Speaking in an exclusive interview with L’Équipe, Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino lifted the lid on his initial, internal battles associated with coming to England, and much more.
So is working in England every manager’s dream?
When I started at Espanyol (at the Barcelona-based club from January 2009), I didn’t think I would work there. This is because I’d got respect for the country’s language and I didn’t speak a word of English. Then, in 2013, due to the opportunity that Southampton offered me, I realised that it’s possible to go the Championship that so many coaches dream about. We put aside all the doubts that go along with such a move. Jesus and Miguel (Perez and D’Agostino, two of his assistants) spoke English while Tony (Jimenez, his other assistant) and I couldn’t. And today, I thank Jesus and my wife for having pushed me into doing it.
You don’t want to leave anymore…?
You never know…You see, I’m used to reciting what Jorge Griffa, Director at the Newell’s Old Boys youth academy, said when I was a kid and which I apply on a daily basis. He said: “Mauricio, in football, don’t be unhappy. Let it be your guide you and it will always lead you where you need to go.”
Which other coaches have inspired you?
In addition to Jorge Griffa, there’s Marcelo Bielsa, José Antonio Camacho and Luis Fernandez. All of them, in their own way, gave me the desire to become a coach, to discover another side to the game.
Bielsa has been a big source of inspiration for you..?
Totally. Firstly, because no-one can do it like him. There are people who tried to benefit from his knowledge by being around him, others have tried to copy him but a copy is never as good. You can’t make a good a copy of a Dali, Picasso…
Bielsa, he’s another Picasso?
Well… many would describe him as that, others perhaps not. I would say he’s an exceptional being, is absolutely no fool, who’s gone for it – and done it – alone, and has been a source of inspiration for numerous coaches.
A certain Pep Guardiola is among these inspired coaches. Would you say that he is a colleague like any other or he himself is a source of inspiration?
I think that we started coaching at pretty much the same time, maybe there was six months in it (after a season managing the reserves, Guardiola took the reins of the first XI in the Summer 2008). Pep and I weren’t around each other so it’s impossible to say if someone is a source of inspiration when you don’t know them. What I am certain of, it’s that he’s had success at Barcelona and Bayern and so he’ll probably likewise have success at City. He can be a benchmark for many young coaches. He’s a coach I admire and in my eyes, he’s one of the best in the world. I like watching his teams play.
There was a time where Guardiola’s Barcelona way of playing was the style to be emulated: possession is key. Is this also how you see your style of football?
This always crops up. This was also said about Bielsa. Copying! But football, it’s not copying. Football is about harnessing your sources of inspiration to find your own identity. It’s obvious that Barca – and let’s remember not just Guardiola’s Barcelona but also Rijkaard’s, and obviously Cruyff’s Dream Team- has been an excellent point of reference for many coaches and they have exported their philosophy across the world.
What is yours?
First of all, it’s not my philosophy: it’s about the philosophy of the technical staff as a collective. And one that goes along with us as people such as flexibility and the ability to adapt. You’ve got to look at the tools that you have at your disposal to develop a group, put together a team and get them to play. Then comes the philosophy. You have to show yourself to be flexible. When I started my career ten years ago, I wasn’t flexible; I wasn’t ever able to work around things. Today, I am the complete opposite, as flexible and as open-minded as I can be.
Leadership comes from the ability to be seen as spontaneous and to have a natural approach and to share with the group rather than want to impose your point of view on them. When I say the word ‘adapting’, I mean the ability to account for all the personalities that are in a group and look at what they can bring to the table and vice versa. You’ve always got to bear in mind the players that you have and what they can become, without worrying about opponents. I’m not saying that you don’t analyse the strengths and weaknesses of our opponents but you must find a balance. This balance is 99% concentrating on what is going to be of benefit to us on a daily basis, the rest is information that we give to the players in order to damage the opponent.
What is more important in your eyes: the result or the way of playing?
Both. For us, football is emotion. It’s a wonderful sport which has the power to teleport us far away. The result alone is not only what registers but it is the feelings attached to it too. Sometimes, how football is played gives rise to much more emotion than the result itself. In fact, everything depends on the way you feel things or the way your group experiences things. So, all the development you do in order to get a result must be a kind of synchronisation of emotions, like an orchestra. Because, ultimately, everything you are looking to translate on the pitch is emotions. You cannot separate the two.
You do understand that, in France, the media and supporters were critical of Les Bleus, while having qualified for the World Cup 2018, they didn’t exactly setting the world alight?
It’s one thing to speak like a professional, totally another to speak as a supporter.
As a professional, what do you think about it?
I don’t have an opinion because it’s not on speaking about what my fellow colleagues are doing. I’ve got too much respect for what they are doing and I’m only too aware of the difficulties to reach targets where which the goalposts are always getting wider. But we live in a world where, on the surface, only the result matters. And it has to be recognised that to get to that point, the road can be long and hard.
Would you prefer to win the Premier League playing badly or finish second while playing the most beautiful football in the world?
Why should I have to choose between playing badly and winning or playing well and losing? To be as close as possible to a victory, you’ve got to try to play like you can sense it. I don’t know what that means, ‘playing bad’ or ‘playing well’. Does long, direct play indicate ‘playing bad’ and having possession, creating from the back from the goalie, mean that’s ‘playing well’?
We all have preconceived ideas which vary from one person to the next. Football is a great sport because it has so many variations and possibilities within what is a constant backdrop – a pitch. The most important thing is the way you convey ideas, the way that your group receives them and then to try to get a result. But whatever the choices taken, there’s a kind of excitement seeing how they will unfold.
Where is your preference: direct play or possession-based?
What we try to get from our group is the ability to alternate between the two styles and not just from one match to the next but during the same match. Besides, I think that nowadays it’s what all management teams are doing: getting a group to execute rapid transitions of play followed up by periods of possession and vice versa. You have to be aware of the point up until which you can transmit ideas to your group and the point until which they can take on information.
Does that require time?
Yes but not only time. You’ve got to be able to teach what you want and your group must be able to understand. The other day, John McDermott, Director at Tottenham’s academy, said to me, “We’re only teaching if the student or group understands.” He’s right. I can say, ”Do this.” –”OK!” But if the player doesn’t do it, it’s because I’ve failed in my way of explaining. The coach can come back to you and say that he’d worked on this or that exercise in training and the players didn’t apply it in the game but… no,no,no! If they didn’t apply it it’s because you didn’t explain it to them very well.
You bring up the subject of youth players: do you want all Tottenham Academy teams to play…
[He interjects, anticipating the end of the question] No!
You don’t want each team to have the same schema like Ajax or Barcelona?
No because I believe, in the process of training, we must concentrate on player potential. We cannot put them into a system. Because the first team plays in a certain way, should we repeat the same setup with kids of 14 and 15 years old? No! I don’t want to create a ‘Tottenham profile’. I want to give young footballers the possibility to take in as much as possible, to be able to work with different football philosophies.
We want to train well-rounded players who can adjust to any situations at the top level. On the other hand, it’s not the same thing when talking about values – being professional, disciplined, having the sense of belonging – such characteristics which make up the identity of the club. These are what I want to instil. But if we’re talking about technical aspects, I respect those who want to put this in place but it’s not my approach.
This is what Cruyff did with Ajax.
Well…it’s also creating a product. A product that can only be used in your house and cannot be exported.
You’re one of those coaches who like giving youth a chance. Is it easy to throw them into such demanding leagues like La Liga or the Premier League?
Firstly, the complexity of giving game time to young players is the same in any league. Young players need to feel the confidence that you have in them, not just coming from the staff but also from teammates. Before tossing them into competitive action, we, the staff, must do everything so that they feel integrated in the group, that it is very much a normal thing that they are rubbing shoulders with the most experienced pros and that they are building relationships with everyone.
We’re not going to promote a kid from the academy and give him starting spot just because he is doing well in the youth team. There needs to be a prior assessment with my assistants and the academy staff, which does not just look at technical attributes of the youth players but also mentality. We have got to do everything so that featuring in the first team is a sinuous progression.
Is the new generation of players easy to manage?
It’s always difficult if you don’t make an effort to understand that football, like society, is evolving. It’s obvious that nowadays you cannot impose the same discipline that you could in my time. The methods from 25 years ago no longer work. You’ve got to evolve at the same rate as society. You’ve got to take into account technology and social networks, etc.
If we don’t change, if we refuse to send messages using apps, if we don’t show an interest in games like… FIFA, for example (he smiles), if we don’t want to be around them, then yes, that becomes difficult. But it’s also our responsibility to see that these youngsters do not get out of the habit of talking, interacting, exchanging, building relationships. Because, ultimately, this is what football is.
Some years ago, we used to talk about a school of Portuguese coaches. Today with you Berizzo, Sampaoli, Pellegrino, Gallardo, etc does an Argentine one exist?
You’re comparing me with Argentines who learnt their trade in Argentina. I am an Argentine who arrived in Spain in 1994 and I trained as a coach in Spain. As a coach, I am Spanish. I’ve learned good things from Spain, good things from Catalonia and good things from Argentina. I’m really a mix of them all! (He laughs)