Punting on Pochettino
Although some suggest Sunderland were responsible for Athletic Bilbao's red-and-white striped shirts, historians at Athletic's club museum insist that the Basque club adopted those colours courtesy of Southampton shipyard workers a century ago. It's fitting, then, that the link remains -- and Athletic-style football is set to be showcased in Southampton, courtesy of new manager Mauricio Pochettino.
The link between Pochettino and Athletic coach Marcelo Bielsa is clear -- Pochettino came through the youth system at Newell's Old Boys and played under Bielsa, then later became his trusted centre back in the Argentine national team. "He's like a second father to me," said Pochettino last season. He, like many other Argentines of that era, was highly influenced by Bielsa's coaching methods. "I don't know if he's a crazy football coach, but he's very methodical, and always faithful to his ideas."
That sums up Bielsa perfectly -- he's an ideologue and a purist, arguably too extreme and inflexible to be successful at the highest level, but a wonderful inspiration. Pep Guardiola was also famously enthusiastic about Bielsa's methods, and just as Guardiola's Barcelona versus Bielsa's Athletic produced exciting, fast-paced games of heavy pressing, Guardiola's Barcelona versus Pochettino's Espanyol saw two high defensive lines, and frantic sequences of one-twos, making the derbies a fantastic spectacle. "I like football to be played well from the back, to have movement both in and out of possession, to pressure high up the pitch, and to be attacking," said Pochettino. Pochettino had minimal time on the training ground before Monday's 0-0 draw with Everton, but his influence was already noticeable. The football statistics website WhoScored.com discovered that both Southampton and Everton recorded their lowest pass completion rate of the season. This corresponds with Pochettino's usual style of play -- his heavy pressing ensures the opposition concede possession cheaply in their own half, but his insistence upon one- and two-touch passing means his own players are vulnerable to poor possession play.
"I really liked what I saw in a very strong first half for us," he told Revista de La Liga the day after the Everton draw. "It was exactly what we were looking for in terms of building for the future. Perhaps the hard work of the first half caught up with us in the second, and we weren't as fresh." It was classic Pochettino -- emphasising the importance of the system, and even justifying the negative features of the performance as an inevitable consequence of the system. Bielsa would be proud.
But Pochettino's appointment -- and his determination to impose his style of play upon Southampton immediately -- is a huge risk. There were encouraging signs from the Everton display, but it will take time to reformat Southampton completely and ensure his players are comfortable with their new instructions. Some features of his style -- one-touch passing, a high defensive line, heavy pressing -- are fundamentally perilous tactics.
That's especially true when one considers Southampton's previous tactical development this season. Nigel Adkins' sides may have attacked, but his football wasn't based around a structure, rather more about allowing individuals to express themselves. In the opening weeks of the season, although Southampton performed impressively against the two Manchester clubs, they were disastrously open at the back. The 6-1 thrashing at the Emirates in October when Arsenal consistently attacked Southampton's fullbacks and exploited the space in behind the defence was a fine example of the need to change. The improvement took a couple of weeks, but gradually, as a squad and manager lacking top-flight experience adjusted to the demands of the Premier League, Southampton became more disciplined. The fullbacks were protected more keenly by the wide midfielders, while the whole side played deeper and became more compact.
Adkins' 22-game Premier League spell can be broken in half -- in the first 11 games Southampton conceded 2.63 goals per game. In the final 11 they conceded 1.0. As a result, they went from averaging 0.45 points per game, to 1.54 points per game. Forgive the excessive use of statistics, but the point is clear -- Southampton went from relegation form to mid-table form, primarily because of their improved structure without the ball. Having been told to sit back, Southampton's players will now be ordered up the pitch to press.
Bielsa-style football requires a transition period at the start, where results are inconsistent or downright poor. That was certainly true of El Loco at Athletic. He failed to win his first five matches, and rumours of his departure gathered momentum before a victory in the derby at Real Sociedad transformed Athletic's season, and they eventually reached two cup finals.
But Pochettino's experience at Espanyol, his only previous club, is an even more extreme example. Taking charge precisely midway through the 2008-09 campaign with Espanyol in 18th place, Pochettino won just one of his first nine matches. Espanyol failed to keep a single clean sheet, and sunk to bottom of the table with just ten games remaining. Then suddenly, they triumphed in eight of those ten matches, keeping eight clean sheets. Astonishingly, Espanyol finished in the top half, and Pochettino was hailed as a genius.
Here's the deal if you appoint a character like Bielsa or Pochettino: You must accept the initial downturn in order to reap the benefits. That's why the timing of Southampton's decision is so strange -- especially in conjunction with their good form under Adkins. The switch would have made sense at the beginning of the season (granted, it would have been tough to poach Pochettino from Espanyol) or at the end of the campaign, considering that Adkins seemed likely to lead the Saints to survival. Midway through, with Southampton only four points away from the relegation zone, the decision -- like Pochettino's style of play -- is highly risky.
After all, Southampton have already experienced one period of adjustment this season, now a second spell looms under their new coach. But here's a prediction based upon Pochettino's style and history: Southampton will endure a month of worryingly unpredictable football before ensuring their survival with a determined end-of-season run.