Taking over at a team where the manager is a man who is generally acknowledged as the greatest the club has ever had is never an easy task. Just ask Wilf McGuinness, the man given the unenviable task of replacing Sir Matt Busby at Old Trafford, or Brian Clough on replacing Don Revie at Leeds United.
So spare a thought for Ernesto Valverde, who was recently named Villarreal manager, as a replacement for the newly appointed Real Madrid manager Manuel Pellegrini.
Valverde is not so much replacing a manager at Villarreal but replacing an institution. The position that Villarreal currently find themselves in is due to the work which Pellegrini—in combination with chairman Fernando Roig—has done.
It is easy to forget, given the heady heights and delights which Villarreal have enjoyed over the past five seasons, that Villarreal are still the ultimate small-town club success story.
In 1997 the club were languishing in the lower reaches of the Segunda division, with a stadium which held only 3,500, a debt which was crippling club, and next to no history of success—having never been in the Primera Division before.
Fast forward 12 seasons, and the scene is very different. The financial clout which Roig has given Villarreal mean that the club could afford to spend big, and the growth of the club has been rapid. While Roig has undoubtedly played his part off the pitch, it is Pellegrini who has given them the kudos and results on it which have established them as one Spain’s major teams.
Under Pellegrini, the club have embarked on a run of success which, given the size of the club, is certainly unprecedented. Though the club have only won the UEFA Inter Toto Cup in that period, the bare statistics speak for themselves—Villarreal won 123 matches and lot only 64 throughout his tenure.
While finishes as high as third and second place in La Liga, a league typically dominated by Real Madrid and Barcelona, typify his ability, as well as a Champions League semi-final defeat against Arsenal.
That Villarreal have achieved all this whilst playing some of the finest football in Europe is even more in Pellegrini’s favour. His eye for a bargain, and footballing template deserve as much applause as the success he has achieved at Villarreal.
Players such as Juan Roman Riquelme, Diego Forlan, Giuseppe Rossi, Marcos Senna, Gonzalo Rodriguez, Jose Reina, and Santi Cazorla have either been discovered or rehabilitated by the work of Pellegrini. While the sumptuous football which Pellegrini insisted on at the club was described by the manager as "a mixture of South American and European football".
Such is the status of Pellegrini at Villarreal that when he left, club captain Marcos Senna said: "I am going to miss him but, as the captain of the team, I am pleased for him, so are my team-mates.
“Even though it is sad to see him leave because he is a great coach and we were close to him. We wish him all the best.”
So the challenge for Pellegrini’s successor Ernesto Valverde is how can he hope to emulate Pellegrini. When he was announced as Villarreal manager, chairman Fernando Roig is quoted as saying: “Our big signing this time around is Ernesto Valderde. He is a great coach and he has grand aspirations.”
But the former Bilbao and Espanyol boss will be aware that the challenge he faces is a daunting one, not just to continue to uphold Pellegrini’s success, but to ensure that the El Submarino Amarillo remain competitive in La Liga.
Thus far this summer, star man Giuseppe Rossi has been strongly linked with a return to Italy following his success at the Confederations Cup with Italy, while Santi Cazorla’s reputation continues to grow and he has been strongly linked with a reunion with former boss Pellegrini at Real Madrid.
But more promising for Valverde is the arrival of Brazilian star Nilmar for a club-record €11million fee, a player who chairman Roig said “will be a great player for Villarreal for the next five seasons.”
While the club’s purchase of promising Ecuadorian playmaker Jefferson Montero, and Spanish under-21 centre back Ivan Marcano demonstrate that the club’s successful policy of signing up-and-coming young players will continue despite Pellegrini’s departure.
While a successful pre-season, where they have scored 37 goals in two matches thus far, will have helped settle the nerves of the club’s fans, they will know that much stiffer opposition lie ahead.
For Valverde the real challenges will await him, the challenge to succeed a club legend and match his success is never easy.
Villarreal must hope that in the wake of Pellegrini’s departure, Valverde can prove he is the man who can keep steering "the Yellow Submarine” towards success.