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POCHETTINO x PSG
Tottenham Hotspur had always been a club for the glamour - capable of attracting the games most talented youngsters and international superstars (albeit past their prime). Yet trophies were not a currency they were used to dealing with. Under Pochettino, whilst Tottenham did not win any trophies, they still achieved tangible outcomes and earnt the respect of the footballing world. For three seasons in a row, they were the most consistent team in the league with the highest combined points tally. With a nominally low budget, Pochettino had succeeded in turning them into genuine contenders and successfully cemented their status as the club of choice in North London - no mean feat. The zenith would come in 2018 when Spurs reached the Champions League final beating favorites Manchester City and Ajax on the way. For Pochettino, it was the crowning moment of his reign... but it would prove to be the beginning of the end.
In an early morning in April 2019, news flashed across the world, Mauricio Pochettino's tenure as Tottenham Hotspur had come to an end. The Argentine was relieved of his duties after a difficult start to the ongoing season. It was the end of an era. An era that can best be described by the rise of a team that in previous decades had somewhat flattered to deceive only to scale unfathomable new heights only to once again fall at the final hurdle. But, after a 20 months hiatus, The Argentine is back in the business by returning to Ligue 1 club Paris Saint Germain as their new manager, replacing Thomas Tuchel. Pochettino also played for the French club from Jan 2001- July 2003 under French-Spanish manager Luiz Fernandez as Central defender and now after more than 17 years, he is most likely to come back to Paris as a head coach.
A hallmark of Pochettino's management philosophy is "paying attention to every detail", an attribute he honed under the guidance of Marcelo Bielsa. Pochettino was a driving factor behind the new stadium at White Hart Lane, adamant that the club's style was being hindered by a tight space to work in. Tottenham's old stadium "The White Hart Lane'' had the third smallest pitch in the Premier League at 100 metres by 67 metres, according to the official statistics, behind QPR (100 metres by 65.85 metres) and Stoke (100 metres by 66 metres). Other aspects that were seized upon included the length of grass, one v one sports psychology, group sessions to build player confidence, video reviews for better performance and so much more. Gone was the laissez-faire approach so typical of Tottenham - Pochettino wanted to ensure his side were as well-prepared if not more so than any of their rivals. If they could not compete on budget, they would outperform them with their meticulous attention to detail on and off the pitch. A famous example of this was his bespoke approach to dealing with Luke Shaw's dietary issues at Southampton. Pochettino took it upon himself to pick him up before training and make him healthy vegetable smoothies. "He called me his son, that’s how good our relationship was. I’ve had lots of downs, but when I was with Pochettino it was only ever up, up, up.” He preferred to work with young players by believing in their capacity to change and turnaround the fate of the club they represent. Like his mentor Bielsa, a certain level of 'mental freshness' is required to play for a man as intense as Pochettino.
Pochettino's favoured formation was a narrow 4-2-3-1, which tended to operate as a 4-2-2-2 with double pivots and double-playmakers, thus giving the side a very narrow feel and one which sought to dominate the game in central areas through the use of clever interchanges of passes and overwhelming opponents through sheer weight of numbers and unrelenting movement off the ball. The only width would come from either the full-backs or the selection of one genuine wide man, in the form of Son, Lamela, or later Moura.
Pochettino sides tend to have a very considered build-up phase. Spurs lacked the fluidity and verve of a Manchester City (who used a single pivot) and were more akin to a Klopp side (double pivot - pre-Fabinho) though ultimately they all follow the same principles of varying the amount of players in the build-up according to the opponent - i.e. if the opposition presses with one forward, use two players in the first phase of build-up and if the opposition presses with two forwards, use three players in the build-up. Numerical superiority when trying to play out from the back is considered to be critical. As a Bielsa disciple, Pochettino is a big believer in verticality and thus when Tottenham struggled to build out the back due to the opponent’s pressure, he was not averse to instructing his defenders to target the channels with precise long balls down the flank. This brought into play the likes of Kane and Dele Alli and forced their opponents to drop back and give Spurs the breathing space to play their football. Thus Pochettino requires forwards who are rugged and versatile...not your micro-midget Pep type forwards who need it on their feet.
One of the biggest flaws of Pochettino was that he was almost too much of a control-freak and thus Spurs could look overly predictable and mechanical in their build-up... note how Liverpool became a far superior and slicker side when Fabinho was signed and they adopted a single pivot instead (a riskier way to bring the ball out of defence but reaps rewards once you break through the first wave of pressure). The decision to play Dier alongside a defensively disciplined ball-playing midfielder such as Dembele/Winks highlights his fetish for work rate and tactical stability.
Pochettino’s teams have always stood out for the intensity of their pressing. Spurs deployed the most aggressive press in the league in the 2015/16 season with an unbelievable average of just 6.56 PPDA (Passes Per Defensive Actions). They would retain their top spot the following season. Spurs sought to cut short passing lanes in the middle of the pitch, pushing their opponents into a trap on the flanks where they would then seek to force the opponent into playing a long ball, rather than going all out to recover the ball in the final third - in sharp contrast to the 'gegenpress' of Liverpool. Rather like his mentor, in order for Pochettino to produce such an intoxicating brand of football - his players needed to be supremely fit, not just physically but mentally. Double training sessions were the norm and it eventually took its toll. Having squeezed everything he could out of his group of players, in the 5th year of his tenure, Spurs collapsed and suffered mental disintegration. The players' ability to press with the same intensity had been on a downwards trend for a while and after losing the Champions League final, the squad simply had nothing more to give. Having said that, he had managed the same group of players for nearly 5 years - unheard of in the modern era, so he should not be judged too harshly in this regard as he was not really given the chance to revamp the side and create a 'second' side.
In many ways, one can look at PSG’s run in Europe’s Champions League as the peak performance everyone expected from them. And with the season starting too soon, the club from Paris are suffering just like all the other big clubs around Europe. A lack of preseason has seen them start matches on a much slower tempo than usual. They have lost a significant number of matches as well. Tactically, PSG would be an intriguing choice for the Argentine. On one hand, he has the issue of playing with two superstar forwards who may not acquiesce to his request to train twice in one day and chase the ball from the front, and on the other hand, last season’s Champions League semi-finals had no less than 6 players graduating from the PSG youth academy. So there is an element of 'freshness' to be extracted if hard decisions are made on the current roster. Also for chairman Nasser al Khelaifi, this could be a win-win situation especially with PSG’s focus on the profits delivering merchandise along with the Argentine, being a popular figure and can give the club a much-needed celebrity image on the bench. It would be interesting to see him now helming the reins of the club capable of putting every resource at his disposal.