Just who is Mauricio Pochettino? Understandably, that’s a question many Saints fans will be shaking their heads to following the departure of Nigel Adkins. Understandable, too, is the disappointment that a man responsible for back to back promotions was shoved so unceremoniously aside. This was cemented by the fact that Adkins had overseen an impressive turnaround in form following a difficult start to the season.
But, in many ways, this also marks a bold and intriguing move on Saints’ part. Some may have been noted that Pochettino left his former side Espanyol mired in the relegation places last November, just as Adkins was engineering Saints’ ascent away from the lower reaches. But as far it goes with Pochettino, this only tells part of the tale.
Not only was he La Liga’s longest serving manager, he was also the third longest serving manager in the club’s 112-year history. A legend there from his playing days, he had proved himself a competent and innovative coach. Regarded as one of the most promising young managers in the league, sources close to the Real Madrid hierarchy had been leaked information that he was seriously under consideration for the Bernabéu job while José Mourinho pimped himself around the Premier League last April. It speaks a lot for Pochettino’s character that he was so forthright in dismissing a move away from Espanyol at the time.
It also says a lot for his reputation in Spain for honesty and loyalty that his sincerity was never questioned.
Six months is a long time in football, but the writing had been on the wall for some time at the Barcelona-based club. Money is a scarce commodity in Spain outside the big two. A grossly unequal TV deal saw third-placed finishers Valencia receive as much from TV as the team that finished bottom of the pile in England, Wolverhampton Wanderers. When Michu rolled up at Swansea City last summer, it wasn’t because he was some unknown in Spain.
Rather, his paltry release clause of £2m was too much for teams eying him up after an excellent campaign with Rayo Vallecano.
Espanyol have it worse than most. After nearly two decades without a home, they moved into a new 40,000 seater stadium on the outskirts of the town in 2009. Rather than providing a financial fillip, it proved a drain on resources. Dwindling TV money and growing debt meant the club were forced to do more with less.
In every transfer window since, they’ve been forced to sell their best players. In their place came a ragtag mixture of youth teamers and short-term loanees. In effect, Pochettino was having the rug pulled out from under him every six months. Yet, rather than complain, he carried out his duties diligently, keeping the club consistently competitive despite all this instability. Last summer’s clear-out was simply a step too far. With eight first-teamers injured, and a mixed bag of recruits insufficient to paper over the cracks, Espanyol endured a dire start, losing eight of the first 13 games under Pochettino.
Off the field, the board were at war, resigning en masse in October.
Back on the park, foolish and unfortunate red cards allied with moments of rotten luck – for example, a 2-1 loss at Valencia to a last minute penalty in his penultimate game in charge – meant even better performances went unrewarded. The Valencia loss was Espanyol’s third last minute defeat of the term, and his side also picked up their SIXTH red card of the La Liga campaign in that game.
A man who once famously claimed to send his kids to bed in Espanyol pyjamas, the circumstances of the job had become intolerable for Pochettino.
And yet even as results improve under his successor – Javier Aguirre – it is impossible to find anyone connected to the club with a bad word to say about Pochettino. Aside from the sense of genuine affection, there’s a recognition that a good coach who had worked miracles became a victim of circumstances.
What Southampton are getting is not just a clever and adaptable manager. They are also getting a man for whom youth development is in his DNA. In that respect, the marriage could just be a perfect one. But first he’ll have to win over a fan base understandably angered at Adkins’ departure.
There is more than one way to skin a cat but, in terms of harnessing young talent, Spain seems to be getting the job done better than most. That’s not just borne of financial necessity, but also methodology. Any youth system capable of producing the likes of Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain must be onto something already. A look at Saints’ current first team squad shows three home-grown players who have appeared in the Premier League this term – Luke Shaw, James Ward-Prowse and Adam Lallana.
Espanyol’s academy record is even more impressive than Saints’ recent one.
They have produced a remarkable 15 Spanish internationals across all age levels this century alone, and some 40 current regulars in Spain’s top two divisions is testament to this. Talk to anyone inside the club who witnessed his shake up of their set-up, and they’ll come back to you with glowing words.
One such man is youth coach Sergi Angulo, since departed. “Our philosophy is based on the collective concept, with two touches max – build the attack through the best pass, from the back; making the best decision for the group,” he said. “That’s why we produce players who understand teamwork, and how to ‘read’ the game”
Another is Mark O’Sullivan, a former League of Ireland player currently coaching underage in the Swedish top flight. Given that O’Sullivan previously studied at Ajax and Barcelona for his UEFA licenses, his words carry weight.
“There’s a clear divide between practice in Northern Europe and Spain, and you see this clearly at Espanyol,” he told me. “In Sweden, Britain, even in Holland, there’s too much emphasis on individual, isolated training. “You take one kid aside, get him to work on his dribbling, or his control, whatever. The thing is, I’ve never seen a player tackled in a match by a training cone.
“At Espanyol – and I saw this too at lower division sides in the area – it’s fully integrated.
“Forget the cones. Set up a bunch of kids in a match-type scenario, and let them work it out for themselves. “It’s the closest thing to street football. “Once the scenario’s over, they’re taken aside, asked questions, asked for their thoughts. This can go on for minutes. “Then you set them up again, let them at it, and see if they can do better; invariably, they do.
“This is the key – let them arrive at the answer, rather than dictating it to them. “This is how you develop game intelligence, and this is where Spain beats us hands down. There’s too much of a tendency in Northern Europe to breed athletes and isolated training exacerbates the problem.
“So you end up with guys who are fine physical specimens, even with great technique in isolated situations. “That’s great. But you also need to be able to apply that in matches, think fast, make decisions instantly. “I saw this right across the age levels at Espanyol.
“In Sweden – and Britain is no different – there’s an alarming drop in players’ capacity in this area once they hit 13. “Solving this ... that’s our biggest challenge.”