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Spurs suffer amid setbacks


Which club is better to watch: City or PSG?

UEFA Champions League
 By Michael Cox

Man City vs. Spurs a clash of styles between Pellegrini, Pochettino

In basic terms, there are plenty of similarities between Manuel Pellegrini and Mauricio Pochettino. Similarly named, they're the only two South American coaches in the Premier League, who both made their names in Spain before impressing instantly in England. Realistically, however, they are entirely different types of managers, and are therefore have created entirely different sides.

Manchester City and Tottenham meet this weekend at the Etihad, with Spurs one point ahead in the league table, in an absolutely huge game.

One of the most fascinating aspects of football management involves the stylistic differences. There are managers who are purely motivators and don't care about tactics, then there are analytical obsessives who struggle to communicate with players. Some take a hands-on approach to training whereas others let the coaches coach and concentrate their work on matches instead.

At the moment, though, maybe the starkest divide is between managers determined to overhaul a club's approach by immediately imposing their personal vision and those who take a laissez-faire approach, concentrating on team harmony while broadly continuing with a side's existing shape and strategy. This is the crucial divide between Pochettino and Pellegrini, who will lock horns on Sunday.

Manchester CityManchester City
Tottenham HotspurTottenham Hotspur
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Pellegrini is a curious manager. Appointed three years ago by a City board who spoke about wanting a more "holistic approach" from their manager, Pellegrini is an immensely likeable elder statesman frequently praised for his character rather than his actual coaching. We were constantly told that Pellegrini acted with great "dignity" when news of Pep Guardiola's imminent arrival at Manchester City was announced, but few pointed out that Pellegrini is being replaced because he hasn't really changed City much since replacing Roberto Mancini.

The side broadly plays the same way: they're still reliant on the spine of Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure, David Silva and Sergio Aguero, the same players who won City the title four years ago. City still switch between a 4-4-2 and a 4-2-3-1, the latter usually used in bigger matches, and while there have been minor changes in City's attacking play, it's been a natural consequence of the playing staff changing rather than a deliberate shift in mentality from Pellegrini.

City still struggle in big games because they're lacking in a tactical and organisational sense. They've made minor progress in Europe but are still outsiders rather than serious contenders for the Champions League. Pellegrini almost feels like a permanent caretaker manager; he's not charged with implementing a specific philosophy but is simply told to just keep everything ticking along nicely.

Man City have laboured in recent big games because Pellegrini might be too laid-back when more assertiveness is needed.

Pochettino is the exact opposite. From the moment he was appointed Southampton manager in January of 2013, he immediately introduced his specific brand of high-pressing, high-energy football. At that stage, with Southampton in the lower half of the table, it was a huge risk. It's worth remembering what a hugely controversial appointment it was at the time, primarily because Southampton had improved steadily under Nigel Adkins and seemed set for relatively comfortable survival in their first campaign back in the top-flight.

But Pochettino isn't the type of manager to continue down the same path as a predecessor. He has a distinct vision and an obvious goal. If that means upsetting senior members of the side, so be it -- Gaston Ramirez, for example, was Southampton's record signing but quickly found himself out of the side. You would never find Pellegrini, a man determined to appease his star names, dropping a big player because he wanted to play a different type of football.

At Spurs, Pochettino has built the most impressive unit in the Premier League. There are few players at Spurs who looked genuinely outstanding before they played under Pochettino. While there has been plenty of rightful praise for individuals like Eric Dier, Dele Alli and Harry Kane, in reality Spurs are lacking the standout performers of Arsenal or Manchester City.

Tottenham don't have anyone in the same class as Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, David Silva or Sergio Aguero, and yet they're competing at the same level because they're coached by an excellent organiser who perfectly understands the vital concepts of the modern game. Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb were relative nobodies at the start of last season but still formed a great relationship. Dier and Alli have done the same this season. The more this continues, the more it becomes obvious that Pochettino deserves the credit.

Pochettino deserves praise for getting the best out of his well-drilled side, in particular the likes of Eric Dier, right.

City frustrate because they seem to consistently get the same things wrong. The structure of the midfield is often poor, allowing sides to counter-attack through the centre of the pitch. They don't change their formation enough in response to the challenge of the opposition. They haven't entirely nailed the concept of transitions. They're not compact enough.

Spurs are different. The spatial distribution of the midfielders is perfect, with the deeper two always protecting both sides of the pitch. One moves forward to press without leaving too much space behind him. The use of Dier in the holding role has worked excellently because Spurs can drop him deep, almost like a third centre-back, to allow the full-backs to push forward and the side switches formation within games. A couple of times, like in the away win over Watford, Pochettino has used this three-man defence permanently because the opposition had a particularly dangerous front two.

Their transitions are also quick. To a certain extent this is true when they gain possession, but it's particularly notable when Spurs lose the ball. They press but also keep their shape, with the players near the ball closing down and others ensuring they're occupying the right zone. More than anything, Spurs are extremely compact. Playing through them is extremely tough because there are absolutely no gaps between the lines, something Pellegrini and City can only dream of.

There's a decent chance both these managers will be at a different club next year: Pellegrini is definitely leaving City and will be in demand, while Pochettino might use Spurs' fine performances this year as a springboard to somewhere new as well. It's unlikely, however, that they'll be battling it out for the same jobs simply because they're entirely different managers suited to entirely different tasks.

Indeed, if both managers leave their current clubs this summer, both will be viewed favourably in years to come by their supporters. But would they have worked at each others' clubs? Pellegrini wouldn't have created such a cohesive unit at Spurs and the club would probably have gradually improved rather than transforming so spectacularly. Meanwhile Pochettino's methods wouldn't have gone down particularly well at City, either, given that star players are accustomed to being indulged rather than instructed.

All this means that the weekend clash between Pellegrini and Pochettino is essentially a clash of styles. Manchester City clearly have the better players but Spurs are clearly better organised. In football, the latter often seems to prevail, which is why good management remains absolutely crucial.

Michael Cox is the editor of and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.


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