By Graham Ruthven
The arrival of a new manager can be enough to galvanize an ailing side. It’s dubbed ‘the new manager effect’, and its place in the Premier League playbook is well established.
However, Mauricio Pochettino’s arrival at Southampton came in different, less uncertain circumstances. He took over at a club that didn’t need a new manager or its effect.
Before Nigel Adkins was sacked, Southampton were on a five game unbeaten run. The defensive errors that had offset their fine attacking play earlier in the season were being eradicated. His dismissal was surprising as Southampton were adjudged to have turned the corner, finally moving off the bottom of the Premier League table.
Yet in just a handful of games, Pochettino, formerly of Espanyol, has made incredible progress at Southampton.
Pochettino found a squad in Southampton capable of the style and brand of football he favours. Wholesale changes weren’t necessary. Instead the Argentine has merely tweaked what Adkins left before him.
The biggest change has been to make his team more aggressive without the ball. By pressing the opposition high up the pitch, Southampton force them to concede the ball as close to their own goal as possible with Pochettino demanding his forward players use their attacking potency to take advantage quickly.
“Our style of play is to win back the ball as soon as possible and then play it,” the former Argentinean international explains. “We moved forward our lines and play more up-field. When we lose the ball we must have the mentality of winning it back as soon as possible.”
From a tactical standpoint Pochettino’s system isn’t too dissimilar from Adkins’. Both managers favour what is essentially a 4-2-3-1 formation, with a fluid attacking trio (usually Jason Puncheon, Gaston Ramirez and Jay Rodriguez) supporting Ricky Lambert as the frontline’s focal point.
In just their second game under Pochettino, Southampton visited Old Trafford where they outplayed and outclassed Manchester United for much of the game, finishing with the majority of possession and shots on goal but coming away as 2-1 losers. “The best team to play here this season,’ is how Alex Ferguson described them.
Wigan manager Roberto Martinez echoed the sentiment after Shaun Maloney’s stoppage time goal salvaged a point against an invigorated Saints side.
Nicknamed ‘The Sheriff’ by Espanyol players, Pochettino has earned plaudits from none other than Pep Guardiola for his tactical approach. “I feel very close to their style of football,” commentated the former Barcelona manager after a closely contested game against their city rivals.
“I like midfielders who cover a lot of grounds and go into opposing team areas,” says Pochettino. “We ask players to do what they are capable of doing. Both Jack (Cork) and Morgan Morgan (Schneiderlin) have a great capacity in that respect.”
Indeed central midfielders Cork and Schneiderlin have been integral to what Pochettino professes at Southampton. Schneiderlin is tied for 6th place in Europe for interceptions per game, underlining his importance to the high-pressing master plan.
Pochettino’s influence on the Schneiderlin’s attacking movements is already having an effect, demonstrated by his goal against Wigan when the Frenchman sprinted 50 yards to turn home a Ramirez cross. Those sort of movements are expected by the new Saints boss.
Pablo Osvaldo, who worked under Pochettino at Espanyol, offered some insight into the new Southampton manager’s practices, divulging, “He makes you work like a dog. Sometimes you feel like killing him but it works.”
Pochettino has coupled an intense line of pressure on the ball with a high line of defence, squeezing the opposition back into their own half of the pitch.
In each of Southampton’s four Premier League games with Pochettino in charge the opposition has seen their share of possession and pass completion rate drop dramatically from their season average.
Even in Southampton’s first game, played after Pochettino had only been afforded just two days with his new team, Everton could only record a pass completion rate of 69%—their worst of the season.
Tellingly David Moyes’ side only completed 77% of their passes in their own half, also the lowest they’ve recorded in a Premier League game this season. Such was the success of Pochettino’s new high-pressing approach in his Southampton debut Everton’s pass completion rate was the 12th lowest recorded by any Premier League team this season.
Attacking duo Ramirez and Guly Do Prado both made seven tackles and interceptions each against Everton, a dramatic increase on their season average of 3 and 1 respectively before Pochettino’s arrival.
This trend has continued against Man Utd, Wigan and Manchester City, with Puncheon, Ramirez and Rodriguez making more interceptions and tackles (78) in the four games under Pochettino than they have all season before that (71).
Before their game against United Pochettino took Southampton to train at Barcelona’s training ground for a few days at the expense of chairman Nicola Cortese. The inspiration his side must’ve garnered from such surroundings is implied.
In their statement announcing the appointment of Pochettino Southampton labeled the Argentine “one of the most talented young coaches in European football.” That proclamation seemed rather hyperbolic at the time but their appointment has held up his billing so far.
Pochettino might be communicating his ideas through translators and bi-lingual backroom staff but they’re getting through to his players nonetheless.