Eyes are drawing nearer to the south coast this season, following the early season emergence of Southampton.
Pochettino arrived on English shores amid a wave of controversy back in January 2013, being named manager on the same day that the ever-popular Nigel Adkins’ dismissal was announced. The Argentine was to benefit from the support of the fan base, however, who quickly rallied behind his regime. Widely expected by many to simply ‘steady the ship’, Pochettino quickly set about stamping his own inimitable style across the Southampton set-up.
Bringing a thoroughly continental pressing game to the Premier League, his philosophy focused on working as a unit to hound the opposition out of possession and to win the ball as high up the pitch as possible. A strategy that worked greatly for the former PSG defender during his spell at Espanyol, and one which was inherited by Pochettino from the teaching of his one-time manager and idol Marcelo Bielsa, was to take immediate effect.
A struggling Southampton soon stunned the Premier League with 3-1 wins over champions Manchester City and Liverpool, before defeating Chelsea courtesy of strikes from Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez. The Saints ended the campaign in 14th position, with safety secured with a game to spare.
Pochettino’s philosophy has been described as both brave and stupid, with criticisms levelled at the potential for opposition sides to simply hit the Saints on the counter with direct play. Yet the Argentine sticks strongly to his beliefs. Former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola stated his admiration of Pochettino’s pressing policy during the Argentine’s spell in La Liga, saying: 'There are teams that wait for you and teams that look for you: Espanyol look for you. I feel very close to their style of football'.
Fast-forward nine months and what you find in action will be largely similar. Southampton currently sit 4th in the Premier League having accrued fourteen of a potential twenty-one points, and hold the best defensive record of any English side, having conceded just two goals in their seven league games to-date. Pochettino has added fresh faces in the form of Croatian defender Dejan Lovren, Kenyan powerhouse Victor Wanyama and the enigmatic goal-scorer that is Pablo Daniel Osvaldo.
But take a closer look and what you will find is largely similar to what Pochettino was introducing as early as February 2013. Southampton look to play from the front foot, pursuing and pressuring opponents with dogged determination, whilst seeking to hit their opponents quickly following the obtainment of possession.
Pochettino’s impact on the south coast side’s fortune is most evident in their defensive record, only rivalled within Europe’s top five leagues by AS Roma of Serie A. Beyond Rome, Southampton have conceded less goals than any other top flight European side, keeping five clean sheets in the process.
Southampton executive chairman Nicola Cortese lauded Pochettino’s capabilities for youth development upon his appointment, with the former Espanyol boss overseeing the entrance of twenty-two youth players into the first team set up at the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona. This trend has also been continued in the bravest of fashions. The Southamptom team-sheet shocked many but surprised few in the heartland of Hampshire, as Pochettino named three eighteen year old prodigies in his starting line-ups.
But this was not a token gesture. Pochettino has continually involved Calum Chambers, Luke Shaw and James Ward-Prowse in the first team picture – as well as providing countless of cup tie opportunities for others to impress. In Pochettino’s nine month spell at the helm, no less than eight academy graduates have signed professional deals with the club, progressing to senior squad involvement in the process.
We’ve had the Busby Babes, but the perfect blend of youthful enthusiasm, top-level experience and hard-work may just prove to make Pochettino’s pups the dark horses for the forthcoming Premier League season.
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