Style pushes Pochettino and Martinez
A few seasons ago, the most interesting recurring tactical battle in the Premier League was between Tottenham and Everton.
Why? Well, they didn't really have the brightest tactical minds as coaches. It was more complex than that. In any sport, the most interesting battles come between competitors that are of a similar calibre but have a completely different style. And that's precisely what Tottenham versus Everton was.
The two are very similar: traditionally big clubs, though never genuine title challengers in the Premier League era, generally overshadowed by their more illustrious local rivals. They're continually in the mix for the European places, though, and because they're never in danger of relegation, they often have the liberty to play good football.
The contrast, though, was obvious. Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp was the infamous non-tactician who didn't give his players instructions, didn't use the chalkboard in the dressing room and once told former Spurs striker Roman Pavlyuchenko to "go out there and run about a bit." On the other hand, David Moyes was too obsessed with the opposition and too focused upon varying his shape in response to his opposite number.
One game in particular summed it up: Spurs' 1-1 draw with Everton on a sunny Saturday afternoon in October 2010 was a fascinating battle -- Spurs' Gareth Bale and Rafael van der Vaart were given freedom to drift across the pitch as they pleased, while Moyes spent the game directing Phil Neville and Seamus Coleman into particular positions to stop Spurs' best two players. It was proactivity versus reactivity between two evenly matched sides.
Four years on, the situation is entirely different. Football is a fast-moving world, and, suddenly, Redknapp and Moyes seem distinctly old school. There are two new kids on the block, and Mauricio Pochettino and Roberto Martinez are no longer the future -- they're the present.
Looking back, Wigan's 2-2 draw with Southampton in February of 2013 feels somehow significant. That was the first time Pochettino and Martinez met as coaches, and, while a match between Wigan and Southampton isn't the most glamourous Premier League fixture, the game itself was spectacular. A high-tempo, engaging game saw Wigan snatch a point with Shaun Maloney's 90th-minute equaliser.
While you can place the two managers broadly in the same category -- Spanish-speaking, in their early 40s, with a similar vision about how the game should be played -- there's actually not too much similarity between them. Aside from the fact Martinez originates from Catalonia, where Pochettino spent a good part of his career with Espanyol, there are few direct links.
From the outset, however, Martinez clearly recognised a kindred spirit in Pochettino. Before that 2-2 draw -- their first meeting -- he was hugely complimentary about his opposite number despite the fact he'd been in charge of Southampton for only two games.
"He was very impressive at Espanyol, he is well organised, he has very clear football concepts and he is used to dealing with high-pressure games and with bringing youngsters through," Martinez said. "What he did at Espanyol was remarkable, and with the way Southampton have been playing in the last two games, you can see he has a relationship straightaway with his team and that they reflect the way he wants to play."
By last season, with Martinez excelling at Everton, the respect had become mutual. "I have huge admiration, huge," Martinez repeated in April. "[Southampton] are a team that plays with a real bravery, they condense the spaces, they press very dynamically and they have really good quality in the young players that have been given strong roles ... I think that shows you that the team plays with incredible swagger, with incredible intelligence in the way that they are set up tactically."
"We have similar styles," Pochettino responded. "Everton are playing great football under Martinez. It is clear that he is recognised as a great manager ... he left Spain very young to join Wigan, but he always kept the essence of Spain, and he is one of the best managers in this league."
In truth, the two managers have a different approach to football, even if both encourage positive play. Martinez's trademark is his emphasis upon ball retention -- he has created an Everton side that can go to the Emirates, for example, and dictate the game in the opposition half, something that would have been impossible under Moyes.
Pochettino, on the other hand, encourages high pressing. His teams play aggressively, closing down the opposition relentlessly in midfield, pushing the defence up the pitch and leaving space in behind. These are two different ways of going about the same thing -- having control of the game.
To illustrate the two different methods, it's worth examining statistics from last season: Pochettino's Southampton had the highest average possession share in the Premier League, at 58.6 percent. Everton were down in sixth, at 55.6 percent.
But when you assess the pass-completion rates, Everton's was better -- again, sixth best in the division. 83.7 percent, compared to Southampton's 81.4 percent, the ninth best in the division.
So how did Southampton manage to achieve such an impressive possession share if they weren't actually keeping the ball that well? Put simply, because possession isn't simply about keeping the ball; it's about winning it back quickly. In that respect, Southampton were much better than Everton, forcing quicker turnovers and winning the ball in dangerous positions. Everton, though, are more careful passers.
In fact, you can relate it all back to that Wigan-Southampton clash 18 months ago. Wigan made 36 interceptions, Southampton 34, but look at the contrast in the positions -- Martinez's Wigan always won the ball in their own half, Pochettino's Southampton always in the opposition half.
It's interesting that both these managers, as well as Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool, earned big jobs at Champions League-chasing clubs by impressing with their style, rather than their results, at smaller clubs.
Rodgers, Martinez and Pochettino achieved the third-, sixth- and first-highest possession statistics in the league with Swansea, Wigan and Southampton despite finishes of 11th, 18th and eighth, respectively. That's the way to get a top job these days -- style rather than success at lower clubs. Sam Allardyce or Tony Pulis could lead their side to seventh, but there's no chance they'd be in line for the Arsenal job. Seventeenth and 65 percent possession? You've got a chance.
As for Pochettino and Martinez, we have to wait until Nov. 30 for the next meeting between the two managers -- at White Hart Lane. In a different way to Redknapp versus Moyes, the two managers are going about their business in a different way, with clubs of a similar stature. It should be a fascinating tactical battle.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.