Last season they were competing as equals in the dug-outs at the Barcelona derby. This week Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino’s paths diverged even further.
While Guardiola’s careful selection of his next challenge was announced on his own terms, Pochettino stepped out of the frying pan and into the fire. Admittedly, the way they left their respective clubs was the key factor in how much scope they would have to select their next adventures. Still, Pochettino’s decision, announced a day after Guardiola divulged he’d be heading to Bayern Munich, could hardly reveal more clearly just how far apart the fortunes of two of the most highly rated of the new wave of young coaches had drifted.
It wasn’t so long ago that Guardiola was declaring his liking for Pochettino’s approach, and the Argentine managed the rare feat of arriving in the coach’s office as a cult hero and leaving it with that reputation enhanced despite the fact that his team were bottom of the table when he was sacked.
However, dismissal from a team at the foot of the standings takes away your bargaining power, and his acceptance of the Southampton job shows that he is in no position to dictate the terms. He can’t expect to enjoy the benefit of the doubt on the south coast of England that his distinguished playing career at Espanyol earned him. Quite the opposite.
The Premier League is not a terribly inviting place for a foreign coach. This might seem an odd statement, when European managers proliferate and the likes of Arsene Wenger, Roberto Mancini and Rafa Benitez have enjoyed great success. Yet there remains a residual lack of trust in foreign coaches which embarrasses many English football fans. It’s been encouraged by the unhappy experiences of the national team under Sven-Goran Erikson and Fabio Capello, and it’s definitely there. The newest member was welcomed into the League Managers Association by its vice-president asking:
“With due respect to Pochettino, what does he know about our game? What does he know about the Premier League?
“What does he know about the dressing room, does he speak English?”
Pochettino’s English, by all accounts, is indeed a work in progress, and he faces another massive obstacle as he looks to settle in. Southampton are widely considered to be a side who, thanks to the man he’s replacing, have managed to get way ahead of the schedule. He’s taking over from the most popular new face in English football.
A regular presence in the top division in the 1980s and 90s, Southampton were a feisty side which wasn’t about to compete for the title, but was always capable of springing a shock. Financial problems precipitated a decline to the third level, but things turned around dramatically when they appointed Nigel Adkins as manager in 2010. The affable Liverpudlian propelled them to unexpected heights.
It was a trick he’d already specialised in: having won the Welsh Premier League title twice in three years in his first managerial job at Bangor City, he moved on to Scunthorpe United and guided them to two unexpected promotions in his three seasons there. Then he moved on to Southampton and took them up in each of his first two seasons there, meaning an unexpected spot in the Premier League this season.
At first they struggled: an open style of play meant they entertained and had no problem finding the net, but were horribly vulnerable at the other end. But Adkins and his side, playing some fine flowing football as a phalanx of gifted homegrown youngsters and crafty acquisitions from the lower leagues played off showpiece summer signing Gaston Ramirez, began to click. They established themselves as an extremely likeable presence at the top table, and began clawing their way clear of danger. They’re currently 15th and playing with some style; Liverpool are the only side outside the top five who’ve scored more away goals.
Their recent form is not the sort of thing that gets a manager sacked. They’ve lost just two of their last twelve matches, both by just one goal to nil, and one of those was at Anfield. Take a look at their last four league results: two days before Adkins was sacked they came from 2-0 down to snatch a draw at the home of the European champions, Chelsea; won at Aston Villa; drew 1-1 against Champions League regulars Arsenal; and became the first side in 24 league games to put three goals past Stoke’s famously tight defence, and the first to achieve that feat in Stoke in over a year, in a match they ought to have won but drew 3-3 thanks to an injury time equaliser
that should be filed under genius/fluke.
So a manager whose side is pleasing on the eye, in good form and massively exceeding expectations, has been inexplicably sacked. Anger will be directed at the board, of course, but they can hide behind the scenes: Pochettino will be the high profile man in the firing line.
One might argue it’s rare to have an opportunity to take the helm at a club in good form, but for Pochettino this is something of a poisoned chalice.