Southampton are currently seen as a club very much on the rise.
But rewind to when Pochettino was hired back in January 2013, and that was most definitely not the case. Then, the club was regarded as suffering from a prime example of Premier League delusion: the mid-season P45 handed to Adkins after only two defeats in his last 12 games considered crazy at best.
The appointment of a 40-year-old relative unknown with a modest managerial career to his name (his contract with Espanyol was terminated by mututal consent after four years), crazier still — and to hell with the accompanying talk of promise and potential.
In the 18 months since, Southampton's performances helped to gradually silence these criticisms. Pochettino's brand of easy-on-the-eye attacking football allied to a high tempo pressing game in defence, saw the club achieve their highest ever points tally in the Premier League, scoring their highest number of goals and matching their best finish of 8th. Three Southampton players are also firmly established in England's World Cup squad for Brazil.
With the news that Tottenham have appointed the Argentine on a five-year contract, it seems that similar questions are being raised on his suitability for a bigger stage.
Another question for Spurs fans, is who is Pochettino? How does he work? And where did the manager’s attacking philosophy and tactically nuanced defensive approach originate?
The answers, initially at least, can be traced to his own playing career. As a former centre back with Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina, Spain’s Espanyol and his national team, Pochettino presented an often impenetrable wall.
But it was his early schooling that proved key when, as an emerging talent at Newell’s between 1990 and 1992, he worked under the stewardship of Marcelo Bielsa, the manger who would later take charge of Argentina and Chile.
It’s this union that has proven so significant for Southampton. Bielsa had a fearsome reputation. His nickname was Loco Bielsa because of the tough work ethic he instilled in his players. More importantly, he was fascinated with Dutch football , notably Louis van Gaal’s European Cup-winning Ajax side.
Bielsa’s teams were often primed for intensity, speed and periods of high pressing when chasing down possession, all of which have been echoed in Southampton’s current system. It was under Bielsa that the young Pochettino’s education began.
“He was a key player, committed to marking,” says Argentine football journalist Martin Mazur, recalling Pochettino’s playing days. “But his work went beyond the football pitch. Bielsa would instruct him — and the other younger players — to perform tactical tasks away from training.
He often asked Pochettino to find out how Newell’s next opponents would play. He’d then expect a dossier of information. It’s no surprise that 15 of the 18 players in that squad went on to become managers.”
Pochettino would later take Bielsa’s football philosophies into his own managerial career, as well as a dash of Loco’s infamous eccentricities. When he was moved from the position of senior Espanyol player to the manager’s role in January 2009, the team was third from bottom. Not long after, and with only 10 weeks of the season remaining, they were rooted to the foot of the table, a despairing eight points from safety.
Only divine intervention could save them, and so Pochettino hiked 12km to the Benedictine abbey on Montserrat where he prayed to the Virgin Mary for salvation. Eight wins out of the next 10 games ensured Espanyol’s safety in 10th place. A method was in play behind the madness, however.
On the training ground, Pochettino worked his players as hard as Bielsa had with the youngsters at Newell’s. Espanyol striker, Pablo Osvaldo, who would follow him to St Mary’s in 2013, infamously remarked: “At times you want to kill him, simply because he makes you suffer like a dog. But in the end you get the right results.”
The hard work paid dividends. A season later, and with his football principles fully enforced upon the team, Espanyol finished 11th, albeit after a less tumultuous campaign. A year later, they went three places higher. Rumours were even floated that Real Madrid were considering Pochettino for the job should Jose Mourinho leave the Bernabéu (which he did in the summer of 2013, by which time Southampton had already got their man).
Meanwhile, Barcelona’s manager, Pep Guardiola, was making flattering noises about Espanyol’s bold tactical approach. “There are teams that wait for you and teams that look for you,” he said. “Espanyol look for you. I feel very close to their style of football.”
It was these plaudits that presumably attracted the attentions of Southampton chairman Nicola Cortese in January 2013. When Pochettino finally parted ways with Espanyol following a disappointing start to the 2012/13 campaign (they were bottom of La Liga at the end of November), the owner made his move, discarding the popular Adkins in favour of securing the services of the attack-minded and hard-working Argentine. It was a bold play,
and not everyone was enamoured at first.
“I could understand Saints fans being upset at the time,” says Le Tissier. “And I’ll never change my opinion of it. Even if we were to win the Premier League, I think it was incredibly harsh on Nigel Adkins, given what he had done for the club. But to be fair to the fans, from the first minute of his first game against Everton, they were 100 per cent behind the new man.”
The on-field changes were immediate. During the opening 45 minutes of Pochettino’s first match, David Moyes’ side was unable to escape its own half for long periods, such was the ferocity of Southampton’s pressing game.
The tactical shift came at a price, though. On the training ground, players were asked to increase their fitness work in order to facilitate Pochettino’s tactical style: “It does feel like you need two hearts to play that way,” says Southampton midfielder Jack Cork of the workload.
As history has shown, such demands of players can go one of two ways. Some managers have become hell-bent on physical supremacy only to encounter fierce resistance, even revolt, in the playing ranks. Pochettino, though, has tempered his double training sessions and high intensity workouts with an easy charm that appeals to his squad.
And once he had overcome the language barrier (he still refuses to conduct live, post-match interviews, such is his insecurity, though he will talk to the written press), he engaged the team with a caring persona.
“He’s world-class, not just as a manager, but as a person,” says Adam Lallana. “The way he man-manages his players. He makes you feel good about yourself. He’s had a lot of time for us and I think it shows in how well we have performed for him. He has that way about him, he’s a cool guy.”
This an edited version of a piece that originally appeared in Esquire Weekly in November 2013.