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May 28, 2014

Pochettino points forward

FC's Craig Burley breaks down Tottenham's hiring of former Southampton manager, Mauricio Pochettino, and the tough task ahead of him.

The idea that Daniel Levy was some kind of truculent, trigger-happy, manager-firing North London version of former Atletico Madrid chairman, Jesus Gil, is a novel one, but a very popular one nonetheless. The appointment of Mauricio Pochettino as Tottenham manager was greeted on social media with jokes about how he'd be gone by Christmas (yuk! yuk!), given the supposed impatience of his new chairman.

Oh, but Pochettino will be Spurs' third manager in less than seven months!

Yeah, that's one way to spin the numbers. Or you could say that Pochettino will be the club's eighth manager in 13 years, which sounds rather different and you could add that his predecessor, Tim Sherwood, was always pretty much an interim choice, despite having a contract through 2015.

You could also add that the guy before Sherwood, Andre Villas-Boas, effectively sacked himself (and, if you were really, really cynical, you might even conclude that the fact he landed at Zenit St. Petersburg with a big raise a couple months later isn't entirely coincidental). The truth, as often happens, probably lies somewhere in between.

Levy axes managers when he senses there is no more forward progress or when certain situations become unsustainable, which is what a chief executive ought to do.

But back to Pochettino. In fact, let's go waaaaay back.

In November 2012, the Argentine was fired by Espanyol. The club were dead last in La Liga, with just two wins in 13 games. Why would Southampton possibly even consider offering a job to a guy like that?

Easy. It's because, in the three seasons before that, Pochettino had led Espanyol to a comfortable mid-table finish, despite a positive net spend approaching $50 million and losing guys like Pablo Daniel Osvaldo, Alvaro Vazquez, Jose Callejon, Victor Ruiz, Moises and Nicolas Pareja. They may not have been superstars but these were players who had contributed to the club in a big way.

Southampton looked at his body of work, evaluated his qualities as a manager and figured that, without losing his stars every season, he could do well. And while the English commentariat thought it was a travesty that that nice Nigel Adkins should lose his place to a guy who couldn't speak the language and was last seen propping up La Liga, he did do well.

Pochettino marginally outperformed his predecessor in his first six months (earning 1.2 points per game compared to an even 1.0) and then, in his second season, took Southampton to an eighth place finish.

More importantly, the Saints played some very good football in the final third, while conceding the second fewest shots in the Premier League.

And that's what Spurs have bought into: the belief that his style of football and tactical approach can translate to the next level, just as it did when he moved from Espanyol to England's south coast.

Sure, Southampton spent big -- very big -- on players; their net spend was a whopping $50m. But the thing is that $40m of that went on two guys -- Osvaldo and Victor Wanyama -- who actually contributed very little.

Wanyama missed two months in the middle of the season and did not exactly pull up trees either side of that, ending the campaign with 19 league starts. Osvaldo, meanwhile, started nine games, scored three goals, had some serious disciplinary issues and was sent out on loan to Juventus at the first opportunity.

You can look at this as Pochettino's judgment on transfers not being great or you can see it as the manager working with what he had -- and Southampton, of course, have a stellar youth academy -- and making them better. Either way, he didn't succeed at Southampton because of his spending; indeed, some might say what he managed came in spite of it.

- Crace: Backing needed
- Palmer: Levy's managers

And that's a key thing to remember: Pochettino's title at White Hart Lane will be first team coach. He won't deal with the transfers, which will be the remit of the club's technical director, Franco Baldini.

Admittedly, it's fashionable to describe Tottenham's 2013 transfer campaign, orchestrated by the Italian, as some kind of colossal dud.

That's the line superficially peddled by many, some of whom have an obvious axe to grind: $165m spent on seven players and apart from -- maybe -- Christian Eriksen, nothing show for it.

It's a reading which is either misguided or willfully biased. For a start, Tottenham actually made money on transfers in 2013-14 -- just over $5m in fact -- while cutting the wage bill. The critics often forget that part.

Sure, they were only able to do that because they got so much money from Real Madrid for Gareth Bale. That's fine but who do you think negotiated the Bale transfer? Further, just as important, are you better off with one superstar whose leg could snap in two at any moment, or seven players who could achieve superstar status and offer some kind of hedge?

A quarter of Tottenham's spending went on Erik Lamela, whom some have dubbed a flop. He was hampered by injury, started three Premier League games all season and his season ended in December. When it comes to his case, to paraphrase the late Senator Daniel Moynihan, you're entitled to your own opinion, you're not entitled to your own facts.

And the fact is that Lamela is an outstanding player. Given that he's 22, unless his injuries are career-threatening -- and every indication is that they're not -- at some point, probably soon, he'll come good.

Roberto Soldado, the other big-ticket buy, did struggle. He had scored 56 goals over the previous two seasons in La Liga -- the only guys who were more prolific? Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Radamel Falcao -- but managed just 11 in 35 games in all competitions for Spurs. That's not good, though some might blame the type of service he received.

Of the others, Eriksen had a solid season, Paulinho was so-so given his fee, Vlad Chiriches and Etienne Capoue were slowed by injuries and Nacer Chadli proved to be a serviceable squad winger.

But here's the thing: except for Soldado (29), every single one of those guys is 25 or younger, which suggests they can get better. And their resumes suggest they will.

There's more. This squad is better than it's given credit for. Last season, Tottenham finished with three fewer points and the same distance -- 17 points -- from first place as in 2012-13, when many felt Villas-Boas was heading in the right direction.

Moreover, they did it without anyone -- whether a newcomer or incumbent -- having a particularly good campaign. They also managed -- and here credit must go to Sherwood -- to rehabilitate Emmanuel Adebayor, who only got playing time once AVB departed but still end up as the team's top scorer with 14.

All this was achieved despite one manager who went into meltdown in October and rowed with everyone (AVB) and another who was undermined within a few months of taking over (Sherwood). According to stats compiled by physioroom.com, Tottenham suffered the most injuries in the Premier League and by some margin: 45 in total, which was well ahead of Manchester United's 38. They were also second in total days lost to injury, with a whopping 1441.

That's why, contrary to popular belief, there is little reason to believe things won't turn around at White Hart Lane next season. Of course, the cynic within you will say that Spurs had the sixth-highest wage bill and finished sixth. They'll probably have the sixth-highest again next year and, ergo, are likely to occupy the same spot. Sure, Everton will struggle to repeat last year's fifth-placed finish, but, then again, there is no way Man United can be as bad again.

But that's why Pochettino was hired: to be a difference make and to make this crew of talented young players better, just as he did at Southampton and, before that, Espanyol.

A more legitimate concern is his style of play. At St Mary's, he had a dynamic, energetic front four that often pressed high up the pitch. Guys like Eriksen, Adebayor and Soldado don't fit that mould, which means that, barring a hefty turnover of personnel, he'll have to come up with something different.

Can he? That's the challenge. We tend to think of managers having fixed-in-stone philosophies and identities but the best ones adapt to what they have and Pochettino will need to prove he can do that. This move is a step up for him and, for Spurs, a gamble on a promising manager.

The good news is that Pochettino knows what he's getting into. He knows -- and, I'm told -- welcomes the fact that he'll be working with a director of football. He's excited to work with this group of players, many of whom have several more levels to go to.

Most importantly perhaps, from Levy's perspective, there will be accountability. There's a guy responsible for bringing in players and a guy responsible for coaching them. Compared to Villas-Boas and Sherwood, both seem comfortable in their roles. If it doesn't work out this time, it won't be hard to pinpoint the problem.