The best way to understand Mauricio Pochettino is to observe him in action as a player, a coach at the training ground, or, better still, both. A few years ago, Southampton released a video in which he takes on Luke Shaw in game of two-touch football tennis. While Shaw is casual and light-hearted, Pochettino is engrossed, vocal, competitive. One ace merits clenched fists and cries of ‘Vamos! Vamos!’. A failed attempt at chesting the ball over the net triggers a despairing ‘Nooooo!’. When he wins the match, he sinks to his knees in celebration. This is the real Pochettino—a man of fervent ambition, discipline and dedication—whose temperament infuse teams that fight tooth and nail. His composed touchline persona can deceive. In one press conference, in which he admitted to having lost his rag with the players at half-time, it was put to him that such behaviour might seem out of character. “Really?” he replied. “I don’t really see myself in that way. I’ve kept up appearances quite well.”
On weekdays, Pochettino typically arrives at 7am and leaves at about 8pm. “My life is to go from the hotel to the training ground,” he once told the BBC. “In football there is not really a timetable; we just work all day long.” His players speak of a gruelling fitness regime that can feature up to three sessions a day. Pochettino has been known to organise drills of fifteen-minute intervals in which he pretends to forget the time, so that the players work harder and for longer than they think. Jack Cork said it felt like you needed two hearts to play for him. “He makes you suffer like a dog, and at the time you hate him for it,” Dani Osvaldo said. “But by the Sunday, you’re grateful, because it works.”
Success has followed Pochettino in all his jobs—Espanyol, Southampton, Tottenham—but he has sought no credit. In March, the Argentine magazine El Gráfico ran a rare interview in which they asked him why he so rarely did press. Even in his home country, people knew little about him. But Pochettino has no need to be appreciated or understood. “Praise isn’t something that moves me, because in truth, the most important thing is the collective—it is about the team, the club,” he once said. “Awards and hype are not important for me.” Whereas other managers indulge in the cultivation of their own image, Pochettino does not even have an agent. There are no endorsements, no public relations, no social media. “I don’t need five hundred thousand followers to feel good,” he told El Gráfico.
One of the most illuminating parts of the Gráfico interview came not from Pochettino, but from Lorena González, a journalist who had followed him since his time at Espanyol. “He is methodological about diets and time-keeping,” she said. “He is very detailed, keeps fit and has a fanatical relationship with work and discipline, punctuality and seriousness; and this is why he clashes with the more casual style that we sometimes show in Argentina… He has a very strong character. He’s suspicious, but once you win his loyalty, he’ll never let you down.”
One of the first people to gain his trust was Marcelo Bielsa. They first met when Bielsa turned up at his family’s house with his colleague Jorge Griffa. At that time, Pochettino was a fourteen-year-old boy living in Murphy, a small town situated a four-hour drive west of Buenos Aires. “What I did every day was go to school and play football all day long with my friends,” Pochettino would tell the BBC. “We didn’t have a TV in the house.” His parents did eventually buy a black-and-white set that his dad would power with a tractor battery, so Pochettino watched Daniel Passarella and Mario Kempes lead Argentina to their first World Cup triumph, on home soil, in 1978.
That day when Bielsa and Griffa appeared, Pochettino could hardly have contemplated the prospect of turning professional. It was one o’clock in the morning, and he was fast asleep.
“He looks like a footballer,” Bielsa is supposed to have said. They decided to sign him. Packing his bags, Pochettino left home to live in a pensión, shivering through sleepless nights as his friends were tucked in by their mothers. “It was very tough, but I was lucky,” Pochettino later said, according to The Sunday Times. “I had good people around me who helped me at that stage of my life. It’s important, because you need to learn the good from the bad. When you experience good things in your career it makes you not just a better player, but a better character.”
The nocturnal visit will not have surprised those who knew Bielsa. Nor would much else. Born into a family of lawyers and politicians, he had chosen football as the subject to which his obsessive nature and enormous work-rate would be applied. Having closed the book on an unspectacular playing career, at twenty-five, he moved to Buenos Aires to coach the university team. According to a piece written by Jonathan Wilson for Eight by Eight, hescouted three thousand players before selecting a squad of twenty. When once asked how he would spend his Christmas holiday, Bielsa outlined a daily schedule that contained two hours of exercise and fourteen hours of video analysis. Two years later, when taking a role at the Newell’s youth academy, he embarked on a crisscross scouting tour of Argentina, clocking up five thousand miles in a Fiat 147.
In 1990, Bielsa took charge of the Newell’s first team. Shaped by the Ajax school of the 1970s, he introduced a radical formations and a style of vertical passing and constant pressing. Those principles would inspire fellow managers to such an extent that Bielsa would become more known for his tactical influence than his trophy collection. Pep Guardiola and Jorge Sampaoli would seek his counsel, while Eduardo Berizzo and Gerardo Martino played for Newell’s at the time. One of the players that would pay tribute was Gabriel Batistuta, an academy graduate. Pochettino would draw on his erudition both as a player and a manager. Having debuted at sixteen, in 1988, he entered a thriving learning environment in which Bielsa instructed youngsters to draw up tactical dossiers on future opponents and read newspapers. This was not conventional coaching, but nor was Bielsa a conventional coach. In one game, Pochettino netted a header, only to receive an earful for having been in the wrong position.
The Bielsa years were memorable for Newell’s. In 1991 they won the Argentine championship; in 1992 they claimed the Clausura. That year they also reached the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores, in which they faced América de Cali. For the second leg, in Colombia, the players were bombarded with batteries from the stands. One player needed stitches in his head. At other away games, rival fans would smash the windows of the team bus as the players took cover on the floor. “Sometimes, you are worried for your life,” Pochettino would say. But it steeled him for the future. “When I came over to France, England or Spain, people told me it was difficult to play,” he said. “But when we arrived, it was nothing. They shout when something goes wrong, but nothing else. This is easy.”
That night in Colombia, Pochettino scored to secure a draw as Newell went through on penalties. They later lost the final to São Paulo in the same manner. That year, Bielsa resigned.
While Bielsa’s tactics have reverberated in the work of several top coaches, his mentality has also been influential. Pochettino shares many of his traits. Consider the shouts from the bench on match days, the apathy towards press and praise, the herculean demands of himself and his squad. In his Eight by Eight piece, Wilson writes that “both Bielsa’s apologists and his critics agree that he is relentless, a workaholic who expects others to work as hard as he does”. This attitude hit Pochettino in a formative period and might well have shaped the kind of player he would become after leaving for Espanyol in 1994—a strong and aggressive centre-back of great leadership and fortitude. “There is no doubt that he had an effect on me,” Pochettino told FIFA.com in 2011. “He helped me to mature when I was starting my career at Newell’s, he helped me in the national team, and he’s even helped me since I took over at Espanyol.”
When Pochettino joined Espanyol, at twenty-two, the club had just been promoted to La Liga. Over the next six years, he became a mainstay and played with profiles such as Ismael Urzaiz, Raúl Tamudo and Iván Helguera. Coaches included José Antonio Camacho and Paco Flores. There was also a brief reunion with Bielsa in 1998, but he soon left to take the Argentina post. (Bielsa would lead Argentina for six years, during which Pochettino earned all his twenty caps.) At Espanyol, Pochettino became captain and guided the side to the Copa del Rey trophy in 2000. Half a year later he moved to Paris Saint-Germain, where he played with Mikel Arteta, Laurent Robert, Jay-Jay Okocha, Nicolás Anelka, Ronaldinho. After a sojourn at Bordeaux in 2003, he returned to Espanyol, first on loan, then permanently, in the summer of 2004. In 2006, they won another Copa del Rey. By that time Pochettino had made more than three hundred club appearances and, the same year, at thirty-four, he announced his retirement in a tearful press conference.
Listening to his former colleagues and coaches, a character emerges that seemed suited to management. “Pochettino had great charisma in the dressing room,” Flores said, according to The Guardian. “He never, ever accepted defeat and there was a huge amount of respect for him, almost like the hierarchy when you’re doing military service.” At PSG, he was made captain within a year. “We used to discuss tactics a lot,” Flores continued. “There would be debates, and you always got something out of it. He was meticulous and above all very ambitious. On the pitch, he was the coach’s arm.” A similar sense of leadership was noticed by Pablo Zabaleta, a team-mate in his second spell at Espanyol, who said: “I knew he was going to become a good manager.” So dominant was Pochettino, on and off the pitch, that the fans had nicknamed him ‘The Sheriff of Murphy’.
After retirement, Pochettino was never likely to opt for golf and punditry. He later spoke of how it was important for him to step outside the surreal bubble in which footballers live. He did a master in business management. (No wonder Daniel Levy would hire him.) As a player, he had prepared his next move. “I was a coach, but from below my neck I was still a player,” he said, according to The Sunday Times. “I wasn’t making notes or anything like that. I was not organised enough, but I always had the idea of being a manager and I was always making mental notes. I knew what I wanted to do. I didn’t just stop playing and think, ‘Now what?’”