Tottenham want trophies but their manager does not even need to win one for it to be obvious that he is among the very best coaches in the world today, writes Adam Bate.
On the face of it, Mauricio Pochettino is the weak link among the top managers in the Premier League. The other five men in charge of the country’s so-called big six have each won multiple titles in major European leagues. In contrast, Pochettino is still waiting for his first trophy of any description. If this were Top Trumps, his is not the card to covet.
Show us your medals. It is an old refrain in football and one that makes some sense. Play to win and all that. But nobody really thinks Mikael Silvestre had twice the Premier League career of Thierry Henry just because he won twice as many Premier League titles. There are other ways to define greatness; more meritocratic methods of measuring who is the best.
When it comes to managers, there is a certain logic to the medals argument. Unlike players who are mere cogs in a machine, coaches are the ones charged with constructing the machine itself. They are judged on their results so surely it is reasonable to rank them according to their cups, championships, titles and trinkets. But still there are caveats.
What about the relative resources at a manager’s disposal? What was he or she expected to do in that job and by how much did they outperform those expectations? Did their work improve the players and the team? Is this work likely to maximise the chances of success? It is when this more detailed picture emerges that Pochettino’s credentials become obvious.
Tottenham have picked up more points than any other Premier League team over the past three seasons. For the critics, that is a source of amusement given the lack of silverware. For the record, it is a clear indication that Pochettino is a coach capable of maintaining the sort of consistency that can be expected to lead to success.
He has done it on a comparatively modest budget, while vastly improving the value of the club’s assets. Tottenham had long had a reputation for playing exciting football but Pochettino has added the necessary steel too. An enthusiastic group of young players have embraced his ideas – and make no mistake, this is a coach who has lots of them.
Sky Sports’ Guillem Balague spent much of last season with Pochettino, meeting regularly at Tottenham’s Enfield training ground to discuss his methods. The newly released book, Brave New World: Inside Pochettino’s Spurs, details many of the man-management techniques that he used to get the very best from his players.
Harry Kane got the silent treatment when the manager discovered that he wanted to talk to him. Pochettino sat alone on a balcony waiting to see if Kane would approach him. Eric Dier was encouraged to rate his own performances – just as Marcelo Bielsa had once done with Pochettino. The aim is to encourage players to take ownership of their own development.
That tallies with the experiences of Rickie Lambert, who became an unlikely England international at the age of 31 under Pochettino at Southampton. “His man-management is spot on,” Lambert told Sky Sports at the weekend. “He sees the weakness and he improves it. With me, he improved everything.” It is a tactic that clearly impresses his players.
“Mauricio is one of the best managers in the world, if not the best,” Kane recently told Sky Sports. “He brings players through, gives them chances on the big stage, and they deliver for him. He has a lot of belief in us. Not only does he give us the opportunity but he gives us advice when we need it. I cannot thank him enough for everything he’s done for me.”
Kane is not alone. “I had never had a manager work on me until Mauricio Pochettino,” said Danny Rose. Dier spoke of a man who “just does not have the fear that other managers have” and stressed how fortunate he felt. For Harry Winks, it was everything he did. “Not only has he helped me physically and technically but he’s helped mentally as well,” he said.
This idea of Pochettino as a complete coach is an interesting one. In an era of philosophies, his appears more malleable. The principles are in place – older midfielders, for example, are unlikely to flourish under his demands – but it is difficult to imagine him sharing Pep Guardiola’s view that compromise is impossible, or being as reactive as Jose Mourinho.
Pochettino was delighted with Tottenham's performance against Liverpool
Speaking to Philippe Coutinho last season, a man who played for Pochettino at Espanyol, he describes his views as “very similar on the pressing side of the game” to Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp. On the other hand, he also likes to dominate the ball like Guardiola but was equally happy for his side to soak up pressure recently against Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid.
Pochettino revels in this ability to adjust the team’s approach. “I knew you would be surprised,” he said with a smile when discussing the 5-3-2 formation used in Madrid. “But it’s important to surprise our opponent, to be flexible, to have different ways to play. We can play three or four at the back, one or two strikers, two or three midfielders.”
Even when the formation remains similar, as it did for the visit of Liverpool on Sunday, Pochettino can tweak the tactics by changing the personnel – opting for the pace of Son Heung-Min instead of target-man Fernando Llorente and using Serge Aurier at left wing-back to cope with Mohamed Salah’s tendency to cut inside.
Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville admitted he was “baffled as to where everyone is playing” upon seeing the team-sheet beforehand. But of course, that’s just how Pochettino likes it. Dier’s illness forced a late change but through expert coaching and the trust he has built up with this young team, he is able to make multiple changes without skipping a beat.
Flexibility to the philosophy then, for the entertainer who wants to win. The trophies are yet to come Pochettino’s way but that is a debate for the fans on their forums. It is not how boards and presidents, chairman and chief executives, should assess a coach’s credentials. The concern should not be about what a man has done in the past but what he will do next.
Arsene Wenger’s accomplishment of winning the Premier League title 20 seasons ago was a formidable one. Mourinho’s remarkable Champions League success with Porto will go down in the history books. But that is where those feats now belong. Build them a statue. But to build for the future look at where the best work is being done now and who is doing it.
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October 28, 2017, 11:30am
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In a sense, it is this truth that former Southampton chief executive Nicola Cortese grasped when opting to bring Pochettino to England in 2013. The decision to dismiss Nigel Adkins was controversial but the principles behind it remain relevant. “This decision has been made with the long-term ambitions of Southampton football club in mind,” Cortese explained.
“For the club to progress and achieve our long-term targets a change was needed. Mauricio is a well-respected coach of substantial quality who has gained a reputation as an astute tactician and excellent man manager. I have every confidence that he will inspire our talented squad of players to perform at the highest possible level.
“He also shares my belief that the most successful clubs are built by nurturing young players through a development system that provides a clear path to the first team, thereby creating a culture that keeps them at the club for the long term.” Pochettino has delivered on all counts twice over. All that remains now is for Tottenham is to climb to the very top.
In many respects, however, it is obvious that their manager is already there.