Mauricio Pochettino has been manager of Southampton now for 32 days during which time his new side have played four games resulting in one win, two draws and one defeat whilst earning plaudits for their style of play:-
“But in the second half Southampton put in the best performance anyone has here this season.”
Sir Alex Ferguson
With an impressive start offering optimism for the future, what should Southampton fans expect from the side under their new coach? And what has the Argentinean tactician changed during his brief spell in charge to date?
[quote]”He’s like a second father to me. I don’t know if he’s a crazy football coach, but he’s very methodical, and always faithful to his ideas.”[/quote]
Pochettino is heavily influenced by the philosophies of Marcelo Bielsa, a coach who has retained total faith in his system and who returned to vogue last season with his swashbuckling Athletic Club side. The young central defender Mauricio Pochettino arrived in the first team at Newell’s Old Boys when Bielsa was coach and subsequently earned a number of his international caps under his former club manager.
Whilst Bielsa is a fundamentalist, a man so defined by his beliefs that he would rather fail than change his methods, Pochettino must be careful to avoid becoming so ideologically driven. Indeed, if he is to succeed at the top-level of coaching, he cannot afford to be like his mentor.
The Espanyol Legend
There are teams that wait for you and teams that look for you; Espanyol look for you. I feel very close to their style of football.
Pochettino took charge at Espanyol in the middle of the 2008-09 season. In doing so, he became the club’s 13th coach in 11 years under President Daniel Sánchez Llibre, a revolving door policy operating in the Montjuic area of Barcelona. A club legend, the aggressive central defender played more games for the club than any other foreigner.
The tactician won just one of his first nine matches with Espanyol failing to keep a single clean sheet in the process. Bottom of the table and facing a return to la Segunda after 17 seasons in the top flight, Pochettino sought divine intervention, making a pilgrimage by foot to a nearby religious site. And he received it. Espanyol won eight of their final ten games and finished in the top half of the table.
Under his leadership, los pericos finished 11th, 8th and then 14th in the following seasons. The statistics below show how the side developed under him, as his determination to impose his style of play and system took hold.
Espanyol increased their average possession under Pochettino and their pass success rate despite offloading their best players each season to ease their financial burdens. As the players understanding of the system increased, tackles and interceptions increased along with yellow cards. Part of the reason for the continuing success was the ability to work and influence the youth set up. Players being promoted from la cantera bought into the Argentinian’s values and ideals.
And this is where some of his most impressive work at Espanyol occurred. Working closely with the youth coaches, redesigning the youth setup, laying down tactical guidelines to be followed throughout the club and insisting on making each team play in an age group above, to increase their competitiveness and accelerate their development. It was not just an ideal though, it was a financial necessity. Espanyol cannot afford significant transfer fees and need to raise income from selling players. Promotion of youth team players under Pochettino increased with many players making their first-team début. The Espanyol squad retained a high number of home-grown players only Athletic, Barcelona and Real Sociedad having a higher number. It also speaks volumes about the philosophy of the club:-
[quote]“We’re not interested in our youth teams winning games; we’re interested in them developing players for the first team.”[/quote]
Upon departing Espanyol, Pochettino’s time in charge will be interpreted differently dependent entirely upon what you perceive as success. With a win percentage of 33%, during his 161 games in charge Espanyol won 53, drew 38 and lost 70 games. Leaving Espanyol in November by mutual consent and not having been sacked as widely reported previously, the club were bottom of the league and had won only twice in 14 games. Having been at the club almost four years, Pochettino became the fourth longest-serving manager in Espanyol’s history.
[quote]I like football to be played well from the back, to have movement both in and out of possession, to pressure high up the pitch, and to be attacking[/quote]
As you would expect from a devout follower of Bielsa, Pochettino likes his teams to be play sharp passing football combined with a steely edge. Play should be built from the back, moving forward slowly if necessary, before the tempo increases as the ball enters the opponents’ territory and passing becomes more one touch. The high technical demands this places upon the players can lead to repeated loss of possession.
The defensive phase begins as soon as possession is lost and the team are responsible. The team attempt to press their opponents as high up the pitch as possible. To do so, a high defensive line is held and an aggressive offside trap is pursued. It’s a strategy that will produce high quality attacking football with the odd defensive disaster. If one part of the team fails to press coherently, the system begins to crack and the opponent has time to exploit the space behind the high defensive line.
There is also another price to pay. Disciplinary sanctions. Espanyol had one of the worst disciplinary records in La Liga. If you press high and hound your opponent, you will inevitably concede fouls. Whether this approach will be more suited to the Premiership than La Liga, where minor contact often results in fouls, remains to be seen. It’s an area that must be addressed if a relatively small squad is not be over stretched.
[quote]The key was all the work we put in over the past few weeks. The victory only comes if you believe you can get the victory and today we believed we could win and that is the way we should continue. It happened as we hoped, planned and wanted. Many times you can imagine and it is difficult to make it happen but today it went to plan.[/quote]
Pochettino is a devout believer in the triumph of the system. The above quote taken after the impressive win over Manchester City provides clear evidence of that. The work put in on the training pitch, the planning that is needed to achieve your goal at the end of the week. It’s not luck. It’s hard work, discipline, organisation and belief.
With just four games under his belt at St Mary’s, it’s important to tread cautiously when examining the impact that Pochettino has had to date. It must be remembered that predecessor Adkins was enjoying a fine run of form when he was sacked. With just two defeats in the previous twelve games, Pochettino was inheriting a squad that had adjusted to life in the Premiership and with much better morale.
Pochettino has sought to impose his style quickly at Southampton taking advantage of free weekends to work with his new players on the training pitch. Double sessions have been commonplace but then, the players should have expected this:-
Pablo Osvaldo played under Pochettino before moving to AS Roma in Serie A:-
[quote]He makes you work like a dog. Sometimes, you feel like killing him but it works.[/quote]
Much of the focus in training will shift to ensuring the team is a coherent unit; that the system works as outlined above.
[quote]It may seem like we are running more but really we are just running in a more organised way.[/quote]
With just four games played, there will be little statistically of note at this early stage. Pochettino has already made an improvement upon his time at Espanyol with one clean sheet. Southampton have averaged 52% possession with 77% pass completion. The Saints have averaged 22 tackles per game, again, there is nothing spectacular about this but they have won 76 tackles from 89 attempted, a significantly more impressive figure. Southampton are winning the ball back too without tackling, making 24 interceptions per game. They have conceded an average of 14 fouls per game which bodes well for the side as does the lower level of disciplinary sanctions imposed thus far, just six yellows received. Only in the win over Manchester City, were Southampton caught offside more often than their opponents. That is also the only game to date they have had less possession than their opponent.
Nothing particularly exciting or different above those figures. What is happening on the pitch is that Southampton are playing higher up the pitch both with and without the ball. It may sound revolutionary, but it’s quite simple really.
[quote]Our style of play is to win back the ball as soon as possible and then play it. We moved forward our lines and play more up field. When we lose the ball we must have the mentality of winning it back as soon as possible.[/quote]
Why run up the pitch, lose possession and then retreat back into your starting position? You’re expending energy moving up and down the pitch and when you recover possession, you are starting 60 or 70 yards away from the opponent’s goal again. Instead, when you lose possession in your opponents half of the pitch, try to regain possession immediately. You don’t expend energy retreating and when you recover possession, you are maybe only 30 yards from their goal.
Upon taking control at Espanyol, Pochettino won just once in his opening nine games for the club as los pericos fell to bottom spot with relegation to la segunda, a very real possibility. Bielsa also experienced similar problems adjusting at Athletic Club, failing to register a win in his opening five league games, the club’s worst start to a league campaign in some thirty years.
The way Southampton seem to have adapted to Pochettino’s methods, although it is still very early days, differs vastly from his initial games at Espanyol. There were, and still are, concerns over a bumpy transition as the side adapt to the Argentinean’s preferred style but thus far, things are probably going as well as could be expected.
Given the performances of the team during this transitional phase, it inevitably begs the question of whether the demands of Pochettino are more compatible with the style of play within the British Isles. Whilst the technical requirements may be beyond that which have been demanded from the Southampton players to date, an emphasis upon quick one touch passing, the physical demands are not that different. Individually, the components are prevalent in British football, the pressing and the offside line. The difference is the coherent fashion which Pochettino demands. Frequently, we see un-coordinated pressing from a team with strikers closing down opposition defenders but the midfield has dropped off. The aim of Pochettino at Southampton is for the team to work as one coherent unit.
Could this be the reason for the smooth adaptation? Are British players more suited to the style Pochettino demands? If so, why did Andre Villa-Boas struggle so badly at Chelsea? Villa-Boas utilises a different formation but there are broad similarities; the pressing, the high line, the direct style of play.
There are many factors to consider. Pochettino has a dressing room with a number of young players who he can shape and mould similar to Bielsa with both Chile and Athletic Club.
Pochettino is likely to be in the unusual position of having cash to spend to improve the team this summer. A novel experience for a man used to watching assets departing Espanyol to be increasingly replaced with youth team players or veterans on free transfers. Although he has stated he will not raid his former club, it’s worth noting that Espanyol captain Verdu is out of contract in the summer and speculation persists that Pochettino may return for him. The flexible midfielder may be the ideal acquisition, knowing exactly what Pochettino seeks form his team. That aside, forays into the Spanish market are likely.
For the time being, avoiding relegation still remains the objective for Pochettino and Southampton this season. Despite the good start to his career on the South coast, expect blips between now and the end of the season. With such demanding tactics both physically and mentally, with the rewards come the risks and a few heavy defeats are not out of the equation.
Survive the drop, and just as he expects his team to do, Pochettino will press forward at Southampton.