James Lawton: Pochettino and Allegri poised to join football management inner circle
Mauricio Pochettino may still be in search of his first significant trophy but then what a prize beckons at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
Not only can he confirm the weight of Tottenham’s Premier League title challenge, he can take another step into the inner circle of football’s new men.
It is a relatively small but increasingly remarkable movement - other notable members include Massimiliano Allegri of Juventus and Diego Simone of Atletico Madrid – and not least because of a striking number of common denominators.
They are youngish, Pochettino, is the junior at 44 and Allegri the elder statesman at 48, extremely close to their players, and seem to believe, most stunningly of all in the age of Mourinho and Guardiola, that the only legitimate self-advertising is the quality of their work.
Certainly the profiles of their progress through this season could hardly be further away from those of the two most celebrated – and successful - coaches of their generation. While Mourinho is heavily reported to have told close friends that he is certain to be Louis Van Gaal’s successor at Manchester United, Guardiola recently deemed it politic to apologise for his undisguised pursuit of a Premier League job while so safely ensconced in mid-season with powerhouse Bayern Munich.
Guardiola sheepishly admitted that by going public he had applied still another level of “unfair” pressure on such fellow workers as his eventual victim, Manchester City’s amiable, and transparently decent, Manuel Pellegrii and the embattled Van Gaal at Old Trafford. Mourinho merely observed that his Chelsea players, having been taken by him to their finest level, had promptly betrayed his genius.
Meanwhile, the new men were getting on with the job in increasingly impressive style.
Simeone, who won La Liga and went so close to beating Real Madrid in the Champions League final in Lisbon two years ago, seems certain to continue to separate superpowers Barcelona and Real at the top of the league when he takes his combative, hard running and tactically knowing team to the Madrid suburbs at Getafe.
Atletico may not be a purist’s delight, not even with their old favorite Fernando Torres seeing out the last of his playing days, but they have an understanding of the art of the possible plainly passed on by their tough leader, who long after his cynical conniving of a red card for the artless David Beckham in the 1998 World Cup, is being seen in England, and not least at Chelsea, as a possible enforcer of some much needed competitive values.
It is Allegri and Pochettino, though, who are closest in operating style.
If there is any substance in the claim of his former Pescara manager Giovanni Galeone that he has nothing left to prove in Italy – except maybe a run with the national team – Allegri has quite emphatically refused to play the Mourinho and Guardiola game.
“What is the point of discussing something that doesn’t exist,” he told an Italian reporter probing the Chelsea speculation. “I have plenty of work to do here at Juventus and I hope that takes me into the summer,” or perhaps at least spring and a Champions League final.
Certainly Juventus, the reigning champions, entertain Serie A leaders on Napoli on Saturday, on the flood of confidence that has brought a run of 14 victories after a halting start to the season.
Allegri, whose title triumph last season followed a similar success at Milan, had produced his best work in the cultivation of such impressive 22-year-olds as Manchester United midfield defector Paul Pogba and the brilliant Argentinian Paul Dybala.
Both have developed superbly on Allegri’s watch. Pogba, having been christened Il Polpo Paul – the Octopus – is now being valued at €70m by Juventus and is said to the likely first target of former Juve manager, and current Italian boss Antonio Conte, if he should get the call from Chelsea. Dybala’s fine touch and often exquisite finishing has made him the sensation of the Serie A season.
“When you work with such players,” says Allegri, “you are not looking for other rewards. If they happen, they can come in the future. I’m very happy with the present.”
That is an echo of Pochettino’s reaction to suggestions that he too has become a potential item on the wanted list of both Chelsea and United. The latter possibility was hardly dampened by the private aside of Old Trafford’s most successful manager Alex Ferguson to the North London MP David Lammy that, “You guys have got the best manager in the Premier League.”
Like Allegri, Pochettino has said that his great priority is to do work that can be left behind as both a legacy to the club and a statement of his personal philosophy. “I take pride in getting close to my players,” he says, “and the great satisfaction is to know that you are helping them develop, to realise their potential. That is the best reason to do this job.”
It is a reward that is being beautifully fulfilled by a team which, while recruited relatively economically under the watchful gaze of club chairman Daniel Levy, has created the most promising title run since their legendary forerunners in the double season of 1960-61.
The dramatic emergece of high-pedigree young players Harry Kane and Dele Alli – and the craft of such as Danish playmaker Christian Eriksen – certainly makes the memory of the sublime triumvirate of Blanchflower, Mackay and White – and the brilliant wing play of Jones – seem less like a wonder lost in the mists of time.
Respect for Pochettino’s work gathers a little more respect with each stride towards the end of the season. His most recent victim, Watford manager Quigue Sanchez Flores, said, “Their performance is always at a high level, they have a clear plan in each match – and they repeat it every time they play. They have improved so much. The last time we played them at home it was more even but today it was impossible.
“In my opinion they have everything needed to be champions.”
Pochettino’s leading rival as manager of the year at this point, the veteran Claudio Ranieri – who back in Italy is being described as “The Magic Man” - is still another admirer.
After league-leading Leicester were recently knocked out of the FA Cup in front of their own people, Ranieri declared, “We cannot be downhearted. This is a very good Tottenham team. It is one building very well their ambition to win the title.”
For Pochettino, as it would have been for his partners in a new wave of football management, Allegri and Simeone, that was not so much high praise as his reason to exist.
Also, perhaps, the most convincing advertisement of them all.