As he approaches the first anniversary of his arrival at Southampton, Mauricio Pochettino spoke exclusively to SAINTS magazine to give his views on the past year.
In each issue of SAINTS, our official matchday magazine, The Exclusive sees our editorial team speak one-on-one with a member of the squad. For yesterday's issue, we made an exception.
Next weekend, it will have been one year since Mauricio Pochettino was appointed as Southampton's First Team Manager. Ahead of that milestone, the manager spoke at length to our reporter, Jim Lucas, for a feature that appeared in SAINTS ahead of Saturday's game against West Bromwich Albion. The interview is now reproduced below for our online readers:
It has just gone eight on a drizzly, depressing morning at Southampton’s New Forest training ground. Around 15 hours earlier, the final whistle blew on what was perhaps the most disappointing result of the season so far, when the side was beaten three-nil at home by Chelsea on New Year’s Day.
The match was Southampton’s eighth in the space of 31 days. That sequence was bookended by defeats at the hands of Chelsea, and saw the team win only once. There is no hiding away from the fact that – certainly as far as results are concerned – Saints are on their worst run of the season.
When I arrive at Staplewood, Mauricio Pochettino is already in the office he shares with his backroom staff. He checks in at around seven each morning and, despite the testing schedule he and those around him have endured over the Christmas period, today is no different.
The blinds are drawn. Pochettino and his staff are huddled around a television, to which a laptop operated by First Team Coach Miguel D’Agostino is connected. The post-mortem of the previous day’s match is well underway.
There is a mood of concentration, not despondency. The patter of rain on the roof of the temporary facilities at Staplewood is echoed by the tapping of fingers on keyboards – technology plays a major role in how performances are analysed at this club.
Time is at a premium. Two days later, Saints will take on Championship side Burnley in the Third Round of The FA Cup. The First Team will arrive at the training ground over the next couple of hours – they are due to report by 10am, and will train an hour later.
By one in the afternoon, the core element of the day’s training is over. Players who started against Chelsea the previous afternoon warmed down in the gym, while the rest of the squad was put through an outdoor session by Pochettino’s right-hand man, Jesús Pérez.
The four-man management team – completed by goalkeeping coach Toni Jiménez – are sat at a table in the first-team canteen, eating lunch with the Club’s Senior Physiotherapist, Matt Radcliffe, and Paul Mitchell, its Scouting and Recruitment Manager. The atmosphere is light and jovial. It’s clear that the Chelsea defeat has already been put to bed.
The purpose of our interview was to look back over Pochettino’s maiden year in charge of Southampton’s First Team, with the anniversary of his appointment fast approaching.
At first, I’m keen to get the manager’s perspective on how those 12 months have played out. What has surprised him? What have been the high and low points? What has he found difficult?
“The year has gone by quickly,” begins Mauricio, nursing an espresso brought to him by Radcliffe, one of a number of key staff already at the Club when the new management team arrived a year ago.
“Yes, it’s gone by really quickly. The tempo is different here than in Spain. We play so many matches, and there is no time to rest during the holidays, either.
“Everything has happened very fast – it’s been non-stop, really. We arrived in January, and it has been a year already. I would describe it as a year of competing.
“I can’t particularly say that there’s anything about working in England that’s surprised me or tested me. A manager’s work here is quite similar to what it is in Spain. There isn’t a massive difference.
“Football itself is the same everywhere. The culture may be different, the idiosyncrasies may be different, the habits may be different, but I have not encountered something that I would say has been impossible to deal with or adapt to.
“I think it was the players’ professionalism that most impressed me,” he continues. “Here we found a group of players that are very professional.
“That needs to be highlighted and praised because I think that stems from a technical staff that works very well. The medical staff and the technical directors at the Club that have made it possible to provide that educational basis for the players.”
Pochettino is right to hail the structure that operates behind the scenes at Staplewood. Unlike at many clubs, the first-team management at Southampton purely consists of those four coaches assigned to deal with senior players. Medical staff, fitness coaches, analysts and scouts operate independently, but have clearly forged strong relationships with the new management team over the past year.
That philosophy comes from the Executive Chairman, Nicola Cortese, and operates across the Club. Departments are expected to work together, with harmony being one of the three tenets – along with passion and respect – that make up The Southampton Way, a company-wide philosophy to which every employee works. However, the independence they retain ensures that changes in other departments do not hinder Southampton’s overall progress and growth.
A year ago, Cortese made the decision to replace his first-team management staff. It was concluded that, for the sake of the Club’s evolution, Nigel Adkins and three other members of staff would be relieved of their duties to make way for Pochettino, Pérez, D’Agostino and Jiménez.
Bold? Perhaps. Progressive? Absolutely.
The structure put in place behind the scenes by Cortese ensured that change, which was put into operation on Friday 18th January 2013, caused minimal disruption to the rest of the Club. Outsiders speculated that the move would lead to a level of upheaval that would surely prevent Saints from achieving the season’s aim of a finishing in a respectable position in the Premier League table.
When he was unveiled at St Mary’s, Pochettino spoke of an awareness that he would need to convince Saints supporters that he was worthy of taking over from someone held in high regard for his achievements in helping the Club climb from League 1 to the top flight.
As the Argentine removes the woollen hat he had been wearing on the training pitch a few hours earlier, one thinks back to the day he first arrived at St Mary’s – the temperatures on that Friday morning were even lower than they are now, with much of the country covered in a blanket of snow. For someone who had spent the majority of his football career in Barcelona, it was as stark a welcome that England could offer.
Despite the controversy that his appointment created, Pochettino says he was always confident that he would be able to forge an affinity with the Club’s supporters and that the transition period between managers would be a smooth one. Southampton would go on to record memorable wins over Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea, and would finish four places and five points above the relegation zone.
“What I see here is that there is no loyalty to any one person,” Pochettino explains. “The supporters are loyal to their club because that is the most important aspect – more so than any manager or any person.
“Yes, the fans will be happy with their players, happy with their Chairman – Nicola – and happy with the club. At the end of the day I am here to do my job as best as possible, and that is always my major concern.
“What concerns me is to do the work that I have been assigned, and of course I want the supporters to enjoy how the team plays – that is what matters to me the most.”
The backing of his chairman, Pochettino adds, has been key in allowing him to focus on his work to establish the shared targets that brought them together a year ago.
“It is clear that to have the Chairman’s support is very important,” says the 41-year-old. “We share those ideas of bringing forward the project at this club.
“When I was offered the chance to manage here, we found that we shared the same vision. To be able to transmit our vision to a club like Southampton was fundamental and very important, and I am very happy with Nicola’s support in allowing us to do that.
“When he approached me, he told me what he expected of me and what he wanted from me. When he explained what his vision for the next few years was, I was convinced. At that moment, I believed – and I still believe now – that I could be the person that can offer to make this vision a reality and to materialise what he wanted.
“We have a very good relationship. Logically, with him as the chairman and me as the manager, everything that happens at this club is spoken about.
“We talk about everything. I am happy to have a direct relationship with him, and he has also shown us his support on a personal basis as well.”
Pochettino admits that settling in England was not easy for him and his staff. All four spent their first few months in the country living in a hotel, with their families remaining 700 miles away in Barcelona.
Even after their departures from Espanyol in November 2012, Mauricio, Jesús, Miguel and Toni had remained in Catalonia – after decades there, one suspects that Barcelona will always be their home. Pochettino said, half-jokingly, towards the end of his first half-season in Southampton, that his experience of life on these shores had been limited to spending 12 hours a day at Staplewood and eating hamburgers in the hotel restaurant.
Things are better now, he says – the Pochettino family moved into a house just outside of the city during the summer. He and his wife, Karina, are happily settled in England.
Their two sons, Sebastiano, an 18-year-old studying for a sports science degree at Southampton Solent University, and 12-year-old Maurizio clearly have football in their blood. When their educational schedules permit, both are occasional visitors to Staplewood. During a light-hearted training match at the end of the squad’s training camp in Catalonia last summer, young Maurizio made a cameo appearance against players decades older than him – rumour has it that he even scored a goal. Southampton’s family atmosphere has transmitted onto the Pochettinos.
“My family feels very settled,” Mauricio says with a smile. “We found a home in pre-season, and we’ve been very happy since the summer.
“It was very difficult at first. The adaptation period was not easy, but we see it as a growing process. To be able to expand our horizons and our knowledge is something we are happy with. This is going to be an experience that has to be and will be enriching for the family as a whole.
“Perhaps the toughest aspect at the beginning – for me at least – was the language. Little by little I am mastering it, and it is no longer a problem.
“I am happy because my sons speak very good English. They studied in a school where English was one of the main subjects, also French, Catalan and Castilian. They speak the four of those languages with ease, and so the adaptation was easy for them.
“What we miss the most is the sun,” he laughs. “Spain, and Barcelona itself, are special in that sense, and we do miss that. Obviously England is a bit darker, and when you spend 20 years in Barcelona, you will miss it once you leave.
“Anyhow, we are happy. The people have treated us fantastically, and it has been a great surprise to get to know the people here – English people are full of solidarity and are very friendly.”
Throughout the interview, it becomes clear that Pochettino prefers not to refer purely to his own experiences but instead sprinkles his answers with the use of “we” and “us” when recounting his first year in Southampton. He is talking about not only his family, but also the rest of his management team.
The relationship between Pochettino and D’Agostino is the longest – the pair met when they were teenagers in the academy at Newell’s Old Boys in Rosario. Their careers took similar geographical paths, with Miguel moving to Spain a few years after Pochettino had left Argentina behind to join Espanyol. After spells in France, both would eventually be reunited soon after Pochettino was appointed manager at the Estadi Cornellà-El Prat five years ago.
Catalonia-born Jiménez was already at Espanyol when Pochettino arrived there in 1994. He would go on to keep goal for Spain at the Barcelona Olympics two years later and would eventually retire back at Espanyol in 2004 after spells with Elche and Atlético Madrid. Toni became Pochettino’s assistant manager in June 2011.
Pochettino first met Pérez in 2010, when his future assistant would join Espanyol as a youth analyst. With no significant playing experience to his name, Jesús’ route to Southampton has been somewhat different to those of his three colleagues.
He made his name as a coach and assistant in his native Spain with Gimnàstic de Tarragona, CD Castellón, Real Murcia, Pontevedra CF, Rayo Vallecano and UD Almería. He then spent a season on the staff of Saudi Arabian side Al Ittihad having had a brief spell as a fitness coach with the Saudi Arabian national team in 2005.
“Jesús came to work with us on the project at Espanyol, to make a report on the academy,” Pochettino recalls. “I was managing the first team when I met him and, after only a few months, I asked him if he would like to work with me.
“It feels like I’ve known him for as long as I have known Toni and Miguel. Sometimes time doesn’t really mean anything – there are some people that I’ve known for 20 or 30 years, and I probably will never have the same relationship with them that I have with Jesús.
“We form a very good group,” Mauricio continues. “I am happy that they are here with me, enjoying this opportunity and trying to give everything we have for the good of Southampton.
“I think that a lot of managers separate themselves from their staff to raise their egos but, for me, our work is collective.
“Logically the manager has the most responsibility as he is the visible figure, but it is clear that working as a group is the most important aspect.
“Every single decision is spoken about – we share information and, in the end, whenever we make a decision, we spend a lot of time going over it before actually taking it.
“As a group, we are our own biggest critics. In our office, we analyse everything and we see everything – every single detail. As a team, we are always looking for what is the best option.”
It is clear from the start of the interview that Pochettino does not wish to dwell on the tougher moments he has experienced during the past year. Thankfully, from a footballing point of view, there have been few.
Southampton took 27 points from the first half of this season to end 2013 in ninth place, even after a spate of injuries and unlucky results saw them take just five points from a possible 21 in December. Needless to say, that record compares favourably to the first half of last season, prior to Pochettino’s arrival.
The man himself, though, is in no mood for comparisons or self-congratulation. “I don’t really like to put a mark or a rating on the year,” he explains, “but I am happy overall.
“I think we are working to establish a playing style, a philosophy in the senior team. I think we are developing that, and we are happy with what we are doing.
“When one works on a project, on establishing a philosophy, on giving a team its own style, what matters less at the beginning are the results. The performances are more important, and I think that the results will arrive in time with the work being done.
“We are under no more pressure than the pressure that we put on ourselves, at an individual level. We want to win every game, regardless of the conditions – no more and no less.”
During the course of the interview, Pochettino breaks off to share a joke with Jack Cork, who comes to sit in the space vacated by Mitchell, the man who oversees the long-term identification of potential first-team signings. Adam Lallana and Danny Fox soon join the conversation as the laughter escalates. Players, coaches, physiotherapists, masseurs and analysts are eating, talking and joking together – there are no demonstrable boundaries here.
Soon afterwards, Radcliffe brings over a plate of cakes brought in by goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga, who is celebrating his 22nd birthday. By remarkable coincidence, Gazzaniga was born in the same Argentine village – Murphy – as his manager was some two decades earlier. It’s clear that there is an atmosphere of respect and affinity between Pochettino and the players.
“We’ve learnt a lot,” Pochettino reflects once Cork and co. have returned to their original table. “We have gotten to know our players, and our players have gotten to know us.
“Every year of my career has been interesting. Every year has its own moments of satisfaction, its own goals, its good things and its not-so-good things.
“But this is a great experience. For me, on a personal level, it has been something that has enriched my life a lot. This is a different kind of moment to what I’ve had before, and it’s great to enjoy it.
“We’ve been working in a very good atmosphere at the training ground, and we are happy, so we hope we can carry on in this way.”
The talents and attributes that Nicola Cortese identified in Mauricio Pochettino a year ago are now being recognised by other figures in English football. Pochettino’s role in Southampton’s continued growth has drawn admiration, both from the media and from other clubs.
He is, however, unaffected by the praise and acclaim that has flowed in the Club’s direction during his year in charge. Instead, he prefers to look to the future.
A first-time visitor would struggle to find fault with the current facilities on offer at Staplewood. However, within a year, the First Team will move into a state-of-the-art training building yards away from their present temporary base.
“Praise isn’t something that moves me,” he reasons, “because, in truth, the most important thing is the collective – it is about the team, the Club.
“Awards and hype are not important for me. They don’t add anything for me or increase my ego. What really fulfils me is the growth of the Club and the growth of our young players as they get more experience and they mature.
“It’s clear that the Club is growing at all levels, and of course the reality is that having a better training base will lead to better quality in the work that we do. The foundations are being laid out so that the Club has a brilliant future. All that we need now is patience and time – that is all.
“I always put the group first,” he concludes, “so to see them adopting an idea and making it its own – that is the most important aspect for me, and that is what fulfils me.
“We want to establish a style and we want the young players to establish themselves in the First Team. We want Southampton to be recognised as having its own playing style. Let’s hope that we can achieve that in 2014.”
With that, Mauricio heads back to his office. The players may be filtering out of Staplewood, but their manager’s working day is far from over. The overall impression you get from Pochettino is that a year in charge – even in an atmosphere where he is already the ninth longest-serving manager in the Premier League and the 42nd-longest-serving in the entire country – is nothing to celebrate.
In the short-term, victory over West Bromwich Albion this afternoon is all that he and his staff are focused on. If that can be achieved, though, the vision that he and Nicola Cortese agreed upon on one year ago will move another small step closer to being realised.
For more feature interviews like this one, remember to pick up a copy of SAINTS – our official matchday magazine – at each home game