Mauricio Pochettino's rise from Espanyol to Tottenham
By Nick Wright
Last Updated: 10/02/16 7:36am
We chart the rise of Mauricio Pochettino and examine how he is transforming Tottenham ahead of their Super Sunday showdown with Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium...
Sir Alex Ferguson never faced Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham but it is safe to assume his team talk would have been rather different to the one Roy Keane made famous two years ago. "It was Tottenham at home," recalled the former Manchester United captain. "He came in and said: 'Lads, it's Tottenham', and that was it. Brilliant."
Keane was using that anecdote to highlight Ferguson's knack for knowing exactly what his players needed to hear, but it said even more about Spurs. To their rivals, they were a soft touch; the Premier League's nearly team, where managers came and went but the formula stayed the same.
Pochettino, though, is overseeing a transformation. The traditional flakiness has been replaced by what their head coach calls a "winning mentality", and Spurs sit second in the Premier League having won seven of their last nine games, including Saturday's utterly dominant 1-0 victory over Watford. "They are like animals," said an awe-struck Quique Sanchez Flores. "They have everything a team needs to try to be champions."
That includes the fearlessness with which they will approach Sunday's clash with Manchester City. "I think we are different people now," said Pochettino on Saturday. "We live in the present, and the group of players, the staff, the club, the president and the supporters believe we are strong and we can win every game. This is important."
This Spurs side is built in Pochettino's image. The former Argentina international was a tough, tactically astute centre-back in his playing days. He often references the influence of Marcelo Bielsa as a youngster at Newell's Old Boys in his homeland, and he went on to spend most of his playing career at Espanyol, where he had two spells either side of a stint in France with Paris Saint-Germain and Bordeaux.
"As a player at Espanyol, Pochettino was a leader, a captain and just generally somebody who people listened to when he talked," Spanish football expert Guillem Balague tells Sky Sports. "He was a big-name international and when he returned as the coach in 2009, it was the return of the prodigal son in a way."
Espanyol was Pochettino's first job in management and he inherited a side that looked doomed to relegation from La Liga, but within a month he had overseen their first away win against arch-rivals Barcelona in 27 years, and they ended the season in 10th place after an extraordinary run of eight wins from their last 10 games.
For the next three seasons Pochettino kept Espanyol competitive despite the club being in what Balague describes as "financial disarray". Key players were repeatedly sold but Pochettino put his faith in youngsters from their academy and the bold approach paid off. "No coach took more points from Pep Guardiola's Barcelona," says Balague. "With what he had, it was a fantastic achievement."
Espanyol played with the high-intensity style that would become a hallmark of his Southampton and Spurs sides. "It was possession football, with building from the back," says Balague. "He gave the players the confidence to do exactly that and he made us [the fans] enjoy it. The results weren't always great but for three seasons they were good enough and we were enjoying the football."
Pochettino's side began to slide in the 2012/13 season and he left by mutual consent with them bottom of the table that November. It was a sad way to depart and showed he still had much to learn, but Southampton's former executive chairman Nicola Cortese had seen enough to controversially sack Nigel Adkins and appoint the young coach at St Mary's just a couple of months later.
The decision provoked widespread outcry, but the doubts didn't linger for long. Southampton successfully avoided relegation in 2012/13, and Pochettino was able to put his stamp on the team as they secured an eighth-placed finish in 2013/14 - just two years on from their promotion from the Championship.
All the players bought into his philosophy and he got respect from every player at the football club."
Matt Le Tissier
"I think his biggest asset was probably the team spirit that he got going at Southampton," Saints legend Matt Le Tissier told Sky Sports. "All the players bought into his philosophy and he got respect from every player at the football club."
Tales of Pochettino's gruelling training techniques began circulating in the summer of 2013. The Argentine subjected his players to three sessions per day during pre-season, and he even made them walk barefoot across hot coals. "At times you want to kill him, simply because he makes you suffer like a dog," said Pablo Osvaldo, who worked with Pochettino at Espanyol and Southampton. "But, in the end, you get the right results."
Pochettino's demands were a culture shock, but Southampton's players were smitten by the 43-year-old and the club reaped the rewards. "He's world-class, not just as a manager, but as a person," said Adam Lallana. "The way he man-manages his players. He makes you feel good about yourself."
That year, Pochettino's men were the fittest and fastest side in the division, forcing opponents into mistakes with feverish pressing all over the pitch. Premier league tracking data showed Southampton ranked first for distance covered and high-intensity sprints, and it is no coincidence that Spurs have overtaken Saints in both departments since his move to White Hart Lane.
Pochettino's Premier League running stats
|Season||Club||Distance covered rank||Sprints rank|
Pochettino works on his players' confidence as well as their fitness. "He planted it into our heads that even if we were up against bigger teams and bigger players, we could compete at the same level as them," said Nathaniel Clyne. "Personally, it took my game to another level."
Clyne is not the only one to have felt the benefits. "We do have to work hard in training and I do suffer but it's an enjoyable kind of suffering because I'm benefitting so much," said Danny Rose a few months after Pochettino arrived at Spurs. "I'm far more tactically aware and more consistent."
Pochettino has a ruthless side, too. At Espanyol he stripped his former team-mate Raul Tamudo of the captaincy despite the striker's legendary status at the club, and he has shown a willingness to wield the axe at Spurs. Emmanuel Adebayor was completely frozen out after refusing to fall in line, and Andros Townsend's days were numbered from the moment he publically rowed with fitness coach Nathan Gardiner in November.
After Espanyol and Southampton, Pochettino's youth policy has been even more successful at Spurs. The philosophy is embodied by teenager Dele Alli, who has been a revelation this season, and Spurs' dynamic and hungry squad does not contain a single outfield player over the age of 30.
"Pochettino is quite happy to give young players a chance ahead of big-name players, as long as they're good enough," says former striker Terry Gibson, who came through the youth ranks at Spurs in the late 1970s and early 1980s. "I think he enjoys working with the young players because they take on board his ideas and they're fit enough to carry them out.
"His treatment of Roberto Soldado and Harry Kane was the perfect example," adds Gibson. "The club paid a hell of a lot of money for Soldado but he was quite happy to let them fight it out and for Kane to be the first choice. It has worked perfectly. Now they're thriving and they look a really good side.
"Spurs have always had a reputation as a cup team but he's changing it now and we Spurs fans are really enjoying it. We're still pessimistic about winning the league or winning anything, but that's the nature of being a Spurs fan when we haven't won the league for so long. I think there is a genuine belief now that Tottenham can go close."
If Pochettino feels his players need any extra motivation when they travel to the Etihad Stadium, he could do a lot worse than remind them just how far they have come since Ferguson's famous team talk.
Watch Manchester City v Tottenham live on Sky Sports 1 HD from 3.30pm on Sunday