Is Mauricio Pochettino becoming the best coach in the world? Is his coaching philosophy the Blueprint of the future? Certainly the Argentine has opened the eyes of the Footballing world on himself…
17th January 2013 my brother and I walked out of Stamford Bridge in ecstasy. Having been 2-0 at half time Saints had managed a 2-2 with Chelsea with substitute Rickie Lambert and a screamer from Jason Puncheon giving Nigel Adkins a point that you would think could kick-start our first season back in big time since 2005.
Adkins, who had gained back to back promotions and taken Saints from League 1 to the Premier League, was learning on the job. The pundits on the radio in the car on our way back home were full of praise for the upcoming English manager highly regarded, not only amongst Saints fans, but throughout the Football world.
The next day the snow came down. I was out building snowmen when my phone rang.
“Nigel Adkins SACKED as Manager of Southampton”.
I couldn’t believe it. Shocked. We’d played so well the night before. Could’ve even won it. And now the man who’d taken us back to the top level in English Football was gone. His replacement was already announced.
“Mauricio Pochettino is the new Southampton Manager”
Who? Who? I’d heard vaguely of him, most notably as the player that had fouled Michael Owen in the England v Argentina match at the 2002 World Cup. I also knew he’d managed Espanyol in La Liga but knew he hadn’t had the best record with the Catalans.
I remember tuning in to Sky Sports that night and Spanish journalist Guillem Balague was on and asked about Pochettino’s appointment. His words have stayed with me since that night.
“Do not think that Pochettino’s appointment is a downgrade on Nigel Adkins. Yes, Adkins may have been treated unfairly but Pochettino has a vision. He is extremely ambitious and has the tactical nous and coaching ability with young players to be a success in the Premier League. This could be a great appointment”.
A couple of days later Saints played Everton at St Mary’s and Pochettino began his tenure in the Premier League. The game ended 0-0. Everton missed a glorious chance to win the match but Saints played with an intensity and discipline not seen under Adkins. They looked less likely to concede on the counter, a flaw that had occurred under Adkins. Just two training sessions in and the signs were positive.
Saints went on to finish mid-table though people would question whether Adkins could have achieved the same with this team. I still believe he would have but not in the style Pochettino had bought to this group of players.
Coaching at First Hand
It was the summer of 2013 and the season had just started. I was lucky enough to be at Staplewood Campus to watch some Academy games and the first team were training on what is now the Under 23 training pitch.
The training ground was in transition from the old, worn facilities to what it is today, a world class arena for all age groups at the Football Club. It was a hot day and as I walked round to the Academy games, though I knew I wasn’t allowed to watch, I stood there and waited for a security guard to move me on. No one came - thankfully - what i saw would change my outlook on coaching forever.
Pochettino had eleven players set out in a 4-2-3-1 formation all standing by poles. Each player had 3 cones (Red, Blue and White). Playing against them was a Back Four and Two Centre Midfielders.
The ball was transferred between the opponents in slow motion. As each pass was made each player moved towards the ball about 10/15 yards and stopped. They then placed the red cones down. The ball moved and the next colour cone went down. Same with the third.
After detailed coaching to each player, Pochettino then talked, in clear English, in how to press as one. “One Trigger - we all move - No hesitation - Trust”…GO!!!
For 20 minutes these players worked liked beasts. They didn’t make one tackle, not one interception. By the end of the practice each player was part of a smooth, well oiled machine. No one hesitated. No one strayed. The idea was of how to press as a complete unit was being installed into the players.
I would have loved to have seen the progression as he screamed towards the end of the practice “Transition”. Not “Shape”. “Transition”. The balls were coming out of the locker and some of the other players who had been working away from the main group were now about being bibbed up ready to play. I had to go watch the Academy games.
To this day I have used these key factors in all of my sessions. I’ve probably now over 50 practices I’ve used with those principles in mind. Attacking sessions. Defending sessions. Transition. It was something totally different to what I’d seen before in coaching. I’d seen some great coaching but this had had made me realise that coaching wasn’t just passing rotations, small sided games and shooting practice, finishing from crosses.
After the Academy games had finished I walked back to my car the long way. I needed to see Pochettino and how his session had transpired. It had finished.
But in the middle of the pitch Pochettino was stood talking to Adam Lallana. No one else was around. As I went to walk away I learned another trait from Pochettino that I now use. Body Language!!!
Pochettino was cuddling Lallana. He made him smile. He showed demonstrations of how to use his body when pressing but was expressive in his manner. He showed genuine enthusiasm. He grabbed him with two hands round the back of the neck and pulled Lallana to him as if about to kiss him. He spoke to him, words I couldn’t hear but Lallana was beaming. His body language as he walked back to the portakabin, arm in arm with Pochettino is one of the most eye opening experiences in coaching I’ve ever witnessed. Lallana was inspired.
Improving Saints, Spurs…and English Football
Pochettino at Saints inspired English players to have the ambition to play international football. Rickie Lambert, Jay Rodriguez, Calum Chambers, Luke Shaw, James Ward-Prowse (partly) and Lallana were all shown the love that arguably made them the players they were to be able to represent their Country and in most cases earn the big money moves to play Champions League Football. His coaching methods would also see the likes of Jose Fonte, Morgan Schneiderlin and Steven Davis improve and propel them from average players into established Premier League stalwarts.
How many coaches would allow Lallana to play in the centre of midfield? The Premier League is renowned for the centre of the pitch being the “engine room” with physically strong players being chosen to pass then look to support the forwards with forward runs. Lallana, a dribbler, was given the opportunity to play in the centre attacking spaces, enticing opponents out of position in the most dangerous part of the pitch.
There is a passage of play that stands out for me when he was at Saints. We played Man City at home and went behind to a Sergio Aguero goal midway through the first half. Most managers in the Premier League would be happy to sit in and reorganise their team for a few minutes to stop City’s momentum. Not Pochettino…
Moments after the restart from Aguero’s strike Luke Shaw was played in behind the City back line and from the by line crossed to the back post where right back Calum Chambers was arriving. From full back to full back. Chambers headed wide but Pochettino jumped and applauded the move, the bravery of his young players. Saints would go on to secure a point that day thanks to Dani Osvaldo’s outrageous goal.
Tottenham Hotspur came calling at a time when the media were pressing for a young English coach similar to Adkins to be given the job. Tim Sherwood was in charge short term but he didn’t posses the tactical understanding or coaching attention to detail to get the job full time. Pochettino would be an unglamorous appointment at the time.
Since his move to Spurs, Pochettino has continued to believe in young players, particularly English players.
Harry Kane, it can be argued, would always have become a top player, but Pochettino has improved him not just technically but also tactically, asking him to play centrally when the ball goes wide and being in between the widths of the goal to be able to score goals. Sounds simple but how many times do you see a teams centre forward out wide and crossing to an area where he should be?
Eric Dier. Yes Sporting Lisbon deserve the majority of plaudits for his development but when he moved to ex Spurs boss Tim Sherwood said, in a tv interview, he would’ve deployed him as a right back because he could run up and down the pitch. What a waste that would’ve been. Now Spurs and England have a player capable of playing the most important role in modern football, in front of the defence, able to break up opponents attacks but just as importantly start attacks from defending positions.
Not many could have envisaged the heights attained by full backs Danny Rose and Kyle Walker. Dele Alli has been given an opportunity when many other managers may well have have put him in the Under 23s or loaned him out to learn his trade. Not Pochettino. He’s put his faith in the young marvel and greatness beckons for the hungry, exciting, attacking midfielder. The timings of his runs, blind-side movements and finishing have all improved under Pochettino’s watch which gives Dele strings to his bow that other attacking midfielders in the Premier League don’t have. Pochettino has developed a player that can run beyond the ball or drop in and play in a tight midfield area with his team mates.
Tactically a Genius - and Brave
I remember watching Saints under Pochettino when it felt as though we could play anyone, anywhere and always have a chance of winning.
Pochettino sets his teams up to attack, be brave and take risks in order to open up opponents although it is the defensive side of the game that is key to his success. That word comes in again - transition.
Like Pep Guardiola, Pochettino wants to attack and score goals but is constantly thinking about what happens if his team loses the ball. Stopping a counter attack quickly, and at source is key to Spurs success and this only comes from attention to detail coaching with each player knowing their roles and responsibilities within the team. It was what I saw four years ago on the training ground at Saints!!!
This gives Spurs have a fantastic balance that allows the full backs Walker and Rose to play so high safe in the knowledge that they have the security of a Box of Four behind them (two CB’s and two CM’s).
They smoothly move between a 4-3-3 and 3-4-3 in games with Dier key to this, dropping in between Alderweireld and Vertonghen to form a three man defence.
If a team presses them its normally with their centre forward and attacking midfielder which then triggers one of the wide men of the opponents to tuck in and leaving Walker or Rose, within two passes maximum of going one v one with the opponents full backs. They also pass directly through the middle of the pitch to Kane’s feet or to Dele or Eriksen who take the ball with momentum as they’re on the move and can attack at the heart of the opponents defence causing immediate confusion. Do the opponents step out or stay in shape? Very similar to Lallana having the freedom to play centrally when at Saints.
Pochettino likes to play with one central striker with players rotating positions fluidly behind him. Lambert and Kane have been supported by these free-flowing players, trusted by Pochettino to express themselves, supported by the full backs and the covering centre midfielders.
When Spurs go from Defence to Attack or vice-versa the speed at which the players sprint to their new positions is always evident. For example, if they win the ball back when defending watch how quickly the two centre backs sprint wide to split and give Lloris those two passing lines as quickly as possible.
This was also evident at Saints with Schneiderlin. Many teams had copied Barcelona’s way of playing out from the back when a midfielder had to play a backward pass to a full back where the centre backs would split for Busquets, the Pivot, to drop in between the two. However, Pochettino would ask his two centre backs to stay close together and the opposite full back to sprint high leaving space for the holding midfielder to go in to the vacated space. Most opponents number ten’s would be happy to press and mark this player dropping in centrally but to go to a left back position for example would just cause confusion. So Schneiderlin could start attacks from there by playing to the full back who’d gone high or play a pass in to the centre midfielders who had gone past the line of the opponents midfield.
He loves his players - and his players love him
Pochettino has an aura about him. He is good looking, dresses well and though, often smiling, has a look that lets his players know who is boss.
He inspires players with his passion and enthusiasm. Many have these traits but Pochettino backs up his charisma with a tactical sophistication that is a recipe for success.
I once met Pochettino at an end-of-season awards ceremony at St Mary’s in May 2014 and he was extremely polite towards me. I told him I was a Coach and he was very interested in hearing about my coaching. He gave me 2/3 minutes of his time in a busy and hectic environment and his presence in the room stuck with me. Though confident in his own ability, Pochettino didn’t give off any arrogance, but if anything a humbleness and an appreciation to the fans for their support.
He is not afraid to discipline players and even ship out the ones who don’t tow the line. Andros Townsend was dealt with by Pochettino after a poor show of discipline and sold to Newcastle United even though Spurs fans at the time wanted to see more of the England winger.
That ruthless streak, coupled with his ability to inspire his players with passion and tactical knowledge has seen the majority of his players reach heights they never inagined they could
Spurs shouldn’t be competing for the Premier League. They have the 6th biggest budget in the Premier League and have lost star players, most notably Gareth Bale and Luka Modric in recent times. Last season they were the only team to really challenge the fairytale that was Leicester City title winning campaign and are challenging an outstanding team and manager in Chelsea and Antonio Conte this season.
Under Pochettino they are punching above their weight, competing for titles and entertaining the crowds as they go about their business. The next step has to be silverware for Pochettino’s side if he is to dissuade some of his players from seeking opportunities with some of European football’s super powers.
Questions will be asked this summer of Pochettino and Spurs. The new stadium won’t be ready for a year so Spurs will have to endure two transitional seasons. One playing at Wembley and one moving in to the new White Hart Lane. Will these two seasons peg back Pochettino and his team meaning the likes of Kane, Dele, Eriksen, etc look to move on? They are all certainly young enough to “wait” for the transition to occur but when the big bids come in will Daniel Levy be able to turn them down?
What is certain is that Tottenham Hotspur need to keep hold of their exciting Argentine manager and many would say that it all depends on Pochettino staying. When asked if he was leaving Saints back in 2014, he cleverly dodged the question although he knew his destiny.
The same is being said now. He’s “happy” at Spurs but when the opportunity comes to manage someone like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Juventus or Paris Saint Germain in todays climate and finances will it be a move that he will be able to turn down? That’s not even mentioning Man Utd and Man City who are well known admirers of Pochettino.
Don’t forget those words I mentioned earlier spoken by Guillem Balague. Pochettino is highly ambitious.
Whatever the future for Pochettino and his players, currently their stock is increasing all the time and as he improves the questions will be constantly staring them in the face.
But for now “Bravo” Pochettino for opening coaches’ eyes, for thinking and for doing something in the game that we often forget about…Entertaining!!