Following a disappointing and a rather frustrating exit against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League RO16, Manchester United have shifted their focus towards appointing a new permanent manager for the 2022-23 season. The new manager will be replacing the outgoing Ralf Rangnick, who will be moving to a new consultancy role. According to various sources, Manchester United have narrowed down the role to four candidates – Erik ten Hag, Luis Enrique, Julen Lopetegui and Mauricio Pochettino. However, it has also been widely reported that the Spanish duo from the shortlist are considered outsiders for the job as Enrique is preparing himself for the World Cup with Spain and Lopetegui is reluctant to leave Sevilla.
So, it ultimately comes down to two – Erik ten Hag and Mauricio Pochettino. United have held talks with both of the candidates and are now expected to conduct further talks with both of them. We have already covered the Dutchman in this series (Here) so today, we will turn our focus to the Argentine, Mauricio Pochettino.
Pochettino began his managerial career in January 2010 with Espanyol in Spain, where he was a player for many years during his playing career. He was their third manager of the 2009-10 season and took over when the team was last in the league table. The Argentinean had no prior coaching experience and had only recently completed his UEFA pro license when he became the manager of Espanyol.
His first game was against the high-flying FC Barcelona led by Pep Guardiola in the Copa del Rey. A difficult test but one which Pochettino passed with flying colours and pulled off an unexpected 0-0 draw showing a great intent to press and play an attractive style of play despite only being able to take 2 training sessions before the game. Espanyol finished that season comfortably in mid-table under Pochettino and that was the trend that continued till the end of his Espanyol tenure.
Indeed, The Argentinean manager started the way he intended to continue. Espanyol quickly developed a reputation for playing a high-pressing, attractive style of football. Pochettino earned plaudits for his style of play from the media and fans in Spain. The 50 year old also received praise for his extensive use of the academy and the way he developed young players. He showed very little signs of changing his approach to management when he came to England in 2013 to replace Nigel Adkins at St.Mary’s stadium.
Pochettino guided Southampton to 8th in his first season, their best finish in PL history (Bettered by Koeman the following season), getting wins over Liverpool and defending champions, Manchester City. Pochettino’s good work at Southampton earned him a job in London as the manager of Tottenham Hotspur.
We all know about his work at Spurs, finishing 5th, 3rd, 2nd (highest points tally in Spurs history), 3rd, 4th during his 5 year spell at the club and a Champions League final. Taking them from a club constantly chopping and changing with 0 stability to Champions League football mainstays. Many regard Pochettino’s spell at Spurs as an overachievement as he was always working on a budget and had very less spending capabilities compared to the other ‘big 6’ PL clubs.
Pochettino made some big calls during his tenure at the club which worked out very well for him, such as dropping the Spaniard Roberto Soldado in favour of young Englishman, Harry Kane. I don’t need to elaborate more on this but it was definitely a gamble at the time. So was playing Dele Alli, straight from League One into the PL. He may not be living upto the promise he showed earlier in his career but we all know just how good Dele was when he first came onto the scene and Pochettino was a big part of that. He also earned praise for playing some of the most attractive football in Europe whilst continuing with his high-pressing philosophy.
His great work at Spurs earned him a job at PSG, replacing the German Thomas Tuchel in 2020. It is a bit tricky to judge Pochettino’s time in the French capital as they have underperformed under him in the Champions League and even in the league when Christoph Galtier’s Lille pipped them to the title in 2021. PSG have been dominant in the league this season but went out of the Champions League RO16 at the expense of Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid – a massive underachievement as many people would have had them as one of the favourites looking at the transfer window they had where they signed Gianluigi Donnarumma, Achraf Hakimi, Sergio Ramos, Giorgino Wijnaldum and a certain Lionel Messi. PSG’s internal politics make it difficult to judge a manager but even then, PSG’s performances this season have often been underwhelming and contrary to Spurs, one can definitely make a case that Mauricio Pochettino is somewhat underachieving at PSG.
Style of Play
Now, let’s get down to Pochettino’s style of play. As mentioned previously and is very widely known, Pochettino likes to play a high pressing, attacking, attractive style of football. Today, we will be looking at the 2016-17 Tottenham Hotspur team as that was the peak of Pochettino’s spell at White Hart Lane and his stint at PSG so far to understand what we can expect if he becomes the next Manchester United manager
Mauricio Pochettino used 2 main formations at Tottenham during his 5 year spell with the club, namely 4-2-3-1 and a 3-4-2-1. During the 16/17 season he mainly used these formations to implement his style of play and with the help of Eric Dier, who was capable of playing in the midfield and at Centre-Back, Pochettino was able to switch between these formations during games as well.
Spurs mainly lined up like this in a 4-2-3-1. During buildup, Eric Dier used to drop into the backline creating a 3-4-2-1 formation with the fullbacks pushing up the field and Eriksen dropping in centrally from the RW leaving Son, Dele and Harry Kane as the narrow front 3. Something like this:
Pochettino emphasizes on his teams to build patiently from the back and Dier or Wanyama acting like a halfback allowed Spurs to have a numerical advantage while building up play from the back. Fullbacks used to push forward and provide width allowing Spurs to retain their main attacking threats centrally and closer to goal. All Spurs fullbacks during that time(Rose, Walker, Trippier, Davies) were comfortable at having the ball at their feet and progressing the ball, so Pochettino could easily trust them to do the job if Spurs were shut out centrally.
The main creative outlets during buildup were the makeshift midfield duo of Christian Eriksen and Mousa Dembele. Dembele, arguably the best ball carrier in the PL at that time coupled with the intelligence and elegance of Eriksen made it very difficult for the opposition to stop Spurs from centrally progressing the ball. Due to their flexible team shape and Eriksen’s positional intelligence, Spurs used to form a 3-2-5 shape during buildup.
As you can see over here, Spurs used to form a 5-man block centrally with Son and Dele occupying the half spaces which allowed them to overload the opposition midfield at times and play through centrally. Eriksen, being one of the best playmakers in the league, used to find spaces in the right-half channel and was able to dictate play and create chances thanks to the midfield superiority Spurs used to gain due to their flexible tactical shape. He scored 12 goals and assisted 21 in all competitions that season. Eriksen was, no pun intended, the heartbeat of this team.
All their attackers were equally capable of playing in between the lines and behind the lines. Dele was the perfect Shadow Striker to complement Kane with his late runs into the box and his ability to find spaces in the final third made him one of the standout players for Tottenham that campaign. He scored 22 goals and assisted a further 10 in all competitions that season. Indeed, one of the most influential players in the Spurs squad at that time.
And of course, who can forget the record breaking duo of Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son. Kane scored 35 goals in all competitions that season with Son scoring 24. Thanks to the positional rotations between the front 3 of Kane, Son and Dele, Spurs were able to develop a fluid trio up front. As mentioned previously, all of them were equally capable of dropping in behind and making runs in behind allowing Spurs to have plenty of goalscoring options even if some of them were to be nullified by the opposition.
Pochettino was able to turn the Spurs team into a talented, well-drilled and an exciting team to watch. They scored the most goals and conceded the least in the PL in 2016-17. Their campaign of 86 points was only bettered by the then record-breaking Antonio Conte’s Chelsea. One could make a strong case that the 16-17 Spurs were one of the best PL teams to not win the title.
At PSG, Pochettino has faced a different challenge with a team of superstars at his disposal. He has used a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1 at PSG with the same principles as his Spurs side – Numerical advantages, quick attacking transitions, fullbacks providing width and wide players moving inside the half spaces. Neymar and Messi join the attack from the right and left and are given freedom to do what they do best. Mbappe is often the leader of the front 3 with him constantly making runs and playing on the shoulder of the defenders and looking for through balls from Messi and Neymar. Hakimi and Mendes, both can be considered as attacking fullbacks and are good going forward and providing width to the team shape. Verratti, if fit, one of the best midfielders in Europe, adds press-resistance and deep progression to the team making this an excellent team on paper.
Now, let’s talk about the major weakness Manchester United can face if they hire Pochettino and that is – Pressing. Being a disciple of Marcelo Bielsa, it is easy to see why Pochettino is so press-oriented in his approach to the team. But, this can prove to be a potential weakness in teams whose attackers do not like to press.
Pochettino’s teams usually press in a 4-4-1-1 with the wide players occupying the opposition fullbacks and they press heavily in wide areas and in areas which would force the opposition to go back or play to an isolated player on the flanks. The striker, winger and the fullback all converge on the opposition wide player at the same time, while one of the midfielders drops deeper to cover the fullback. This is what mainly Pochettino’s style of pressing is, gaining numerical advantages by certain pressing triggers and creating a swarm of players around the opposition players. The Argentinean, however, doesn’t like to create pressing traps or even a structured pressing pattern.
This worked well at Spurs where he had willing pressers of the ball in Son, Alli, Eriksen and even Kane but this is also why it hasn’t worked that well at PSG. And it could prove the same at Old Trafford since we can draw many similarities between PSG and Manchester United. Both teams have less-than willing pressers in the attack, both teams look heavily undercoached and both have assembled a squad of superstars who don’t necessarily fit well with each other.
Pochettino’s suitability with Manchester United
Predicting how Pochettino may line-up at Manchester United is dependent on a lot of factors currently, of which, we don’t know the outcome to such as Pogba’s contract, Ronaldo’s future, Rashford’s future and the new signings that will be joining the club in the summer.
But, we can at least get an idea of what he needs to implement his style of play if we draw a parallel between his best Spurs team and current United team. He would need good ball-playing centre backs which I think Manchester United have got it covered. Fullbacks pushing high and wide, probably would need an upgrade on Wan-Bissaka but Shaw, Dalot and Telles can do that for him (Although, the Brazilian left back shouldn’t for completely different reasons). He needs a deeper-lying midfielder to provide balance between defence and attack, not necessarily do the half back role as Dier or Wanyama but stay behind while the attackers do their thing. Basically, a DM and if you follow Manchester United in any capacity, you would know that they have been crying out for a DM since eternity. A creative midfielder and a B2B – Bruno and Fred are the most suited to this role. And versatile attackers where Manchester United may need a ST and possibly a RW.
So, a RW, ST, DM and a RB if we assume Rashford and Ronaldo both stay at the club. A transfer window which is definitely not unachievable.
From a broader perspective, Pochettino seems like a perfect manager for Manchester United. He likes to develop young players and use the youth academy extensively which falls in place with United’s philosophy. He likes to play front-foot attack-oriented football while using quick transitions which again is in line with how they have played historically. He is a ruthless man-manager, if players don’t show him loyalty then he does not hesitate to kick them out which is, once again, something we have always seen a Scotsman do at Manchester United.
But, Manchester United’s biggest problem with this squad is that they look heavily undercoached. Almost all players bar Fred and DDG having poor seasons has not helped either. This is a situation which is similar to Pochettino’s PSG and while they are dominating their domestic leagues, they falter at the big stage as they look a bit raw compared to other top teams and that’s what makes the difference in the big moments. The Argentinian’s style of swarm-pressing may prove to be the difference in big moments as the current crop of players at Manchester United aren’t the best pressers of the ball.
All in all, Mauricio Pochettino will not be a bad appointment at all. He checks 4/5 boxes and is in accordance with the high-pressing philosophy Manchester United want to supposedly develop considering their appointment of Rangnick. While parts of his tactical ideologies may prove to be a hindrance, there is no doubt that Pochettino will be able to develop an identity to Manchester United’s style of play, and lift these players up who look bereft of confidence currently.
Mauricio Pochettino will have his work cut out for him if he joins Manchester United, but so did he have it at Spurs and he was able to successfully build a long-lasting legacy over there. Here is hoping that he does something similar if he does get the job of becoming the next Manchester United manager.