Keep Pressing Forward

Southampton found themselves in 15th place and three points above the relegation zone when Maurcicio Pochettino was hired on the 18th January 2013. The Saints would eventually end the season in 14th position and five points clear of the final relegation position, securing their berth in the Premiership for a second successive season.

From his 16 games in charge, Pochettino won four, drew seven and lost five producing an average of 1.18 points per game, a slight increase on the 1 point per game collected by his predecessor, Nigel Adkins. Were such a points per game ratio to be maintained over an entire season, the Saints would have finished in 11th position last season with a slightly healthier total of 45 points.

In a results driven business, there will be those of an opportunistic nature who seek to denigrate the relatively low level of points returned during the Argentineans brief tenure thus far. Why change a manger in the middle of the season? Particularly to a manager with no experience of the English game joining a club fighting relegation in mid-season and with limited English.  That such problems were of Southampton’s making by sacking Adkins is also true but the brief glimpses of the football that Pochettino’s side have served should be more than enough to quell those who are quick to criticise the Argentinean for the poor handling of the situation by the Southampton Board.

“But in the second half Southampton put in the best performance anyone has here this season.”

Sir Alex Ferguson

That’s the problem when you unveil a long term plan. People are quick to accuse you of creating a plan to remove the present managerial incumbent. The plan justifies the action taken.  If the plan is quickly aborted thereafter, those same forces will be present to revel in its downfall. If the plan succeeds, well it’s maybe four or five years later and nobody can be bothered to recall what was said all those years ago. Either way, you’ll be criticised.

With a modestly impressive start offering optimism for the future, what should Southampton fans expect from the side under their new coach? And what has the Argentinean tactician changed during his brief spell in charge to date?

Influences

Pochettino is heavily influenced by the philosophies of Marcelo Bielsa, a coach who has retained total faith in his system and who returned to vogue in the last two seasons with his swashbuckling Athletic Club side. A side that showcased the two extremes of such an approach. The young central defender Mauricio Pochettino arrived in the first team at Newell’s Old Boys when Bielsa was coach and subsequently earned a number of his international caps under his former club manager.

“He’s like a second father to me. I don’t know if he’s a crazy football coach, but he’s very methodical, and always faithful to his ideas.”

Whilst Bielsa is a fundamentalist, a man so defined by his beliefs that he would rather fail than change his methods, Pochettino must be careful to avoid becoming so ideologically driven. Indeed, if he is to succeed at the top-level of coaching, he cannot afford to be like his mentor. He must carefully assemble the components which has enable Bielsa to succeed whilst sidestepping the pitfalls which repeatedly traps his mentor.

The Espanyol Legend

Pochettino took charge at Espanyol in the middle of the 2008-09 season. In doing so, he became the club’s 13th coach in 11 years under President Daniel Sánchez Llibre, a revolving door policy operating in the Montjuic area of Barcelona. A club legend, the aggressive central defender played more games for the club than any other foreigner.

The tactician won just one of his first nine matches with Espanyol failing to keep a single clean sheet in the process. Bottom of the table and facing a return to la Segunda after 17 seasons in the top flight, Pochettino sought divine intervention, making a pilgrimage by foot to a nearby religious site. And he received it. Espanyol won eight of their final ten games and finished in the top half of the table.

Under his leadership, los pericos finished 11th, 8th and then 14th in the following seasons. The statistics below show how the side developed under him, as his determination to impose his style of play and system took hold:-

Espanyol Stats Under Pochettino                      http://www.whoscored.com

Espanyol increased their average possession under Pochettino and their pass success rate despite offloading their best players each season to ease their financial burdens. As the players understanding of the system increased, tackles and interceptions increased along with yellow cards. Part of the reason for the continuing success was the ability to work and influence the youth set up. Players being promoted from la cantera bought into the Argentinian’s values and ideals.

“There are teams that wait for you and teams that look for you; Espanyol look for you. I feel very close to their style of football”

Pep Guardiola

And this is where some of his most impressive work at Espanyol occurred. Working closely with the youth coaches, redesigning the youth setup, laying down tactical guidelines to be followed throughout the club and insisting on making each team play in an age group above, to increase their competitiveness and accelerate their development. It was not just an ideal though, it was a financial necessity. Espanyol cannot afford significant transfer fees and need to raise income from selling players. Promotion of youth team players under Pochettino increased with many players making their first-team début. The Espanyol squad retained a high number of home-grown players only Athletic, Barcelona and Real Sociedad having a higher number. It also speaks volumes about the philosophy of the club:-

“We’re not interested in our youth teams winning games; we’re interested in them developing players for the first team.”

Upon departing Espanyol, Pochettino’s time in charge will be interpreted differently dependent entirely upon what you perceive as success. With a win percentage of 33%, during his 161 games in charge Espanyol won 53, drew 38 and lost 70 games. Leaving Espanyol in November by mutual consent and not having been sacked as widely reported previously, the club were bottom of the league and had won only twice in 14 games. Having been at the club almost four years, Pochettino became the fourth longest-serving manager in Espanyol’s history.

Pochettino’s Style

As you would expect from a devout follower of Bielsa, Pochettino likes his teams to be play sharp passing football combined with a steely edge. Play should be built from the back, moving forward slowly if necessary, before the tempo increases as the ball enters the opponents’ territory and passing becomes more one touch. The high technical demands that this places upon the players can lead to a repeated loss of possession. And it can be frustrating to witness at times.

“I like football to be played well from the back, to have movement both in and out of possession, to pressure high up the pitch, and to be attacking”

The defensive phase begins as soon as possession is lost and the team are responsible. The team attempt to press their opponents as high up the pitch as possible. To do so, a high defensive line is held and an aggressive offside trap is pursued. It’s a strategy that will produce high quality attacking football with the odd defensive disaster. If one part of the team fails to press coherently, the system begins to crack and the opponent has time to exploit the space behind the high defensive line.

There is also another price to pay; Disciplinary sanctions. Espanyol had one of the worst disciplinary records in La Liga. If you press high and hound your opponent, you will inevitably concede fouls. Whether this approach will be more suited to the Premiership than La Liga, where minor contact often results in fouls, remains to be seen. It’s an area that must be addressed if a relatively small squad is not be over stretched.

The key was all the work we put in over the past few weeks. The victory only comes if you believe you can get the victory and today we believed we could win and that is the way we should continue. It happened as we hoped, planned and wanted. Many times you can imagine and it is difficult to make it happen but today it went to plan.

Pochettino is a devout believer in the triumph of the system. The above quote taken after the impressive win over ManchesterCity provides clear evidence of that. The work put in on the training pitch, the planning that is needed to achieve your goal at the end of the week. It’s not luck. It’s hard work, discipline, organisation and belief.

Southampton Beginnings

With 16 games under his belt at St Mary’s, it’s important to tread cautiously when examining the impact that Pochettino has had to date. It must be remembered that predecessor Adkins was enjoying a fine run of form when he was sacked. With just two defeats in the previous twelve games, Pochettino was inheriting a squad that had adjusted to life in the Premiership and contained much better morale than earlier in the season. That may have aided the adjustment initially.

Pochettino sought to impose his style quickly at Southampton taking advantage of free weekends to work with his new players on the training pitch. Double sessions have been commonplace but then, the players should have expected this. Pablo Osvaldo played under Pochettino before moving to AS Roma in Serie A:-

“He makes you work like a dog. Sometimes, you feel like killing him but it works”

Much of the focus in training will shift to ensuring the team is a coherent unit; that the system works as outlined above.

“It may seem like we are running more but really we are just running in a more organised way”

More organised and more compact and closer to the opponent’s goal. What is happening on the pitch is that Southampton are playing higher up the pitch both with and without the ball. It may sound revolutionary, but it’s quite simple really.

Our style of play is to win back the ball as soon as possible and then play it. We moved forward our lines and play more up field. When we lose the ball we must have the mentality of winning it back as soon as possible”

Why run up the pitch, lose possession and then retreat back into your starting position? You’re expending energy moving up and down the pitch and when you recover possession, you are starting 60 or 70 yards away from the opponent’s goal again. Instead, when you lose possession in your opponents half of the pitch, try to regain possession immediately. You don’t expend energy retreating and when you recover possession, you are maybe only 30 yards from their goal.

Rewards and Risks

The rewards from playing high up the pitch are obvious. In order to press effectively, the lines must be tight together in a coherent fashion. It requires the defensive line to be very high. You squeeze your opponent and only technically superior teams will be able to evade a well organised press.

Or teams that play long ball.

Which may present some issues for Southampton given the necessity to play a high line; the abundance of space in behind them for quick forwards to exploit. It requires Boruc or whoever plays in goal for Southampton to operate as a “sweeper keeper” If Southampton don’t press properly it provides the opponent with time and space to pick out a pass that could go long for a willing runner to pursue. Away to Newcastle late on last season is one example of this.  Newcastle are a fairly direct side under Pardew and possess forwards who will work the channels such as Cisse. The Saints faced a side that would go long at every opportunity, working the channels and getting success as a consequence. Would Southampton really play as high and as openly against the likes of Theo Walcott?

Southampton must address this problem to prevent it becoming the ubiquitous tactic to defeat them.

Easy Adaptation?

Upon taking control at Espanyol, Pochettino won just once in his opening nine games for the club as los pericos fell to bottom spot with relegation to la segunda, a very real possibility. Bielsa also experienced similar problems adjusting at Athletic Club, failing to register a win in his opening five league games, the club’s worst start to a league campaign in some thirty years.

The way Southampton appear to have adapted to Pochettino’s methods, although it is still very early days, differs vastly from his initial games at Espanyol. There were, and still are, concerns over a bumpy transition as the side adapt to the Argentinean’s preferred style but thus far, things are probably going as well as could be expected.

Given the performances of the team during this transitional phase, it inevitably begs the question of whether the demands of Pochettino are more compatible with the style of play within the British Isles. Whilst the technical requirements may be beyond that which have been demanded from the Southampton players to date, an emphasis upon quick one touch passing, the physical demands are not that different. Individually, the components are prevalent in British football, the pressing and the offside line. The difference is the coherent fashion which Pochettino demands. Frequently, we see un-coordinated pressing from a team with strikers closing down opposition defenders but the midfield has dropped off. The aim of Pochettino at Southampton is for the team to work as one coherent unit.

Could this be the reason for the smooth adaptation? Are British players more suited to the style Pochettino demands? If so, why did Andre Villa-Boas struggle so badly at Chelsea? Villa-Boas utilises a different formation but there are broad similarities; the pressing, the high line, the direct style of play.

There are many factors to consider. Pochettino has a dressing room with a number of young players who he can shape and mould similar to Bielsa with both Chile and Athletic Club.

The Future

Pochettino has found himself in the unusual position of having cash to spend to improve the team during the close season. A novel experience for a man used to watching assets departing Espanyol to be increasingly replaced with youth team players or veterans on free transfers. He has stated that he would not raid his former club and has thus far remained true to his word. The speculation surrounding a possible move for Verdu was just that; speculation.  Forays into the Spanish market seemed likely but thus far the two purchases have arrived via Lyon (Dejan Lovren) and Celtic (Victor Wanyama).

Both fit the Pochettino prototype. Young, hungry and crucially, easy to mould and adapt to the system that is being utilised. Both also arrive with hefty price tags for a club of Southampton’s stature at £8.5m and £12.5m respectively. A considerable outlay.

Having avoided relegation, the focus will shift towards securing a higher finishing position as the club look to progress. Despite the good start to his career on the South coast, expect blips as the season progresses. With such demanding tactics both physically and mentally, with the rewards come the risks and a few heavy defeats are not out of the equation.

They survived the drop, and just as he expects his teams to do, Pochettino will keep pressing forward at Southampton.

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3 Responses to Keep Pressing Forward

  1. excellent commentary and very insightful. Great read.

  2. Nathan says:

    Well considered.

    Saints played well against teams who rely on possession and struggled against the long ball teams (QPR, Newcastle, West Brom). It will be interesting to see how Saints preform against West Ham, Stoke, Newcastle, newly promoted teams and cup games (lower division) next season.

    Saints will need to be more ruthless in front of goal if they can’t rely on getting points against the “lesser” teams. How many games did Saints dominate under MP, only to draw or lose against i.e. Spurs, Wigan, Man U? It would be interesting to see the chances created to goals scored under MP. It seems Saints were better in front of goal under NA.

  3. Bob says:

    Brilliant insight & an enjoyable read.

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