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Mauricio Pochettino

Tottenham, 2014-2019

Profile
When Mauricio Pochettino left Tottenham in November 2019, he did so as the most popular and respected Spurs manager of the modern era. So admired was the transformation he oversaw that their bitter rivals Arsenal – perhaps the biggest victims of his success – were credited with an interest in recruiting him; he also continues to be identified as a future manager of both Manchester United and Real Madrid.

A disciple of Leeds United’s Marcelo Bielsa, Pochettino attracted Spurs’ attention by so impressively nurturing so many promising young players at Southampton and creating a both consistent and exciting team. At Spurs he did the same with Harry Kane, Eric Dier, Dele Alli and more, inspiring them to not only convincingly challenge for the Premier League title, but to their first ever Champions League final. The decorated José Mourinho, his successor in north London and widely recognised as one of the greatest managers of all time, may never have had a tougher act to follow.

Playing style
All three of Pochettino’s former teams, Espanyol, Southampton and Spurs, were recognised as attack-minded during his time as their manager, and also for blending quick offensive transitions with positional play – attacking spaces to generate movements and passing opportunities – without losing their defensive balance. Each could switch formations depending on the circumstances unfolding or the demands of a specific opponent – both while with and without possession.

As individual matches evolved and over the course of a season, Pochettino alternated between 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formations while attacking, and a 4-4-2 and 4-1-4-1 when out of possession. His choice was guided by the aim of subduing the strengths of his teams’ opponents and of taking advantage of any potential weaknesses.

Pochettino favours building possession from the back. From the first pass – perhaps a goal-kick – his teams seek to gain numerical advantages to work the ball forwards and to reach the attacking half in an organised set-up (below). At Spurs, Hugo Lloris, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld coordinated, and those central defenders were consistently ready to receive passes. Dier – whose versatility made him particularly valuable – or Harry Winks withdrew from midfield to form a triangle alongside them in an attempt to create a three-on-two overload against an opponent’s press; either would be replaced in a potential double pivot by a further midfielder, and those further forwards would work to support the lone striker and increase numbers in the final third.

His teams’ attacks are heavily influenced by their full-backs. At Southampton, Luke Shaw and Nathaniel Clyne were as important as Danny Rose and Kyle Walker were at Spurs, before Kieran Tripper and Rose or Ben Davies increasingly operated like wing-backs in front of a back three. The width they provided helped them to bypass opponents applying a high press and to benefit from the quality of those players’ deliveries, and encouraged penetrations inside opposing full-backs, another tactic of which Pochettino is fond.

Through their full-backs operating in that way, secondary forwards were encouraged to move nearer to the lone striker. Kane is the best striker Pochettino has so far managed and, under the Argentinian, he became increasingly versatile. His improving passing numbers and willingness to withdraw into deeper positions and link play invited quicker runners to advance beyond him, ensuring Spurs continued to offer a transitional threat, and proved effective on the occasions they had more possession or made regains in midfield. Rickie Lambert performed similarly at Southampton, where he was supported by Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez.

Spurs and Southampton also attacked asymmetrically (below), even if they offered identical patterns and rotations towards both the left and right. Through Son Heung-min drifting inside to combine with Alli, perhaps to operate as a secondary number 10, they had an additional runner penetrating forwards and forcing opposing defences back. The second 10, remaining deeper, was then able to combine with other teammates; at Southampton, Lallana drifted inside to encourage Shaw or Clyne to overlap, and Rodriguez advanced to support Lambert.

Pressing and defending
Numerical superiorities remain a priority when Pochettino’s teams defend. The Argentinian has developed a system designed to minimise an opposing team’s time in possession – one that Spurs particularly impressed in applying. Their positional attacks, and their players’ ability to link and play in the attacking half, means that so many of them remain close to their opponents at losses of possession (below), inviting them to immediately apply their manager’s desired press, and to quickly regain possession and potentially even score following a direct transition.

It is for that reason that he prefers players capable of making repeated short, intense bursts of activity, contributing to so many of those he inherited at Spurs being quickly excluded from his long-term plans. For all of his positive experiments with a back three, he continues to favour the structural stability that comes with a back four becoming narrow when they first begin to press. Should either full-back in that back four be required to advance, a defensive midfielder withdraws into the defence that shuffles across to maintain the desired back four. That flexibility is as valuable to the full-backs as it is those in defensive midfield; both are asked to cover so much ground that they require periods to recover.

If circumstances dictate that their high press is less likely to succeed, Pochettino’s teams have proved capable of defending from different territory – with a mid-block. At Spurs, their striker represented the reference point for the start of a press that was assisted by the attacking midfielder, the wide forwards, and those in the double pivot at the base of midfield. Midfield boxes were also occasionally formed to provide pressure in central territory, and to discourage their opponents from playing through there.

On the occasions a high press isn’t favourable, the priority becomes closing the passing lanes and inside channels in an attempt to guide play into a wide position. When the relevant spaces are reduced with their movements, possession is instead regained through the full-back and central midfielder combining. Regardless of the height at which they are defending, when some players are instructed to focus on the ball carrier, others prioritise the opponents closest to the ball, and the remainder defend the appropriate spaces against potential passes – typically for Pochettino’s teams, working as an entire unit. Even if his teams remain more effective when aggressively pressing, their ability to adopt different structures gives them valuable variety.

Mauricio Pochettino

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