The man with the Midas touch: Mauricio Pochettino
It would not be too far-fetched to say Tottenham Hotspur have forever been in the throes of their more famous (and successful) London opponents’ shadows. North London rivals Arsenal and cash-rich Chelsea have far more trophies in the cabinet and subsequently a better reach and can attract big-name players.
However, the appointment of a certain soft-spoken Argentine in the summer of 2014 has proven to be a masterstroke by Chairman Daniel Levy, brimming with potential to brighten up things on the white side of North London.
Mauricio Pochettino took over as Spurs coach from Tim Sherwood, the former’s CV only including prior spells at Espanyol and Southampton as managerial achievements. What the résumé could not highlight enough though is the telling impact his style of management had at both clubs.
The 45-year-old has since transformed the Lilywhites from being also-rans to title contenders within just a year of arrival and notably, on a shoestring budget.
We analyse the Tottenham boss’ strengths and his managerial influence that has instilled an identity in the North Londoners’ playing style while also making them exciting to watch.
Marco Bielsa philosophy done the Pochettino way
Halfway through 2009/10, Espanyol were rotting in the La Liga relegation zone and an unproven manager was placed in the hot seat. Mauricio Pochettino took over at the Catalan club with zero experience as their third managerial appointment during the course of a single season.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Not only did he ensure that the club stayed up that season but he also repeated the feat over the next two years. Midway through the 2012/13 season, appalling financial constraints imposed by the management combined with internal power struggles paved the way for his exit.
The South American’s next charges were plying their trade in the Premier League – Southampton. Once again, he set about building his team and imposing his philosophy; it ensured that the Saints finished eighth in his first full season in charge while raking up their best ever points tally since the PL began in 1992.
An accomplished centre-back during his playing days, Pochettino understands the importance of a strong defence and its contribution to winning silverware.
What he ingrained from his former manager Marco Bielsa’s philosophy also left a marked impression on the Argentine’s coaching methods. He focused primarily on counter-pressing as the underlying strategy while also playing an attractive brand of football and keeping it tight at the back.
Be it Espanyol, Saints or now Tottenham, a mean defence is one of the hallmarks of the Argentine’s management style.
The three Fs
Some people dream of success while others wake up and work hard at it. - Winston Churchill
It appears that the former English premier’s quote seems to tie in perfectly with how a certain South American footballer-turned-manager thinks.
For Pochettino, there is no substitute for hard work and that encompasses the complete spectrum of the three Fs – food, fitness and football. These form the foundation on which his execution and success depend each a significant factor – the focal pieces of a puzzle - without which the larger picture is incomplete.
He demands a lot of his players – double training sessions, a strict and individually tailored dietary regime and sweating it out on the pitch. That the stamina and fitness of players managed by him improve under his tutelage has been proven and praised; these give him that margin to play someone for 90 mins without constantly fearing muscle injuries and the ilk.
His biggest win though, is in man-management. Young he may be, but his unshakeable faith in his methods and the ability to sell that to his charges is inspirational. It is also this belief and confidence that eventually yield results and makes players eager and willing to give their all for him.
It is commendable indeed that the erstwhile Espanyol gaffer accomplishes his objective of getting through to players without overwhelming them and also provides them with ample time to develop and a platform to shine.
Tactical nous and flexibility of approach
Argentine’s preferred formation since starting out as manager has been a 4-2-3-1. The tactical adaptability comes with the pressing and its execution – closing down spaces, running the channels, pressing high up the pitch.
Over the years, pitting his wits against a variety of opponent managers in both Spain and England has been a fascinating learning curve.
There is evidence that Pochettino has learnt from mistakes and deficiencies in his playing style. He has looked at alternatives and is not afraid of experimenting.
At the Bernabeu last week, Eric Dier sat in central defence with Spurs playing a 5-3-2 formation; Kane and Fernando Llorente lead the charge up front. The fixture ended in a draw but has somewhat gone under the radar.
It is no mean feat that the Poch outwitted Zinedine Zidane; not only did Spurs hold their own and restrict Real Madrid effectively, they did so while playing football that was easy on the eye (Jose Mourinho, are you listening?).
Ahead of taking on Liverpool at Wembley on Sunday, the Spurs boss made a statement saying the Reds could be surprised by his tactical calls. Klopp’s team discovered to their peril, that Pochettino meant every word.
What is even more telling is that despite their underlying strategy being same as Liverpool – counter-pressing high and with pace – their backline is rarely ever exploited, which makes them fearsome opponents.
In developing his team from the back while also providing room to manoeuvre across positions, the Argentine displays a sense of maturity and evolution of how far he has come.
In exercising a variety of youth options when besotted by injuries without impacting results adversely, Pochettino has developed a masterclass of his own.
Youth development: high value, low spend
Spurs finished runners-up to Chelsea in the 2016/17 season. The average age of the Blues’ squad was 27 years and 2 months while Spurs’ was 25 years and 2 months. Two whole years separated the two sides but Pochettino’s team finished behind Conte’s by just 7 points.
No Dele Alli / Dembele / Wanyama? No problem. Opponents: Real Madrid.
Step up, Harry Winks. It is not often that a 21-year-old takes on reigning European champions undeterred and turns in a man-of-the-match performance but Winks did just that.
This is one of the Spurs gaffer's biggest strengths - to make things happen using the youngsters in the academy of the club he is at. Not only does this encourage youngsters at different age groups to push on and do better, it is a far more economical option for the club.
While hundreds of millions of pounds are spent by his peers in their quest for title/top four, Pochettino has managed to achieve Champions League qualification by spending next to nothing.
He is rigorous and meticulous in his approach, ensuring that teams of all age groups across the club play in a similar formation and style. This helps mould players in his style and ensures that the reserves are ready to be called on, depending on his wishes/their progress or based on circumstances.
He also seeks continuous feedback from the coaches of the youth teams and makes it a point to attend as many games as possible. This provides him with scouting opportunities and sufficient background details on various aspects including stamina, strengths and weaknesses, the ideal fit in his system etc.
The explosive Harry Kane, the versatile Eric Dier and latest revelation Harry Winks – among others – will all have the South American to thank for getting them to where are today.
The shortest answer to this question can be provided in one word, of course – a resounding yes!
If Pochettino had achieved what he has with Spurs (so far) at a different club – say, Liverpool or Arsenal, for example’s sake – on a similar budget, he would be hailed and revered. The media would have been lining up for interviews all day and night to get the smallest of soundbites from the man.
That would be rightful praise, but it is also positively unfair that he and his team aren’t given due credit right now.
He has earned the right to be named among the current best in football management and the likes of Pep Guardiola referring to his charges as ‘the Harry Kane team’ is distasteful. Not only is it a tremendous disservice to Pochettino’s aptitude, it grossly undermines the contribution of those who make it possible for Kane to do what he does best.
The labelling is as much in bad taste and factually incorrect as it would be to label City as a ‘Kevin De Bruyne team’ or Chelsea as the ‘Eden Hazard team’.
This is a manager who – without the likes of Dele Alli, Victor Wanyama, Mousa Dembele and Erik Lamela at his disposal – went to the Bernabeu and earned a 1-1 draw against the current UCL champions. This was after being written off the moment the draw placed them in the same group as Los Blancos.
Give him credit where due at least; it is not going to hurt anyone!
Tottenham Hotspur has a huge following across the world and I have great admiration for the passion the fans show for this team. We are determined to give the supporters the kind of attacking football and success that we are all looking to achieve. - Mauricio Pochettino
While the Argentine is admired by fans and players alike, Spurs and Chairman Levy will do well to keep an eye on competitors across Europe looking to prise away their most important asset. There is no dearth of suitors for him; if he feels too restrained at Spurs, there is every chance of him moving on to something better.
Right now though, he deserves every ounce of praise coming his way and then some. The man with the Midas touch could bring the gold and glory back to Spurs. Maybe then, he will be in the spotlight and rave about much more often.