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Mauricio Pochettino: The Good, The Bad and The Myth

Why the former Spurs head coach is an excellent choice for Chelsea

Photo by BERTRAND GUAY/AFP via Getty Images

Roko Škrabić is the Chief Editor of Chelsea Croatia, home of the official Chelsea FC supporters group for Croatia, where this article originally appeared. He’s been kind enough to translate it for us. Be sure to give them a follow on Twitter.

Roko, whom you might also know as the “TheMightyGorgon” in the comments, is never shy of a strong opinion, some of which certainly aged well — including previous contributions in analysing N’Golo Kanté’s role under Maurizio Sarri and arguing that Frank Lampard should stick with a back-three.


I would have been happy with any of the three early favorites: Julian Nagelsmann, Luis Enrique or Mauricio Pochettino. Just don’t bring in another coach from left field, another hipster choice as had been Graham Potter in September, and as are the likes of Ange Postecoglou and Vincent Kompany now. Give us an established, world class name, one Abramovich might have brought in. All three (more or less) fall into that category and as such, I believe would do well, and perhaps achieve great things with this talented squad. Certainly better than Potter did…

As we know, Luis Enrique and Nagelsmann are already out of contention. Although I’m not delighted with that, especially for Nagelsmann since he was my personal favorite, I understand the board’s decision. Or at least, I will understand it once we actually appoint Pochettino, and not Kompany or someone like that. Why? Well, because all coaches have certain flaws. None of them are perfect, and it is up to the board and the owners to pick one with flaws which they can live with, and virtues that are important for their vision of futur...

You don’t agree that no coach is perfect?

  • Pep Guardiola? Probably the best league coach ever, but a consistent failure in Europe, and often due to his own inexplicable mistakes.
  • Jürgen Klopp? Fantastic coach, no doubt, however… He doesn’t really win that much, does he? Just one of each major title in the supposedly legendary 8 years at Liverpool. Also, tends to go on horrendous runs and have a stinker season once in a while (Dortmund 2014-15, Liverpool 2020-21, this season), one he would probably not survive at the Bridge.
  • José Mourinho? Defensive and outdated football, implosion after 2-3 years max.
  • Carlo Ancelotti? Old-fashioned soon to be retired coach. Ideal for motivating already established teams and players, but hasn’t built from scratch in ages, and certainly not ready to do that this late in his career.
  • Antonio Conte? See Guardiola and Mourinho.
  • Zinedine Zidane? Similar to Ancelotti, only with less tactical acumen and no English speaking abilities.
Morocco v Spain: Round of 16 - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Photo by Simon Bruty/Anychance/Getty Images

Similarly, Nagelsmann and Luis Enrique have their own, significant flaws. The latter hasn’t coached in club football for six years. He was truly successful only at Barcelona, and we know the squad he had there. Also, his style of football may not cut it in the Premier League. All of these have been reported to concern our board, which led them to pass on Luis Enrique.

Naglesmann, on the other hand, reportedly passed on us, however, it has emerged we weren’t convinced anyway. The thing is, Nagelsmann is 35. That means he is 3(!) years younger than our oldest player, Thiago Silva. Although disappointing (to me at least), it is perfectly reasonable the board didn’t want to risk it with such a young coach to lead their project, especially after their first risk with Potter has backfired badly (and that’s an understatement), and especially since Nagelsmann has just alienated the board in the only big club in which he has so far coached. That he has been sacked despite rather solid results has undoubtedly (and reportedly) raised a red flag…

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Pochettino is not without flaws either. He, as any coach in the world, comes with certain risks. As a continuation of the previous theme, let’s start with his downsides first:

1. He was the Spurs coach. So what? In contrast to players, the pool of world class coaches is very narrow, and they change clubs much more often due to sackings. Therefore it is inevitable there will be frequent overlaps between rivals. ‘Our’ guys Mourinho and Conte had gone to Spurs. Glenn Hoddle is often mentioned these days. He became our coach in 1993, even though he was (and still is) a Spurs legend. Nevertheless, he remains one of the most popular coaches we’ve ever had, one who is credited for the revival we had in the nineties, in the era prior to Abramovich. And let’s not even mention the likes of Ashley Cole, Cesc Fàbregas or Olivier Giroud, all of them big Gunners and beloved Blues? I have no doubt the same will happen with Poch when/if he brings us a shiny new trophy!

Let’s try again…

1. He’s got a loser’s mentality. Wrong again. This, actually, is a myth. Some say he’s a loser because he hadn’t won a trophy with Spurs. But the fact he got anywhere near a trophy with Spurs is a monumental success. They won anything in 15 years, 30(!) if we don’t count the one League Cup they lifted in 2008. Therefore Pochettino’s success at White Hart Lane should be assessed not by trophies won, but by comparing him to those before him and those after him – and there is no comparison whatsoever. Before (and after) Poch they couldn’t dream of challenging for the Premier League title. Yet with Poch did it twice. They couldn’t dream of consistently qualifying for Champions League either, but Poch did it. And above all, not in their wildest dreams could they imagine playing in a Champions League final, and Poch made that happen too. All of that in his 5 years there, while playing exciting, attacking football with a team predominantly consisted of young players. Make no mistake, Pochettino did an amazing job at Tottenham.

Ajax v Tottenham Hotspur - UEFA Champions League Semi Final: Second Leg Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images

True, the same cannot be said for his time at PSG. On the other hand, no coach has been overly successful there. Not even his predecessors Unai Emery and Thomas Tuchel can say that, and especially not his successor Christophe Galtier. Tuchel might have been somewhat more successful having made it to a Champions League final and having not lost a single French title*, however, Poch made it to the semis in his first season, and that he did through a horror draw of Barcelona->Bayern->City (who knocked them out in the end), while the season PSG ‘lost’ the title was started (badly) with Tuchel at the helm. Poch won the French cup that season, the next one he won the League with little issue, and got knocked out in the Champions League Round of 16 by eventual winners Real Madrid. Not to be forgotten, they went out because of a goalkeeper’s and referee’s inexplicable mistake after dominating for 3 out of 4 halves. Madrid then went into their trademark comeback mode, and that was it. It is not very reasonable to blame Poch for that. Actually, one could say his stint at PSG was doomed to fail from the very beginning. Getting a coach who plays high pressing football to lead a team with Kylian Mbappé and Neymar (and later Lionel Messi) was… well, not the smartest idea ever, let’s put it that way. Taking that into account, Poch had maybe done just alright there, showing willingness and capability to completely re-adapt his approach.

*It should be noted that Tuchel, along with Blanc, was actually the only PSG coach to have achieved that (ever since they’ve become stinking rich). Apart from Pochettino, both Ancelotti (who many would love at Chelsea now) and Emery (who is killing it now at Villa) have let the title slip in their first season at PSG.

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In short, the ‘loser’ narrative exists primarily because of his association with Tottenham, a club where Mourinho and Conte couldn’t win anything either. “This is the history of the Tottenham”. And all coaches fail from time to time. Klopp is dreadful this season, Guardiola every season in Europe, Mourinho in every third season, Ancelotti failed at Bayern… even Tuchel lost, what, three finals at Chelsea? All three of his Wembley finals. In the end, Poch hasn’t deserved the label of loser any more than most other top coaches.

FBL-FRA-CUP-PSG-MONACO-TROPHY Photo by FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images

Now we have eliminated the myths and the false flaws, let’s discuss the real ones. There are a few that I’m personally quite worried about, even though I am pro-Poch overall.

1. Quite some time has passed since his latest period of success. Most coaches enjoy their peak during 10, maybe 15 years. After that they often fade away from the top, as if their ideas no longer work as well in the newer footballing times. Mourinho and Arsene Wenger are probably the best examples, but there are many more. Since Pochettino took over the young Spurs team and subsequently lifted them up to unexpected heights, 9(!) years have passed. He led his last Premier League challenge six years ago (against us, also the last one we challenged), and the Champions League final he took Spurs to was a full four years ago. In the four years since, he has had a bad half-season with Tottenham, semi-unsuccessful season and a half with PSG, and the rest of it he was chilling at home or working in media. I sincerely hope his time at the coaching top hasn’t already passed and that his high pressing, attacking football still has its place in today’s football meta.

2. Problems versus low blocks. That wasn’t felt as much in the Premier League, however, in France it was. His PSG team struggled significantly against teams that “parked the bus”, even though that problem was somewhat less pronounced in his second season when they walked to the title (as they should). Not too long ago, Klopp almost exclusively played a similar type of football to Poch (often referred to as gegenpressing), which led him to thrive against big teams and often struggle against anyone who sat deep and let his Liverpool team have the ball. Klopp, however, was smart and capable enough to evolve his team’s style, teach them how to play possession football, and break low blocks with ease. Time will tell if Poch will be able to do the same… What worries me the most, is that exactly that, breaking low blocks, is already one of the biggest problems of this Chelsea team. Similarly to how worrying it was in September when we were signing a coach whose teams were notoriously bad at converting chances, even though our team had had the same problem. It turned out that we were very much right to worry, Potter’s Chelsea ended up scoring less than a goal a game(!) in the league… Hopefully Pochettino-Chelsea will not be another miss-fit where they potentiate each other’s joint flaws.

Chelsea FC v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images

We will end with the Good, in the spirit of positivity and optimism towards the future, as hard (but necessary) as it currently is. I wasn’t in favor of Potter when he was chosen (I was #teamPoch back then too), but, from the moment he took over, I tried to support him and the club, and in any and every moment tried to find positives, as few as they were… With Pochettino, however, they are not few, but many:

1. He coaches exciting, attacking football. Spurs were always fun to watch, even if it were Chelsea who were winning titles during that period instead. Poch’s style is anything but defensive. He trains his players into running machines and likes to press and high-press as much as possible, with direct intent upon winning the ball. One probable consequence of that is Mason Mount* re-establishing himself as an essential player, if he remains at the club.

Mount’s greatest strengths are running and pressing and similarly, Poch will probably want Gallagher to stay too. If we’re going to play a certain style of football, we might as well keep the players best suited for it.

2. Develops young players. Something he as shown at both Southampton and Tottenham. He is the one who made Harry Kane, Son Heung-min, Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli and many others into what they are (or were). Could he do the same, for example, for Kai Havertz, Mykhailo Mudrik, Christopher Nkunku and Mount?

3. Overachieves with limited resourses. See: Tottenham. Chelsea don’t exactly have “limited resources”, however, sooner rather than later Boehly and Clearlake will be forced to shut spending down… This summer we can reportedly expect another two or three big transfers, but after that we are probably in for a longer period of “limited resources”, as a consequence of unprecedented spending that we are doing now. In that period we will need a coach who can extract the maximum from the buckets of young talent that we have brought in, and continue to upgrade the team with limited funds. Who better than Poch for that?

4. Is a long term coach. Enduring five and half years under Daniel Levy at Spurs is no small feat. And we know how important “long-term-ness” is to our owners and their vision.

5. Knows the league. Seven years of experience managing in English football will surely help and were probably a key advantage versus Nagelsmann and Enrique.

6. Is tactically flexible. Not only has he proven that by managing that trio in PSG (no, those three did not high press all game long), but he likes to try different formations, contrary to some analyses saying he’s a firm believer in 4-2-3-1. In fact, he played 3-4-3 for a big part of his Spurs tenure, adapting to the wave of tactical changes of that time instigated by Conte at Chelsea.

This current Chelsea have not yet decided on whether we want to play 3 or 4 at the back. Yes, we currently play significantly better with 3, however, is that only because they are more familiar with it having played it for the better part of the last 2+ years, or is it because it actually fits our team better? How can we fit all the shiny new wingers in that formation? Is 4 at the back really the best formation in today’s top level football, since practically all top teams play it? All of those are interesting and tough questions that might deserve a column of their own. What matters is that Pochettino, after taking his time to answer them, will be willing to pick the system that fits the team the most, and not the other way around. That is in contrast to Luis Enrique and (to a lesser extent) Nagelsmann who quite certainly would pick their own favorite formations, 4-3-3 and 3-4-3 respectively, with not much thought. With Pochettino it’s probably closer to 50-50.

7. Mocking Spurs once we inevitably win a trophy. Ha!

Tottenham Hotspur v Everton FC - Premier League Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

To conclude, Mauricio Pochettino is an excellent choice for us. Not perfect, because no coach is perfect and without risk of failure. Personally, I would have preferred Nagelsmann, as Pochettino’s potential flaws (1 and 2) concern me more than Nagelsmann’s age, however, I can understand why it is the other way around in the eyes of the board.

Bottom line is, he turned Spurs into a perennial top four contender, and occasionally title challenger as well. If Poch manages to improve Chelsea 200% as he did Tottenham, for us that will mean perennial title challenge and sometimes champions.

Let’s all hope he can repeat those 200%!

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