It’s been five years since a fresh faced Mauricio Pochettino arrived in England to blank looks, sending fans scurrying online to discover just who this new coach was. It may seem strange now when you consider the Argentinian’s success in the Premier League, but his arrival was hardly greeted with fanfare.
At Southampton he replaced Nigel Adkins, a firm favourite among Saints’ fans after masterminding back-to-back promotions to reach the Premier League. The sacking of a promising young English manager for an unknown foreigner who couldn’t even speak the language prompted much shaking of heads and grumbling.
Yet Mauricio Pochettino did not let this perturb him one bit. At Southampton he changed the mind-set of the players and swiftly won them over with his now familiar high intensity brand of football. The fans were swiftly brought onside with wins over Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool in his first season, before leading them to a record eighth place finish in his second year.
It was simply the next step on a journey that has taken Pochettino from Argentina to North London. His success was no surprise to those who had watched him before, as this was a coach who is no stranger to adversity. Case in point, his first managerial appointment was at Espanyol in January 2009, where he inherited a side in crisis. Winless in seventeen games, the team looked doomed and seemingly destined for relegation.
With 10 games left they were bottom of the table, eight points from safety. Mauricio Pochettino needed a miracle, so he asked for one. He packed a bag and set off on the 12km hike to Montserrat, a religious mountain, and the Morenata – the shrine of the black virgin. Dragging his wife and assistant manager with him, he sweated up the climb until he reached the top and prayed to the virgin to save his club from relegation. Remarkably, his prayers were answered.
His Espanyol side reignited their season with the most remarkable of victories against Barcelona. This, remember, was the Barcelona side that won the treble that season, sweeping all before them in Spain and across the continent. Yet Pochettino had a plan for how to beat the unbeatable. He instructed his players to press Barcelona and take them on man for man. It sounded like lunacy, but his players bought into this game plan.
When they stepped out onto the field at the Camp Nou they were aggressive, hustling Barcelona and never afraid to fly into a tackle. Pochettino later described how “The plan was to press high and to surprise them.” The Barcelona players seemed shocked at their opponents’ tactics. Fighting like tigers, Espanyol secured a memorable 2-1 victory over one of the finest sides ever to have played the game. This was a victory borne of meticulous tactical planning and the strength to follow your convictions.
It was Espanyol’s first win at the Camp Nou over their fiercest rivals for 27 years. It proved the catalyst for a change in fortunes, and Pochettino went onto oversee a run of eight wins from their final 10 games, and guide them to an eventual tenth-placed finish. These days Pochettino faces Pep Guardiola not as an unknown quantity, but as one of the most admired coaches in the world. The Argentinian has instilled in Spurs a most un-Spurs-like characteristic: they are now incredibly difficult to beat.
He has created a team that press as a single wave, disrupting their opponent’s rhythm through constant movement. His high energy football places huge demands on his players with its high defensive line and emphasis on fitness. In this sense Pochettino is very much a disciple of Marcelo Bielsa, the madcap Argentinian coach cited as a major influence by both Pochettino and Guardiola. Pochettino played under Bielsa at Newell’s Old Boys, and never forgot the lessons he learnt as a player.
Bielsa is famous for instructing his players to hound their opponents from the first whistle. Essentially, what that creates is a series of one-one-one battles across the field. Win those and you control the game. This strategy is perhaps best illustrated in Athletic Bilbao’s 5-3 aggregate victory over Manchester United in the last 16 of the Europa league in 2012. Athletic overwhelmed Alex Ferguson’s side with their incessant running and they thoroughly outclassed their more illustrious opponents.
However, these days Pochetino has evolved somewhat differently from his mentor. He places more of an emphasis on shape rather than the gung-ho tactics of Bielsa. Pochettino asks his team to play out from the back and use the full width of the pitch to try to pull opposition players out of position.
Throughout his career he has placed his faith in young home-grown players. At Espanyol, Pochettino handed 20 players their debuts, and at Southampton a number of players flourished under his stewardship, especially English players such as Jay Rodriguez, Rickie Lambert and Luke Shaw, who all won their first England caps during his tenure.
This trend in trusting young players has continued at Tottenham, where Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Eric Dier, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker have all made huge strides under the Argentinian. Pochettino’s methods and trust in his players were rewarded by a second place finish last season, accompanied by a club record Premier League points total.
The victory over Real Madrid at Wembley last year is one that will live forever in the memory of those Spurs’ fans lucky enough to experience that magical night. Yet Tottenham now face a difficult time. This season they have stood still while their rivals have strengthened and improved. This has left their title hopes a distant memory, with the focus now on ensuring Champions League qualification and a top four finish.
There are some who believe that Pochettino needs to win a trophy with Spurs before he can be truly celebrated, but in the escalating financial arms race at the top of the Premier League it should not be forgotten that Tottenham’s wage structure means they cannot hope to match the salaries offered by their rivals. Pochettino has experienced a remarkably successful first five years in English football. Whatever happens in the future; one thing’s for sure – it’s going to be fascinating ride.