11 Apr 2016
MAURICIO POCHETTINO: YOUTH ON HIS SIDE
Beneath the calm exterior of Tottenham Hotspur head coach Mauricio Pochettino lies tenacity, passion, clarity of purpose and vision.
With just a few months left of the 2015/16 season, Tottenham Hotspur sit tantalisingly close to winning a title that has eluded them for over half a century. Whatever the final outcome, the team and head coach Mauricio Pochettino have fought valiantly in one of the most exciting and unpredictable Barclays Premier League battles in recent memory, with not only the top position but the top four remaining all to play for.
Undoubtedly, the excitement among the club's fans will be at fever point, but both here, at Spurs' elite training facility in North London, and throughout the season Pochettino has been every inch the professional; composed and focused. When he speaks his eyes focus without distraction on the person he is addressing, his English is confident and fluent and his responses are natural and earnest.
Despite his success to date and the extent to which this season’s title race has thrown the young Argentinian into the spotlight, he remains modest and grounded. His childhood growing up in an agricultural family may hold some clues as to how, although like many footballers his mind was on one thing from an early age, and it wasn't the farm. “When I was a boy growing up in Argentina, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t playing football – at the farm, at school and then at my first club, Union Y Cultura, in my home town of Murphy,” he says. “Everything was about football.”
From these humble beginnings Pochettino went on to enjoy a very successful career as a player both in Argentina at Newell's Old Boys and in Europe, at Spanish club Espanyol - where he would later get his first opportunity to manage – and in France at Paris Saint-Germain. He also earned 20 caps for Argentina over four years, competing at the 2002 World Cup.
Relocating, as a player, over 6,000 miles from home to another continent and culture is never going to be easy, but Pochettino says in many ways the fact his first move was to Spain made it a softer landing than it could otherwise have been. “At least the language was the same and the culture and food similar and Barcelona is one of the best cities in the world to live and work in,” he says. “I settled very well and met some great people, including Toni Jimenez, Espanyol's goalkeeper at the time and now my goalkeeping coach at Tottenham.”
Pochettino places great importance on loyalty and maintaining relationships; among his coaching staff at Southampton and now Spurs are not only Jimenez but also Miguel D’Agostino, a former teammate at Newell's Old Boys and now Spurs first-team coach. Current assistant head coach Jesus Perez, meanwhile, first worked with Pochettino as first-team tactical analyst and football sports scientist at Espanyol.
A MANAGER IN WAITING
Pochettino retired from professional football when he was 34, but he was 25 and playing for Paris Saint-Germain when he first realised that his future lay in management.
“I think that every manager I played under at club and international level helped me to learn about management in some way, but in particular Marcelo Bielsa at Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina,” he says. “Inspiration comes from everyone that you work for, as well as those you play alongside.”
During his career as an Argentinian international Pochettino shared a pitch with great players such as Gabriel Batistuta, Fernando Redondo and Diego Maradona, experience that can only have helped him when he made the transition to manager.
“It was all great first-hand experience of what players of this kind of stature are like, what they are feeling and thinking, and how they behave and react to situations,” he says. “I'm sure it has helped me when managing high-profile players in my own sides.”
Pochettino knows, for example, how it feels for a player to make a mistake at the worst possible time, the pain of the fallout and how tough it can be to bounce back. The penalty he gave away against England in 2002 is not a happy memory, but one he says taught him valuable lessons about resilience and mental toughness, lessons he can now pass on to his young charges. “As a manager you have to try to use your experiences as a player to engage with your team and help them to learn. In life and in football, you have to learn from every action and experience.”
Once he realised that he wanted to pursue a career in management Pochettino sought out courses that would prepare him for his chosen future. His first step was to go to university, where he took an MBA in Sports Business. “You can be in a bit of a bubble as a player,” he says, “so it was good for me to experience life outside of that; to see life in a different context and from a different perspective.”
The knowledge he gained on the course has also proven invaluable in his management career, not least the understanding he gained of how the many diverse roles in a football club fit together. “Football today is a business and as a manager you need to have not only tactical knowledge about the game but also a real understanding of all aspects of the running of a club,” he says.
THE BENEFIT OF YOUTH
Pochettino's first chance to manage came in 2009 at his former club Espanyol, where he stayed for four years. The development of young players was to be a major focus during his tenure and indeed a necessity for the club at the time. The young manager helped to redesign the youth set-up from the ground up, for example getting each team to play in the age group above to increase their competitiveness and accelerate their development. It worked; more than a dozen young players made their first-team debuts under Pochettino and only three First Division teams had more players from the youth teams in their first-team squads.
This focus on giving young players the chance and game experience to fulfil their potential has been a common thread throughout Pochettino's subsequent tenures at Southampton and Tottenham. He gave first-team debuts to three of his academy players at Southampton and two at Tottenham, with a further four debuts given to players under 23. It's worth noting also that the current Tottenham squad doesn't have a single outfield player over the age of 30, and 10 of the last 18 England debutants have been managed by Pochettino.“I like to give opportunities to young players but it’s not my only recruitment or development philosophy. For me it’s very important to come up with a good balance between senior players and young players.”
A CLEAR VOICE
When he moved to Southampton in 2013 he adjusted immediately, to the culture of the club, the Barclays Premier League and the country as a whole, but initially the language was a barrier. Pochettino can speak French, Spanish and some Italian, but while his English is now strong, during his first season at Southampton he spoke through a translator in interviews. He realised quickly just how important it would be to integrate fully.
“I was very happy to have the opportunity to come to England, but it was certainly a challenge when I first arrived at Southampton and couldn't speak the language,” he says. “It was very important for me to learn the language and understand its nuances. I believe that understanding the culture and language of the country is essential not only in settling into your new work environment, but also for you and your family to settle into life outside of it.”
Clearly defining and communicating the culture and vision that he wanted for the club was also important in establishing himself during those early days, says Pochettino. “My coaching staff and I always have a plan and ideas in mind and are open and clear when we share our vision with the players. I was lucky to have such good players and highly professional people around me at Southampton, which meant we were able to quickly establish links and a common understanding of the kind of culture that we like to work in. We shared our philosophy and they believed in our approach. Within a year and a half I believe we created a strong team and a strong culture and this was an important achievement for us at the club.”
He has done likewise at Tottenham, which he joined as head coach in May 2014. Here, a hard work ethic around conditioning and training, supported by the club's state-of-the-art facility, is also a central part of Pochettino's philosophy. However, he is quick to point out, it is always underlined by common sense. “We don't just work the players hard,” he says. “Their work schedules are always planned with their benefit in mind and it is very important to us that each player not only performs well on match day but also enjoys it,” he says. “For that to happen you need to make sure that they are properly prepared during the week so that they arrive in the right condition, physically and mentally, to compete at their best.
“We also talk with the players individually to make sure that we know what their motivations and requirements are,” he adds. “That's a long process that starts as soon as I arrive at a new club and I meet the players and staff for the first time.”
There is a youthfulness about the Spurs manager and it's easy to imagine that this would help him connect with his players and, given his experiences as both a player and a manager, his young charges have much to aspire to and respect. But the most important thing, he says, is to always be yourself and treat the players as people.
“It's one of the core principles of my philosophy that we should always see an individual as a person before we see them in their professional capacity,” he explains, “and at Tottenham we keep a separation between the human and professional sides. When, for example, I have to choose between players, they understand that it is the professional side of being a footballer.”
Pochettino believes also that the values you exemplify off the pitch are as important as those on it, and everyone working at the club and invited into its training facility is treated with courtesy and warmth. On arrival at training each morning everyone shakes hands with one other; it's a very personal touch that serves to build the sense of togetherness and mutual respect within the team, and one that epitomises Pochettino's style as a manager.
Can Tottenham realise their dream this season? One thing is for certain: Pochettino will have a clear plan and everyone around him will know exactly what they have to do to try and achieve it.