Sport Soccer

Wednesday 21 August 2019

Sam Wallace: 'Pochettino - The great strategist who challenges the elite by making the most of his resources'

Mauricio Pochettino celebrates with his Tottenham players at the Etihad on Wednesday. Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Mauricio Pochettino celebrates with his Tottenham players at the Etihad on Wednesday. Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Sam Wallace

Mauricio Pochettino's autobiography is full of digressions on his attitude towards football, life and success which he occasionally attributes to the obscurity of his birthplace deep in the Argentine farmlands of Santa Fé, "far away from the places that things happened".

As a child, he would imagine solutions to particular challenges and delight in them playing out just as he had hoped.

"Others may call it intuition. Or even an aptitude for reading the future," he says. "I am sure it is not that, but I have great faith in this ability which I've always had and can't fully explain."

Then there is his belief in an "aura that accompanies people", something his wife Karina calls "universal energy", and another part of what Pochettino comfortably declares is his people-management skill set.

It is not the usual stuff that public figures, much less Premier League managers, tend to admit.

Calculating

He can be unusually candid and much less calculating than others. Neither did Tottenham Hotspur's manager burst upon the scene with a high yield of major trophies in the way others launched their careers. Pochettino has famously never won a single one.

His rise, all the way to the semi-finals of the Champions League with Spurs, represents something different - the ability to challenge the elite at a club with fewer resources.He is the great strategist who, on a night when he was without at least three important players and lost another to injury, still found a way to win.

A master of improving players, who has not made a single signing over two transfer windows and with a wage bill of around £100 million less than Manchester City. The coach of a side who have spent most of the past two seasons playing away from their home stadium. These are all factors that are supposed to make success impossible.

Then there is the South American soulfulness - that part of him which he says constantly reflects on his own emotions and those around him.

Asked whether the away-goal defeat of City over two legs was his greatest achievement, Pochettino preferred to single out the 2008-'09 season, at Espanyol, when he took over in the January and saved the club from relegation. It had meant that much, he said, because this was the club of his career, where he was a crowd favourite and his sons were fans.

"When no one believes you are going to survive and be in the first division, I think that was maybe not [my best] sporting achievement because that looks like I'm saying we won a trophy. But emotionally it was my best achievement."

His reaction at the final whistle, when Pochettino roared in the embrace of his three long-serving staff members, was a rare instance of him allowing the emotion loose in public.

Equally striking was how quickly he regained control. The camera followed him closely in the ensuing moments, although he did not look into it once, and there was no glib point he wished to make to the watching millions. Instead, he sought out his players.

It was on April 14 last year that Spurs lost at home to City 3-1, the first of five games in which they won just once and including their FA Cup semi-final defeat by Manchester United. That semi-final, like the defeat by Chelsea at the same stage of the FA Cup in 2017, was an opportunity Spurs allowed to pass them by. Should they lose to Ajax over two legs, similar questions will be asked about their robustness.

Yet, if one goes back to when Pochettino took over five years ago, it feels absurd that a Spurs manager would be judged on his side failing to reach the Champions League final. Perhaps it is because there is nothing as tangible as a trophy that the mood can change so quickly with the fluctuation of form.

Yet there is no doubt that Pochettino has transformed the club far beyond what a single FA Cup might represent compared to the progress of three top-four finishes and a Champions League semi-final.

The last few moments of Wednesday's game, when Raheem Sterling's disallowed goal seemed to have won the tie, encapsulated how fine those margins have been.

"It was a moment where I threw my jacket, threw my jumper and I went to sit next to Jesus and Miguel and Toni," Pochettino said. "It was a few seconds like this [head in hands]. It was so fast. There were a lot of bad feelings and bad ideas. When Christian [Eriksen] played [the ball] back, I was thinking, 'Why not play forward?' I was reviewing the action, the decision, how I was going to face the players, the fans. It's amazing how quick things happen in your mind, different emotions and ideas."

Pochettino has tended to use defeats or setbacks as a point to challenge the club - he did so at the end of last season and then signed a new contract almost immediately. But it has never truly felt he has wanted to leave. He seems uniquely suited to the challenges that a club such as Spurs presents. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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