The Sheriff Mauricio Pochettino’s hard-line approach

Mauricio Pottechino

Author: Thore Haugstad

The best way to understand Mauricio Pochettino is to observe him in action as a player, a coach at the training ground, or, better still, both. A few years ago, Southampton released a video in which he takes on Luke Shaw in game of two-touch football tennis. While Shaw is casual and light-hearted, Pochettino is engrossed, vocal, competitive. One ace merits clenched fists and cries of ‘Vamos! Vamos!’. A failed attempt at chesting the ball over the net triggers a despairing ‘Nooooo!’. When he wins the match, he sinks to his knees in celebration. This is the real Pochettino—a man of fervent ambition, discipline and dedication—whose temperament infuses teams that fight tooth and nail. His composed touchline persona can deceive. In one press conference, in which he admitted to having lost his rag with the players at half-time, it was put to him that such behaviour might seem out of character. “Really?” he replied. “I don’t really see myself in that way. I’ve kept up appearances quite well.”

On weekdays, Pochettino typically arrives at 7am and leaves at about 8pm. “My life is to go from the hotel to the training ground,” he once told the BBC. “In football there is not really a timetable; we just work all day long.” His players speak of a gruelling fitness regime that can feature up to three sessions a day. Pochettino has been known to organise drills of fifteen-minute intervals in which he pretends to forget the time, so that the players work harder and for longer than they think. Jack Cork said it felt like you needed two hearts to play for him. “He makes you suffer like a dog, and at the time you hate him for it,” Dani Osvaldo said. “But by the Sunday, you’re grateful, because it works.”

Success has followed Pochettino in all his jobs—Espanyol, Southampton, Tottenham—but he has sought no credit. In March, the Argentine magazine El Gráfico ran a rare interview in which they asked him why he so rarely did press. Even in his home country, people knew little about him. But Pochettino has no need to be appreciated or understood. “Praise isn’t something that moves me, because in truth, the most important thing is the collective—it is about the team, the club,” he once said. “Awards and hype are not important for me.” Whereas other managers indulge in the cultivation of their own image, Pochettino does not even have an agent. There are no endorsements, no public relations, no social media. “I don’t need five hundred thousand followers to feel good,” he told El Gráfico.

One of the most illuminating parts of the Gráfico interview came not from Pochettino, but from Lorena González, a journalist who had followed him since his time at Espanyol. “He is methodological about diets and time-keeping,” she said. “He is very detailed, keeps fit and has a fanatical relationship with work and discipline, punctuality and seriousness; and this is why he clashes with the more casual style that we sometimes show in Argentina… He has a very strong character. He’s suspicious, but once you win his loyalty, he’ll never let you down.”

One of the first people to gain his trust was Marcelo Bielsa. They first met when Bielsa turned up at his family’s house with his colleague Jorge Griffa. At that time, Pochettino was a fourteen-year-old boy living in Murphy, a small town situated a four-hour drive west of Buenos Aires. “What I did every day was go to school and play football all day long with my friends,” Pochettino would tell the BBC. “We didn’t have a TV in the house.” His parents did eventually buy a black-and-white set that his dad would power with a tractor battery, so Pochettino watched Daniel Passarella and Mario Kempes lead Argentina to their first World Cup triumph, on home soil, in 1978.

That day when Bielsa and Griffa appeared, Pochettino could hardly have contemplated the prospect of turning professional. It was one o’clock in the morning, and he was fast asleep.

“He looks like a footballer,” Bielsa is supposed to have said. They decided to sign him. Packing his bags, Pochettino left home to live in a pensión, shivering through sleepless nights as his friends were tucked in by their mothers. “It was very tough, but I was lucky,” Pochettino later said, according to The Sunday Times. “I had good people around me who helped me at that stage of my life. It’s important, because you need to learn the good from the bad. When you experience good things in your career it makes you not just a better player, but a better character.”

The nocturnal visit will not have surprised those who knew Bielsa. Nor would much else. Born into a family of lawyers and politicians, he had chosen football as the subject to which his obsessive nature and enormous work-rate would be applied. Having closed the book on an unspectacular playing career, at twenty-five, he moved to Buenos Aires to coach the university team. According to a piece written by Jonathan Wilson for Eight by Eight, he scouted three thousand players before selecting a squad of twenty. When once asked how he would spend his Christmas holiday, Bielsa outlined a daily schedule that contained two hours of exercise and fourteen hours of video analysis. Two years later, when taking a role at the Newell’s youth academy, he embarked on a crisscross scouting tour of Argentina, clocking up five thousand miles in a Fiat 147.

In 1990, Bielsa took charge of the Newell’s first team. Shaped by the Ajax school of the 1970s, he introduced a radical formations and a style of vertical passing and constant pressing. Those principles would inspire fellow managers to such an extent that Bielsa would become more known for his tactical influence than his trophy collection. Pep Guardiola and Jorge Sampaoli would seek his counsel, while Eduardo Berizzo and Gerardo Martino played for Newell’s at the time. One of the players that would pay tribute was Gabriel Batistuta, an academy graduate. Pochettino would draw on his erudition both as a player and a manager. Having debuted at sixteen, in 1988, he entered a thriving learning environment in which Bielsa instructed youngsters to draw up tactical dossiers on future opponents and read newspapers. This was not conventional coaching, but nor was Bielsa a conventional coach. In one game, Pochettino netted a header, only to receive an earful for having been in the wrong position.

The Bielsa years were memorable for Newell’s. In 1991 they won the Argentine championship; in 1992 they claimed the Clausura. That year they also reached the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores, in which they faced América de Cali. For the second leg, in Colombia, the players were bombarded with batteries from the stands. One player needed stitches in his head. At other away games, rival fans would smash the windows of the team bus as the players took cover on the floor. “Sometimes, you are worried for your life,” Pochettino would say. But it steeled him for the future. “When I came over to France, England or Spain, people told me it was difficult to play,” he said. “But when we arrived, it was nothing. They shout when something goes wrong, but nothing else. This is easy.”

That night in Colombia, Pochettino scored to secure a draw as Newell went through on penalties. They later lost the final to São Paulo in the same manner. That year, Bielsa resigned.

While Bielsa’s tactics have reverberated in the work of several top coaches, his mentality has also been influential. Pochettino shares many of his traits. Consider the shouts from the bench on match days, the apathy towards press and praise, the herculean demands of himself and his squad. In his Eight by Eight piece, Wilson writes that “both Bielsa’s apologists and his critics agree that he is relentless, a workaholic who expects others to work as hard as he does”. This attitude hit Pochettino in a formative period and might well have shaped the kind of player he would become after leaving for Espanyol in 1994—a strong and aggressive centre-back of great leadership and fortitude. “There is no doubt that he had an effect on me,” Pochettino told in 2011“He helped me to mature when I was starting my career at Newell’s, he helped me in the national team, and he’s even helped me since I took over at Espanyol.”

When Pochettino joined Espanyol, at twenty-two, the club had just been promoted to La Liga. Over the next six years, he became a mainstay and played with profiles such as Ismael Urzaiz, Raúl Tamudo and Iván Helguera. Coaches included José Antonio Camacho and Paco Flores. There was also a brief reunion with Bielsa in 1998, but he soon left to take the Argentina post. (Bielsa would lead Argentina for six years, during which Pochettino earned all his twenty caps.) At Espanyol, Pochettino became captain and guided the side to the Copa del Rey trophy in 2000. Half a year later he moved to Paris Saint-Germain, where he played with Mikel Arteta, Laurent Robert, Jay-Jay Okocha, Nicolás Anelka, Ronaldinho. After a sojourn at Bordeaux in 2003, he returned to Espanyol, first on loan, then permanently, in the summer of 2004. In 2006, they won another Copa del Rey. By that time Pochettino had made more than three hundred club appearances and, the same year, at thirty-four, he announced his retirement in a tearful press conference.

Listening to his former colleagues and coaches, a character emerges that seemed suited to management. “Pochettino had great charisma in the dressing room,” Flores said, according to The Guardian. “He never, ever accepted defeat and there was a huge amount of respect for him, almost like the hierarchy when you’re doing military service.” At PSG, he was made captain within a year. “We used to discuss tactics a lot,” Flores continued. “There would be debates, and you always got something out of it. He was meticulous and above all very ambitious. On the pitch, he was the coach’s arm.” A similar sense of leadership was noticed by Pablo Zabaleta, a team-mate in his second spell at Espanyol, who said: “I knew he was going to become a good manager.” So dominant was Pochettino, on and off the pitch, that the fans had nicknamed him ‘The Sheriff of Murphy’.

After retirement, Pochettino was never likely to opt for golf and punditry. He later spoke of how it was important for him to step outside the surreal bubble in which footballers live. He did a master in business management. (No wonder Daniel Levy would hire him.) As a player, he had prepared his next move. “I was a coach, but from below my neck I was still a player,” he said, according to The Sunday Times. “I wasn’t making notes or anything like that. I was not organised enough, but I always had the idea of being a manager and I was always making mental notes. I knew what I wanted to do. I didn’t just stop playing and think, ‘Now what?’”

In January 2009, Espanyol parted ways with José Manuel Esnal, who had failed to win any of his six league games since succeeding Bartolomé Márquez in early December. The board decided to take a punt on Pochettino. The club were eighteenth in the league, five points from safety, and while the initial plan had been to hand Pochettino control of the second team, the situation was so dramatic that they took the risk. The stakes were high on both sides. Having played for the club two-and-a-half years earlier, Pochettino now walked into a dressing room full of old friends. According to The Guardian, he had received his coaching badges just two months ago, and his only managerial experience had come as assistant manager of the Espanyol women’s team.

“It doesn’t matter who the person is,” Pochettino said as he took charge, according to the same paper. “As a player I was demanding; as a manager, I will be too.”

The start was slow. With ten weeks to go, Espanyol were bottom, eight points from safety, with four wins. As the story goes, Pochettino hiked twelve kilometres to Montserrat and begged the Virgin to save his team. Espanyol duly won eight of their remaining ten games, including a victory at the Camp Nou, and came tenth.

Over the next three years, Pochettino would implement his beliefs. According to The Guardian, he ordered that all sides in the academy play 4-4-2—in his view the best formation for player development—and that each age group face older teams in order to steepen the learning curve. A series of youngsters debuted under his reign. At the first team, he supervised punishing fitness work and introduced a high-pressing 4-2-3-1. Over the three seasons, Espanyol were among the teams with the poorest discipline. In the final campaign, they were the very worst, racking up a hundred and forty-three yellows and twelve reds. “There are teams that wait for you, and teams that look for you,” said Guardiola. “Espanyol look for you.”

In his handling of players and staff, Pochettino merited his sobriquet. The decisions were ruthless. Tamudo, the club’s all-time top scorer, was shown the door. According to The Guardian, Pochettino also flogged the fitness coach within weeks, despite Pochettino being his son’s godfather. “He wanted to control everything,” said Moisés Hurtado, according to the same paper. “The first season was fine: he’d been a player and he understood, he connected with us well. But then things changed. He seemed to see conspiracy where there was none, and some good people had to leave out the back door, and not just players. He wanted everyone to dance to his tune, people entirely committed to him. The atmosphere ended up not being so good. In purely sporting terms, though, there was no problem: he got great results and we played well.”

Over the three full seasons, Espanyol came eleventh, eighth and fourteenth. But in the fourth, retrenchment had forced the sales of players such as Osvaldo, Álvaro Vázquez and José Callejón, and Espanyol took one point off their first six league games. That cost Pochettino his job in November. Yet most observers acknowledged the tricky conditions, and he left with a solid reputation based on attractive football and admirable work with youngsters.

Pochettino had initially planned to rest until summer—“I wanted to spend some time getting my energy back, travelling, getting ideas, seeing things in a new light,” he would tell the BBC—but then Nicola Cortese called. An Italian-Swiss banker, Cortese had induced one of his clients, Markus Liebherr, to buy Southampton in 2009. At that time the south-coast club were in League One with a ten-point deduction, but Cortese appointed himself executive chairman and targeted a swift return to the elite. When Alan Pardew failed to reach the play-offs in 2009/10, Cortese replaced him with Nigel Adkins, who delivered consecutive promotions. Back in the Premier League, Adkins struggled at first, but steadied the ship. Indeed, when he had masterminded a 2-2 comeback at Stamford Bridge in January, Southampton had lost just two of their last twelve league games. Cortese fired him anyway.

This gave Pochettino a turbulent start. The fans had been antagonised by the sacking of Adkins, who had left as the Southampton manager with the highest win ratio since the 19th century. In an online poll conducted by local paper Southern Daily Echo, ninety-two percent disagreed with the decision. Pundits and journalist condemned the sacking. The Southampton Independent Supporters Association even planned to wave white handkerchiefs at the next game, at home to Everton. “This is a major gamble and the reputation of the club is at stake,” said Perry McMillan, their vice-chairman. “Do we really want to go the way of Chelsea?”

It was classic Cortese. Steeped in the hard-edged world of top-level banking, he had managed the finances of billionaires and was accustomed to making calls irrespective of emotion and popularity. According to The Independent, he had increased ticket prices at St Mary’s and fired long-serving programme sellers. The local paper had been banned. Matthew Le Tissier described him as “not a very nice human being”, and it surely didn’t help that Cortese had fallen out with the Ex-Saints Association. But Cortese was demanding and impatient, and he answered to no one. “Maybe I need to sacrifice my popularity to get the right decision,” he said after sacking Adkins. “If that’s the case, I’m happy.”

Cortese’s influence was difficult to overstate. Operating in an autocratic role, he essentially ran the club on his own. “I was working seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, whether I was in the office or not,” he would tell the BBC. He supervised the construction of a twelve-pitch training ground that had assorted types of grass. The scouting set-up was one of the best in the country. At one point, according to the BBC, when the team struggled on the road, Cortese demanded to know why, handing out questionnaires to the players about their daily habits. The club started to book hotel rooms for two nights instead of one, so that their own cleaning staff could be dispatched in advance. They brought mattresses tailored to each player, plus duvets, sheets and pillow cases washed by the club with the same washing powder. That way, sleeping would feel and smell the same wherever they played. Chefs travelled ahead to prepare food. No matter was too trivial for Cortese. According to the Southern Echo, he once intervened over the shape and size of the stadium lobby’s Christmas tree.

Recall how some Espanyol colleagues described Pochettino and you see the congeniality. It is tempting to call the appointment the closest Cortese could come to appointing himself. “He is a very pragmatic and direct person…” Pochettino said. “He tells me things straight to my face and is tough when he has to be, because he is the figurehead.” They also shared a similar sense of ambition. When Southampton reached the Premier League, Cortese drew up a five-year plan that asked not if they could win the title, but how.

At his introductory press conference, Pochettino said he had been researching the team for weeks. After a reasonable draw with Everton, he got down to work. He did not have a house, and his family had stayed behind in Barcelona for now; towards the end of the season, he said half-jokingly that his daily life had been limited to twelve hours at the training ground and hamburger meals in the hotel restaurant. Much was also made of his use of an interpreter. Pochettino did speak decent English, but feared being misquoted or misunderstood. “I don’t see it as an excuse, but I do spend from 7am to 8pm at the training ground working all day long,” he said. “So that doesn’t give me much time left to have extra English lessons.”

Southampton proceeded to lose 2-1 at Manchester United, but won at home to Liverpool and Chelsea. They finished fourteenth. “Our style of play is to win back the ball as soon as possible and then play it,” Pochettino had said in February. “We moved forward our lines and play more upfield. When we lose the ball we must have the mentality of winning it back as soon as possible.” This came with a risk, but Pochettino accepted it. Against Liverpool, he exploded at half-time after the players had shipped a goal in established play. “We are an attack-minded team and always want to push forward, and it’s not such a big deal if we concede a goal when we are pressing really high to get a goal for ourselves as well,” he told the press. “But to concede a goal when there are ten of my players in my own area, in my own box, and concede a goal like that, I can never tolerate that.”

The following pre-season was always going to be tough. According to The Daily Mail, Pochettino organised days of training from 10am to noon, 2pm to 4pm, 6pm to 8pm. On a tour abroad, amid an eighteen-day conditioning phase, Pochettino made the players walk barefoot over burning-hot coal. “That was the easy part,” Rickie Lambert told The Telegraph.

Armed with newfound endurance, Southampton finished the next season in eighth place. They had the most possession in the league—58.4 percent—but only the eighth highest pass completion—81.1 percent—which underlined the frequency with which they recovered the ball. The aggression Pochettino had demanded was on display: they made the third most tackles, the fourth most fouls. An analysis by Michael Caley at SB Nation found that no other side had forced their opponents into a lower pass completion average. “The effectiveness of Pochettino’s press at breaking up play is unrivalled,” Caley noted.

Parallel to this, Pochettino again promoted youth. Talents who improved included Shaw, Morgan Schneiderlin, Adam Lallana, James Ward-Prowse, Calum Chambers, Nathaniel Clyne. “He’d have us pressing high, keeping a high line, receiving the ball in difficult situations, keeping possession and basically having the confidence to play football rather than being afraid,” said Clyne. “The understanding in our defence was down to our training. Personally, it took my game to another level.” Older players also improved. “Tactically he’s very, very good,” José Fonte told The Guardian. “He gives you a lot of advice in terms of positioning, in terms of aggression, anticipation, interceptions, play, be brave; and he gives you the confidence to go on the pitch and give everything for him.”

The triangle of Pochettino’s regime consists of high pressing, fitness work and young players. Stamina is fundamental to make the system work; just ask Bielsa, whose teams have sometimes made fast starts before tiring. Bielsa once said that if football were played by robots, he would always win. Accordingly, Pochettino seems to try to make his players as close to robotic as possible. Youngsters are ideal for this because they are easier to manage, receptive to new ideas, and bring energy and enthusiasm. As such, all three factors are interlinked.

The 2013/14 season would be Pochettino’s last at Southampton. In January, Cortese resigned over differences with Katharina Liebherr, who had inherited the ownership after Markus had died in 2010. Pochettino stayed until summer, but considered quitting immediately. “I would not understand a Southampton without Nicola being here,” he said.

Tottenham moved quickly to sign Pochettino. Since he had no agent, he negotiated directly with Levy. “He offered the contract and I say yes or no or I want more,” Pochettino said, according to The Guardian. “He has a reputation as a very hard businessman? It’s true. I can feel that.”

If players aversive to labour feared his appointment, they had every reason to. “Our philosophy is ‘suffer in training so you don’t suffer in the game’,” Pochettino said in his first interview, now in English. Mousa Dembélé soon spoke of being “tired every day” and how training had become “much harder”. Christian Eriksen said there had been days where he had gone to bed pretty early. By August, Danny Rose had lost weight without even noticing. “Seriously,” Rose said, recalling Pochettino’s message about suffering. “He wasn’t joking either.”

The denominator for these players is that they spoke in a positive sense. “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,” Rose said in October. “I’m far more tactically aware and more consistent.”

There was also another side to Pochettino. Behind the scenes, he can be affectionate, warm, tactile. The respect he enjoyed as a player has been retained as a manager. Discipline is interspersed with humour. In late August, Rose had been called up to the England squad, but was unaware of this when Pochettino called him to his office one morning.

Pochettino: “I’ve got something to tell you…”

Rose: “What is it?”

Pochettino: “We’ve accepted a bid. We’re selling you.”

Rose: “No you’re not…”

Pochettino: “Yeah it’s true.”

Pochettino stayed serious. Then one of the coaches walked in and said: “Oh, have you told him he’s got to go?”

By December, Tottenham had suffered few injuries and won three league games thanks to stoppage-time goals. “We try to work very hard, and now it’s easy to push them to the limit,” Pochettino said. “To arrive in this moment with the squad fully fit is very important for us.” One of the stories of the season would be Harry Kane. “I feel the fittest I’ve ever felt and the best shape I’ve ever been in,” Kane said in February. “The gaffer did a lot of work on getting us fit and it’s really starting to work. In pre-season there were double sessions, times when you were pushing yourself to the limit, but you’re doing it for a reason. This is the reason that you’re seeing now.”

Tottenham eventually came fifth, and would outrun their opponents in forty of their first forty-five league games under Pochettino. On a more fundamental level, Pochettino had tried to change a mentality that had given Spurs a reputation for being complacent and mentally fragile. “We did a lot of work in groups and as individuals on the training ground, in meeting rooms and in my personal office,” he had said in October. “But always you need more time to change the habits. We talk about mentalities and changing habits. It is harder to work on. The mental process is always more slow than the physical or tactical. We know that our challenge is to change this mentality.”

There were victims. Pochettino initially made Younès Kaboul captain, but dropped him in November and sold him in summer. Others were weighed and found too light, such as Paulinho, Michael Dawson, Étienne Capoue and Vlad Chiricheș. Pochettino also told Emmanuel Adebayor he could go, but the striker stayed and retained his £100,000-a-week contract. Pochettino responded by withdrawing his squad number and banning him from training. When Aaron Lennon joined Everton on loan in February, Pochettino said: “It’s easy to identify the players who aren’t happy because they’ve not played much in the last few months. But we are a club. And when you sign a contract as a player, you need to understand that you don’t sign to play, you sign to train. And then the club signs a manager or head coach to pick the players. This is football.”

Another example was made of Andros Townsend, who clashed with fitness coach Nathan Gardiner after a game against Aston Villa. Pochettino banned him from the squad. “When you behave in the wrong way, you always need to pay,” he said. “It’s always my decision when he is available again to be part of the squad. Discipline for me is very important. I can understand the player—we have a young squad and a player can make a mistake—but when you cross the limit it is important to stop that.” Townsend later apologised, but Pochettino said: “Football is not only about taking the ball in your feet and playing. You have a responsibility as a professional.” He added: “All players have a future. It’s up to them to have a future here.”

The players cast aside were replaced by youngsters. Dele Alli become part of the line-up in 2015/16, while roles have been given to Ryan Mason, Nabil Bentaleb, Tom Carroll, Eric Dier. “The young player, if he deserves to play, why not give him a chance?” Pochettino said, according to The Sunday Times. “You have to build the player. A good example is Dier. He played centre-back, full-back and this season we train him as a holding midfielder. He learns because he’s young.” Last September, Tottenham beat Manchester City 4-1 with an average age of twenty-four years and forty days, according to The Guardian; the youngest team of the season up to that point.

There is an argument that Pochettino deserved more credit for finishing fifth and reaching the League Cup final in his first season. In his second year, however, more praise has arrived. “In my role as an England coach, I have noticed the difference in psychology and application when Tottenham players come into the camp,” Gary Neville wrote in The Telegraph. “They now arrive prepared for the battle, ready to play, ready to work. They look like they want to partake in the meetings. All the things you would want from responsible players are there. It seems to me that Pochettino has given the younger players the confidence to express themselves, off the pitch as well.”

The psychological work seemed to be working. By November, Tottenham had not lost in the league since the opening day. One particularly resounding victory came at home to West Ham. “They were quicker than us, physically stronger, scored goals and grew in confidence,” Slaven Bilić said. “It was 4-1, a massive defeat, but we have to admit it could have been more after 3-0. It was a shock.” Later that month, Dembélé reflected on the new regime. “Pochettino is trying to change the culture of the club, and that was needed,” he said. “The mentality has changed and you can see the difference. We play more pressing and we try to be sharper, whereas in the past we were two goals up and then we’d draw. This season, people talk more. You have to be awake. There has been a big change.”

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