Legends: The best Malaga of all time
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Manuel Pellegrini became the manager of Malaga after he was let go by Real Madrid in 2010. There was huge optimism from the Malaga fanbase after Malaga was able to bring in a manager of Pellegrini’s caliber as well as having the financial backing from the Qatari businessman Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani. They were able to recruit some high-profile players during the transfer window such as Santi Cazorla, Nacho Monreal, Jeremy Toulalan, Joaquin, Ruud van Nistelrooy, and Isco.


Pellegrini’s first full season as Malaga’s manager was a great success. They were able to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in the club’s history by finishing fourth and produced some magical performances on the pitch, including a 1-1 draw with Madrid at the Bernabeu. The way Pellegrini had his team set up during his first full season was something similar to what he used at Real Madrid. Most often it was a 4-4-2 formation, but as the game went on it would look like a 4-4-1-1 or even a 4-2-3-1. He wanted the team to play a slower-paced, but possession-based with a methodical buildup style and technical passing. And this was possible with the creative players at his disposal with Cazorla and Isco.


The back four was a traditional back four that emphasized fullback play with Martin Demichelis, Mathijsen, and Weligton rotating the center-back position and Gamez, Monreal, and Eliseu manning the fullbacks. The fullbacks were tasked to provide width and overlap to create a numbers advantage in the attack and often the attack-minded Eliseu looked as if he was playing a wingback position because he is always so high up the pitch. This would force Gamez to stay deeper to join the center-backs to provide cover and forming a back three while Malaga had possession.


In the midfield, he used his favored double pivot that he utilized during his time at Real Madrid and used Duda, Toulalan, and Maresca to sit deep in the midfield. And in front would be the creative wide midfielders of Cazorla, Isco, Joaquin, and Buonanotte to help out the attack. They were tasked to provide creativity, technicality, and scoring from the midfield and they proved to be deadly in front of goal with the former three scoring 16 goals combined during the 2011/12 season.


Upfront was van Nistelrooy occupying one of the striker positions with Rondon, Baptista, or Fernandez partnering him with them dropping deeper than van Nistelrooy. But, because of the wide midfielders occupying the width, the formation could shift from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1 with one of the striking partners dropping deep to play behind van Nistelrooy.


And while his first season was a success, the fairytale story came to an abrupt end due to the ownership group. Al Thani decided to pull his financial backing and slashed the wage bill which led to the club selling and losing some of its star players. They were forced to sell Cazorla, Monreal, and Rondon while van Nistelrooy called it quits and retired from football. This may have demoralized the group and the manager losing a lot of their important players, but that did not stop them from continuing on and provide another fairytale story of their own. It was the Isco show now.


With the loss of Cazorla, Malaga and Pellegrini were desperately in need of creativity in the midfield and the young Spanish playmaker blossomed into a star. No longer in Cazorla’s shadow, Isco was able to use the creative freedom given to him and be the main focal point of Malaga’s attack.


Pellegrini still opted to use his 4-4-2 formation even with the loss of many of his important players for the 2012/13 season. Instead of focusing on La Liga, Pellegrini opted to shift the priority to the Champions League and produced some magical moments. They easily dispatched Panathinaikos in the play-off round and even finished first in the group stage with AC Milan coming second. They drew Porto in the Round of 16 and was able to get past them on 2-1 aggregate and it was against Borussia Dortmund in the Quarterfinals where the drama unfolded.


In the first leg, Malaga drew 0-0 against Dortmund at home which gave Malaga a slight advantage should they score a goal in the second leg with away goals. They were off to a great start with Joaquin scoring in the 25th minute only for Lewandowski to equalize in the 40th minute. With the score as it is, Malaga would advance on away goals but that wasn’t enough for them as Eliseu scored what appeared to be an insurance goal that would all but seal Malaga advance to the semi-finals in the 80th minute. But it wasn’t meant to be as Dortmund never gave up and scored a goal at stoppage time 91st minute by Reus to tie the game. Then, miraculously, Felipe Santana scored the winning goal in the 93rd minute that would send Dortmund to the semi-finals and knock Malaga out of the competition and end their Cinderella run in the Champions League.


As far as how Pellegrini set his team up for the season, he had Willy Caballero between the sticks while the defense showed consistency with Monreal (until he left for Arsenal in the January transfer window), Weligton, Demichelis, and Gamez. The playstyle from the defense was still the same with the fullbacks pushing further up the pitch to provide width while the two pivots from midfield provide the cover. And with Cazorla’s absence, the void was filled by Eliseu who had the freedom to push up even more and provide width and pace on the left side. Isco was tasked on the right side and was charged with creativity, solo runs, and score goals. And the striker position was by a committee that featured Roque Santa Cruz (on loan from Manchester City), Saviola, and Joaquin who also played out on the wide midfield position at times.


And while Pellegrini’s first full season featured a slower tempo, methodical, technical passing, and possession-based style, his second season was different especially the tempo. Without the quality to rely on routinely out-passing other sides with the skillful, technical, and creative players, Pellegrini instead opted to go for a counterattacking approach that is more fast-paced utilizing Eliseu’s pace out wide. This created his team to be more heavily reliant on long balls and be more direct with their style to get to the opposition side of the pitch as quickly as possible. And it did work wonders in the Champions League even though they fell short in the Quarterfinals. Their league finish wasn’t something to be disappointed about either even if they couldn’t qualify for the Champions League again. They were only 1 point worse than their previous season in which they qualified for the Champions League with 58 points in 2011/12 and 57 points in 2012/13.

But, unfortunately, that is where their story ends. Pellegrini joined Manchester City after the season while their key and star player, Isco, joined Real Madrid that same summer. Malaga was never the same after Pellegrini’s reign with massive debts piled up from Al Thani’s poor budgeting and also a lot of their key members leaving the club. But the team will always be remembered fondly for their performances in the Champions League and Pellegrini’s Great Malaga side is one to be remembered.



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