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Tactical Philosophy: Mauricio Pochettino

While this website has made it’s name focusing on the lesser known youth of this beautiful sport, and combined it with a tinge of tactical flavour meant for the football enthusiast, we found a large gap to be exploited in terms of combining the two. This mini-series thus focuses on young managers (below the age of 45) and their tactical philosophies, deriving what got them here and where they could go. In this piece, Ross Bramble gives an in-depth insight into Spurs boss – Mauricio Pochettino.


Mauricio Pochettino 2015

Mauricio Pochettino’s coaching career began back in January of 2009 at the age of 36, taking the reigns of relegation-threatened Espanyol. The club had already seen two other managers come and go that season, and were in need of something fresh – something invigorating. Considering Pochettino’s connection with both the club and the fans, he seemed a safe bet. Even in relegation, he would be forgiven. But relegation was far from Espanyol’s mind come the final day, as the Poch guided the side to a tenth place finish. Modelling his style on former boss Marcelo Bielsa, the Argentine took his craft to a little known division called the Premier League, and hasn’t looked back since. When you receive praise from Pep Guardiola (“I feel very close to their (Espanyol’s) play.”) AND Sir Alex Ferguson (“Southampton have been the best team to play [at Old Trafford] this season.”) it’s fair to say you’re an exciting managerial talent.

Tactical Philosophy

In the modern game, Pochettino’s style of play is not a tremendous jump from some of the most popular tactics used by Spain, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and others. The underlying principal is simple – when in possession, patience and purpose in your passing, pace and dynamism in your attack. Without possession, persistence and pressure on a level you’ve never been asked to reach before. Under Pochettino, not all players need to know how to attack, but certainly, they all need to know how to defend.

Hard work personifies the Pochettino mantra. Individual brilliance and skill are a fantastic outlet when the team is in offence, but without the desire, hunger and fitness to win the ball back you are below his standards – something players such as Emmanuel Adebayor and Vegard Forren found to their detriment at Tottenham and Southampton respectively. For the purposes of our tactical analysis, we shall divide the topics in to three banner headlines – formation, with possession, and without possession.

Formation & Tactical Structure

Before we begin our tactical breakdown of Mauricio Pochettino’s side, it would be more prudent to begin to with the structure of it. The graphic below shows a typical Tottenham and Southampton starting eleven under the Argentine:

Poch 1

Position for position, player for player, the similarities are clear. The wing backs in both instances are quick, good sprinters with a good cross. Between them are two solid, strong centre backs – even if Tottenham fans would argue that Fazio is not exactly a keen example of any either of those traits, to be cured with the signing of Alderweireld – with a brick wall of deep midfielders ahead. Each of these two midfielders have specialities of their own – in Schnederlin or Bentaleb, Pochettino has a rugged and brave soldier willing to put their boots in where needed. In Mason or Davies, he has calming creator, a pace setter that looks forward more often than backward, but can nonetheless put a tackle in where needed. As we venture further up field, we must transition in to the tactical analysis of Tottenham in offence.

Attacking philosophy: Pochettino In Possession

Up front, the free-flowing dynamism of the attacking three forges a creative engine given license to move and meander thanks to the strength of the designated target man, in this case Lambert or Kane. The four attacking players weave and intertwine fluently to split the back line and open space for the others, always providing an option to allow the ball to move, space to open, chances to grow and the opposition to chase. But think less of this as Tottenham in attack mode, and think more of it as Tottenham in possession. Once you’re comfortable with that distinction, the graphic below can be appreciated:

Spurs 1

Here, you can see how Pochettino utilises his players abilities to serve the team in possession. Only three outfield players are “excused” from not joining in the attack – the two centre backs, and our midfield terrier. The three push forward with the team, but know their limitations – the centre backs hover behind the halfway line, condensing the opponents in to their side of the field and offering an escape route if an attack breaks down. Schneiderlin and Bentaleb venture further ahead, but operate primarily as a link between the defence and the attack. If a move slows, space refuses to open or the opposition have begun to push them back, they act as the bridge between the two ends of the field, but they travel left to right, not forward to back – Pochettino’s tactics leave his side open to the counter, and the Schneiderlin’s and Bentaleb’s of his side must be ready to spring and tackle as soon as trouble arises.

For the rest of the side, the job is to create the chances and score the goals. The second central midfielder will travel forward with the play, to utilise their own passing ability to open space and keep the play moving. The key is to provide options, and force the opponent to chase the ball. This is where our front line comes in – the three attacking midfielders are fluid and nimble and quick – backed up by the wingers that bomb down either wing, they not only look to set up and score goals, but also to drag opponents around, wear them down and tire their legs, so that when the space is available, Pochettino’s men can burst through and get away before the opponents have a chance to think. Of course, with a stronger and bulkier leading man, this works fantastically well. Lambert was your quintessential Pochettino target man, built more for knock downs and through balls with the strength to tussle with the tiring centre backs. Kane certainly has those qualities for Pochettino these days, but let’s not forget the struggle he faced breaking in to the first team before January of 2015. He wasn’t the Poch’s style of player yet, and only coerced him with his insatiable goalscoring. But Kane is perfectly capable of holding up the play and allowing the attacking midfielders to find themselves and the rest of the team space, and will continue to grow in to that role as time goes by.

Defensive Philosophy: Pochettino Without Possession

Perhaps the most identifiable trait in Pochettino’s sides are their style without the ball. Again, we must differentiate between thinking of this as Pochettino in defence, and think of it more as Pochettino without possession. This distinction is more important here than it was earlier when considering offensive play, as you will see from the graphic below:

Spurs 2

The key difference between these two states of possession are clear when you compare the graphics – while with possession, Pochettino orders three of his team to remain constrained and ready to win the ball back and halt counters if they begin. Without possession, no-one is excused. If you play under Mauricio Pochettino, winning the ball back is a positional duty just as much as any other you may be expected to perform. From front to back, every outfield player presses the ball when it falls in to their sphere of influence – Pochettino divides the pitch into areas where a player is expected to chase before they should back up and allow others to pick up the fight. For some, those boundaries are vast – for others, they are slim. Lambert or Kane are never expected to cross the halfway line. The holding midfielders are expected everywhere. There’s a good reason Jack Cork said you feel you need “two hearts” to play the Pochettino way.

At the very root of Mauricio Pochettino’s tactics are fitness and stamina. Not only do his players have to be able to keep up a relentless pace for 90 minutes, more than once a week, but they have to be fitter than the opponents. This concept comes in to play greatly in both possession scenarios – with possession, Tottenham will pull you around the pitch, draining you of energy so they can utilise their quick and creative passers and movers. Without possession, they hope to have you too weak to fight when it they’re being pressed. Think of it like a lion chasing an antelope – they’re willing to run until one gets too tired to save themselves, because they CAN run that long. The antelope can’t, which makes this hunting business almost facile for the carnivore.

Pochettino doesn’t see the game in attacks and defenses – he sees it in with possession, or without possession. The subject of every endeavour is the ball. So long as you HAVE the ball, you’re in control, and then it’s just a matter of making your opponents work. That’s not to say Tottenham, Southampton or Espanyol have never played direct or made a quick counter attack, but this is the core principal of the Pochettino way. Possession is power.

Career-Defining Games

Manchester United 2-1 Southampton – While you won’t see many defeats appearing in these sections during the managerial series, the spirited 2-1 defeat to Manchester United has to be seen as a massive moment in the career of Mauricio Pochettino, and a huge shot in the arm for his tactical style. The performance at Old Trafford back in January of 2013 was such an inspired one from the Saints, Sir Alex Ferguson admitted at full time that United were lucky to escape with the win, and that Southampton were the best team to step in to the Theatre of Dreams all season. If the Argentine ever needed proof his tactics were working, he got it here.

Southampton 3-1 Manchester City – One of the biggest wins of Pochettino’s Southampton career, the 3-1 home win over defending champions Man City exemplified how good the Pochettino Press could be when executed well. The pressuring on City was so great that not only did Puncheon’s opener come from a successful press on Gareth Barry, but the unfortunate Englishman later attempted to steer a Rickie Lambert cross back toward Joe Hart in fear of being pressed if he bought the ball under control. The decision was poor, and the ball rolled in for an embarrassing third – but an excellent example of just what this style of play can do to your opponents.

Tottenham 2-1 Arsenal – Considering the dramatic win over Chelsea, and a few other fantastic examples from his time at Tottenham, Pochettino’s biggest win at Spurs so far has got to go to the spirited win over London rivals Arsenal. The gameplan worked perfectly, and forced Arsenal in to a benign and slack style of preservation. The Spurs players finally showed the effectiveness of the Pochettino Press, and the result still stands as an example to any doubters that may still linger.

3 Key Players developed

Morgan Schneiderlin – While Schneiderlin has always been a fantastically gifted player that Southampton couldn’t do without, under Pochettino the Frenchman blossomed into an even more rugged and well-rounded tackling machine. The Poch had a player of the perfect mold for his holding midfielder, and used him to full effectiveness.

Luke Shaw – Shaw was another talent that was always going to be big, but his fitness was always a concern – as it since has become at Manchester United. Under Pochettino’s rigorous fitness programs, Shaw grew and strengthened, and was able to play for longer spells at a time. There were even rumours in the Southampton camp during the Great Saints Exodus that Shaw had told management he would only have stayed if Pochettino did. It’s safe to say Shaw will never forget Mauricio Pochettino.

Harry Kane – There are a lot of options for this final slot (Dani Osvaldo, Jack Cork, Adam Lallana, Jay Rodriguez, Ryan Mason, Christian Eriksen and so many more), but I would remiss in my duty if I didn’t add Harry Kane’s name to the list. One could argue that Kane broke through with or without Pochettino’s support, such was the struggle to finally be allowed to start consistently in the Premier League, but Mauricio’s influence cannot be denied. Kane’s fitness has been fantastic so far, and his style of play has progressed nicely ever since the Argentine walked in to White Hart Lane. Scarily enough for the rest of the Premier League, of course, Pochettino has only really had his claws in Kane since January.


Besnik Hasi 2015


Unai Emery Sevilla

Ross Bramble
Latest posts by Ross Bramble (see all)

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