe a good sporting director can save a club a lot of money.

"Right now we are really focused on finishing this season strongly, but after that we will see what we need to do. It depends a lot on the options you have, on which players are able to come here and also on whether or not the club sells players. It's more of a job for the summer, of course, but we are always talking about these things with Mario."

I think the team which has the most luck with injuries and is able to keep its full squad fit will be the one that wins the title.
Manuel Pellegrini's verdict on the title race

Pellegrini's managerial CV includes a year in charge of Real Madrid as well as his three seasons with Manchester City, but it's the spells at Villarreal, who he led to a second-placed La Liga finish and a Champions League semi-final, and, indeed, at Malaga, where he had a similarly transformative impact, which are most relevant to what he is attempting to achieve at West Ham.

Does he see any similarities between the projects?

"I think every project is different," he says. "Villarreal were a club who brought through a generation of very talented players, which proved to be very successful, whereas at Malaga it was about purchasing top players with a lot of experience like Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Joaquin, Santi Cazorla, Roque Santa Cruz, Javier Saviola and Jeremy Toulalan.

"At West Ham, I think it is more of a mixture of youth - which is a very important here - and good players with experience. But our objectives are more realistic in accordance with the league that we are in, which contains very strong teams."

Manuel Pellegrini spent three seasons in charge of Malaga
Image: Manuel Pellegrini spent three seasons in charge of Malaga

Pellegrini is proud of what he achieved with Villarreal and Malaga, but given the growing disparity between the Premier League's big six and the clubs beneath them, he is under no illusions about just how difficult it would be to take West Ham to the same heights.

"I think the Premier League is still the strongest league in the world," he says, "but maybe one thing that worries me is the economic difference between the bigger clubs and the rest.

"You can see the gap in the number of points with which teams are winning the league now. We saw it with Manchester City last season and now it's the same between them and Liverpool. In the past, reaching 100 points would have been unthinkable. The league has changed in that respect."

It is another factor which adds to the size of the task he faces at West Ham, but Pellegrini is relishing it. He loves living in London - "an extraordinary city - even if I don't have much time to enjoy it" - and it is clear he remains as driven by the job as ever. The long hours of introspection - and there will be more of them - are a small price to pay.

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