Few have faith in Tottenham’s title chances this season. But Mauricio Pochettino has silenced the doubters at every stage of his career
Many of the experts will have you believe that Tottenham Hotspur have no chance of lifting the Premier League title this season after a transfer window that has seen not one new arrival in North London (yet). While Mauricio Pochettino has publicly accepted that Spurs are unable to compete with the big-spending Manchester clubs, Spurs remain a threat with one of the best managers in world football and a young, talented and balanced side.
As Chelsea’s main challenge last season, Tottenham’s second place finish was an achievement in itself and whether they can actually go better than that is a valid question but few could have foreseen even having this discussion when Daniel Levy opted to trade Tim Sherwood for Pochettino.
Spurs were clearly going nowhere under the passionate yet clueless leadership of former midfielder Sherwood but Pochettino was still a relative unknown, at least to most in England, after only one full season at Southampton.
However, those fourteen months on the south coast were enough, despite the Argentinian coach first needing to win over Southampton supporters, who were still loyal to double promotion winner Nigel Adkins.
The Saints finished eighth, their highest position since 2002/03 and recorded their highest points tally since 1993 but there was far more than behind the appeal of Pochettino.
Southampton were well-drilled, fiercely competitive and played an attractive, dynamic, modern football that was clearly instilled in the players on the training ground.
This approach was the product of Pochettino’s obsessive and passionate personality: “I don’t have a life outside football,” the former Argentina international defender said a few months into his Southampton tenure.
“I spend about twelve hours per day at the training ground. I am living fully dedicated to this club. I don’t consider this work – this club is a passion.”
This same work ethic and methodology was evident at Espanyol, where the inexperienced Pochettino landed his first managerial job, the club he represented almost 300 times as a player and lifted the Copa del Rey twice with.
Taking over in January with the club third from bottom, Pochettino’s first game in charge was a goalless draw with city rivals Barcelona and the result proved to be no fluke as the Blanquiazules later beat Pep Guardiola’s side 2-1 in the Camp Nou to finish comfortably away from relegation.
These mid-table finishes were maintained despite the club’s troubles and the ordinarily troublesome striker Dani Osvaldo, who arrived a year after Pochettino took over, even complimented his compatriot’s demanding approach.
“He makes you suffer like a dog,” Osvaldo said, “And at the time, you hate him for it, but by the Sunday, you’re grateful because it works.”
It continued to work until November 2012 when the financial issues and a slump in results eventually led to Pochettino’s contract being terminated by mutual consent.
However, despite the unfortunate ending, the Sheriff, as Pochettino had come to be known, had won plenty of plaudits with his side’s style, his hard work and his ability to bring youth players through.
Spurs supporters will be familiar with all this and seen steady improvements over the past three years leading them to this point but the origin goes much further back than Espanyol.
All the way back in fact, to a 13-year-old Poch sleeping in the bed at his parent’s house in the small Argentinian town of Murphy.
It was here that Jorge Griffa, head of Newell’s Old Boys academy, and some chap called Marcelo Bielsa, peaked inside the door (with the permission of Mr and Mrs Pochettino) after hearing about a talented young player.
“Those are the legs of a footballer,” declared Bielsa, or so the story goes.
That unconscious meeting proved vital in Pochettino’s development as a player and coach as the kid from Murphy was soon incorporated into La Lepra’s youth system and went on to become a key figure in Bielsa’s two-time championship winning side.
The intense high-pressing, the shifting tactical systems, the onus on youth and the obsessive nature that he goes about business, there are a great many Bielsa-isms still with Pochettino.
The mentor to so many, El Loco recently heaped praise on Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli saying that he has surpassed him because he is more flexible in his approach and the same could be said of Pochettino. The inspiration to both is clear but the Spurs manager showed an ability to alter his systems at points last season and while pressing high up the pitch and attacking in numbers, managed to maintain the side’s defensive structure.
With those around them in the Premier League spending a fortune, Tottenham remain underdogs but a couple of additions before the window closes and Pochettino’s young side should definitely not be written off.