According to Sir Alex Ferguson, Mauricio Pochettino is the best manager in the Premier League. If you observe what the Argentine has done at Tottenham, it’s easy to see why the greatest manager of all time would say that. Pochettino has spent wisely enough, trusted in youth and created a unified dressing room that is playing the best football in the country while staying strong defensively. The question many are asking is: How did this happen?
In 2009, Pochettino took over as manager of Espanyol, the Barcelona-based club he played over 300 times for, becoming a cult hero. Pochettino knew the club inside and out, in fact nine of his former teammates were still there when he took over and they all respected him. He guided them to safety in his first year and then cemented the club’s place in La Liga for the next two seasons. Though he was sacked due to poor performances, he had laid down good a foundation and was lauded for it.
This earned him the job at Southampton in which he performed admirably and then his biggest job as manager of Tottenham. It should also be noted that Poch – as he’s affectionately known – came to England with a working understanding of the language, although initially he took press conferences with a translator to ensure his thoughts weren’t misunderstood by the English media.
The man believes in youth players and isn’t afraid to trust them on the big occasion and this has paid off for Southampton, Tottenham and England as well. Look at the list of players who have gotten their first England caps under Poch: Kane, Alli, Mason, Shaw, Lallana, Dier and more besides. As a result of his most recent work, Tottenham fans can dare to dream once again.
It got me wondering whether there is a similar trend that the best young managers and clubs should follow. Let’s look at the men in Pochettino’s age bracket and try to find a formula for success. I hesitate to mention Pep Guardiola as he may just be a one off but there is a similar story here too. Guardiola began his coaching career at Barcelona, a club he became legend at. He was successful with Barcelona B which lead to his appointment with the first team but his status at the club obviously gained him support from the executives. Guardiola represented them and the soul of the club very directly so it was in their interests to ensure he succeeded. Of course, Pep had to have the talent for it but it can only help when the directors have a very personal interest in your success.
Pep was given the backing of the board when it came to transfers, allowing him to shape the team in his image. His time as youth coach meant he knew certain players at La Masia could make the step-up, namely Busquets and Pedro and it also helped that a little Argentine by the name of Lionel Messi was about to hit his peak. Later on, the likes of Zlatan and Hleb came and went but clearly the fact that Pep knew the ethos of the club, the youth players and of course is supremely talented helped his cause. The players could get behind him because he had the aura of being a success. Would he have been a success at another club this early on? I have my doubts about that. Pep took the lessons he learned at Barcelona to Bayern Munich. In fact before starting the job Pep learned German allowing him to communicate his ideas to his players. Some British managers should learn from this.
Luis Enrique – whose current Barcelona team may actually be better than Pep’s – followed a very similar path. He’s a legend of the club and respected by the players despite an early bust up with Lionel Messi. However, he left Barcelona B to coach Roma. He simply wasn’t ready for the Roma job and it blew up in his face. Enrique redeemed himself in his one season as manager of Celta Vigo but it’s at Barcelona with the immense support of the board where he’s reached legendary status. Signing Neymar, Suarez, Rakitic, Arda and co. definitely helped his case but it’s an environment built to ensure his success. What a great place to be for a young manager!
Another example from La Liga is Diego Simeone. He ended his playing career with Racing Club in Argentina and that is where where he began his career as a coach winning the Argentine Apertura title. It was his success at Racing that earned the admiration of another one of his former teams, Atletico Madrid. Simeone played almost 200 games for Atleti and was a member of the famous league and cup double-winning team of the 95-96 season. The fans loved the idea of their idol returning and the board were eager to see him succeed, bringing in players like Turan, Falcao and Courtois.
Once again, this wasn’t just a fool’s errand. Simeone had leveraged his relationships with the Racing club leadership to hone his managerial skills and brought them with him to Atleti. What has followed is another league and cup double, a Champions League final and three consecutive years as genuine title contenders against all odds. His team is a reflection of the man himself and brimming with young local talent that should sustain the club when he finally decides to move abroad.
The examples I’ve provided mostly have roots in Spanish football but the league doesn’t have it all figured out. Valencia’s owner Peter Lim doesn’t understand the club and doesn’t have a director of football qualified or strong enough to guide appointments or player transactions. As a result, super agent Jorge Mendes and Peter Lim are heavy-handed in the comings and goings at the club. This has lead to incoming transfers against the will of managers and now the strange appointment of Lim’s friend and wonderful pundit Gary Neville as interim manager. The results have been nothing short of disastrous. Neville can’t speak Spanish, doesn’t understand the players – many of whom really don’t have any connection to the club and are mercenaries out for a pay cheque anyway – and honestly Neville just wasn’t ready for the job.
Upon his retirement Neville should’ve hung around Sir Alex at Manchester United, or maybe guided the reserves like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who went on to win back-to-back league titles at Molde, before an admittedly ill-fated stint as manager of Cardiff. Neville definitely has the brains (in English) but there are ‘soft-skills’ like man management that must be honed. Knowing Xs and Os is not enough anymore.
The Premier League has the potential to create these cult hero managers. It has tried in the past to varying degrees of success and failure. The name most fans discuss the most is Ryan Giggs. He has been assistant coach at Man United for two seasons now under Louis Van Gaal, a coach under David Moyes and essentially a coach under Sir Alex Ferguson. Not a bad group to learn from. There are no guarantees with people like Pochettino at Espanyol, Guardiola and Enrique at Barcelona or Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid. However, if clubs in the Premier League like Manchester United invest in their legends, train them in coaching, support them in the transfer market and bet on the respect they command in the dressing room, there’s a decent chance of success. It’d be interesting to see Thierry Henry given the room to grow into a coaching role at Arsenal, maybe John Terry at Chelsea. However, for all the success stories, we know there are many failures.
There is a formula here that can be followed. It’s not fool proof but it works in Spain. Even if the managers don’t learn their craft at the clubs they represented it’s almost set in stone that when they come back to manage those clubs, they pour their hearts and souls into their former clubs. The Spanish teams seem to understand it with 55% of teams in La Liga being managed by former players. Let’s not forget this includes the top three Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid.
Similar to the way it fails it’s local players, the Premier League clubs don’t give their own a chance, only 20% of clubs employ ex-players as managers. Those outside managers are expensive to employ and expensive to sack. For the clubs willing to try it the way I propose Slaven Bilic is exceeding expectations and Alan Pardew’s work at Crystal Palace has been lauded even in the midst of a drop in form. Eddie Howe at Bournemouth is a breath of fresh air and I’d bet that Sam Allardyce will keep Sunderland up. These guys care, they take the job personally and this season at least the clubs are reaping the benefits.
In recent times we’ve seen Tim Sherwood have a great wining percentage at Tottenham and Garry Monk had a great first season with Swansea, even prompting Arsenal fans to earmark him as a potential Wenger replacement. Unfortunately though, the Premier League keep importing managers from leagues that have learned how to make them. Pochettino learned his trade at Espanyol and he’s furthering his career at Tottenham. Now it’s time to stay the course and Tottenham could be on their way to something quite wonderful. Maybe when he’s gone Tottenham will let one of their own try again and build their own legacy. Ledley King is coaching the under-18s after all…