Mauricio Pochettino has had six games to acclimatise to Premier League football with his new club Southampton. Whilst his first few games in charge demonstrated little deviation from the ideologies and playing style of his predecessor Nigel Adkins, we are starting to see the Argentinian chief (or "Sheriff", if we are to use the nickname given to Pochettino at Espanyol) beginning to stamp his own mark on Saints.
Under Pochettino, the early signs showed optimism and promise. A draw against Everton and an excellent showing at Manchester United (despite losing narrowly) laid the foundations for a 3-1 win over champions Manchester United. Following the game Sir Alex Ferguson actually said that Southampton were the best team to have played at Old Trafford this season.
A draw away at Wigan followed, but two straight defeats have seen them dragged back into a relegation fight that Saints looked to be ascending away from.
So what influence has Pochettino had so far?
"I don't know if he's a crazy football coach, but he's very methodical, and always faithful to his ideas."
Biesla's sides play a very high octane and dynamic brand of football. Most recently, his Athletic Bilbao side drew heaps of praise for their vibrant, eye-catching style in the 2011-2012 season. Reaching the finals of both the Europa League and Copa Del Rey in the process. Espanyol under Pochettino were not far removed from trying to replicate this style.
You can bet that Pochettino will be out to replicate the ideologies of his mentor yet again in his new role. Like Bielsa, he is a stubborn tactician who has great belief that the way he is doing things is the right way. So for Saints fans, such significant changes early on could result in a case of things getting worse before they get better. With a relegation battle ahead, this could present a worrying run-in.
Here are some traits that Pochettino has looked to implement in his short time at Southampton and some thoughts on the implications they may have going forward:
Schneiderlin has been key to Pochettino's pressing style
Yep. Lots of pressing
In England, we usually see the front men harrying the opposition defenders in possession. Maybe even some of the advanced midfield players joining in. It is very rare however; that we see teams press all together as one unit, a-la Barcelona and the Spanish national team.
But this is exactly what Pochettino is trying to implement (and will continue to do so) at Southampton. As the Saints manager puts it bluntly:
“Our style of play is to win back the ball as soon as possible and then play it."
Pretty cut and dry.
At his previous club Espanyol, his side were renowned for pushing high up the pitch. The 4-2-3-1 system that the players started in would shift forward without the ball. Wide players and full backs pushed up, forcing play into the central areas where tenacious midfield work would see Espanyol nick possession back.
The idea behind this is that the incessant harrying will limit the space and time for the opposition to play out from the back, and ultimately negate the influence of their more technically gifted players who look to dictate the tempo of a game.
Southampton have already had some success with this. Especially in the 3-1 win against Manchester City. A game in which they limited City’s plethora of attacking talent to just five attempts on goal.
They squeezed the play, preventing Yaya Toure from dictating proceedings and limited the space for the likes of David Silva, Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero to operate in.
Here we can see the differences in the pressing in games under Nigel Adkins and Pochettino. In the recent game against QPR, Saints won the ball back much more frequently and in many more advanced areas against a comparatively similar standard of opposition.
In keeping with this style, the Argentinean manager has settled on Morgan Schneiderlin and Jack Cork as his double-pivot midfield. Both are players who get about the pitch, make tackles and turnover possession. Schneiderlin in particular, who has had an excellent season, is relishing this style of play.
The Frenchman is the most prolific tackler in England and the increased license to push up the pitch as part of the pressing effort has seen him get into much more advanced areas. He has netted twice in the six games under Pochettino.The Argentine has said himself:
“I like midfielders who cover a lot of ground and go into the opposing team areas.”
Schneiderlin certainly fits the bill in that sense.
Cisse capitalizes on Southampton's high line
If you press as a unit, then a high defensive line is a direct result of this.
Southampton have struggled with this manner of defending and it has occasionally been exploited, especially in recent weeks. Twice in the last two games Saints have conceded as a result of a long diagonal ball into the space left behind their high line.
How can you make this high-risk type of defending work? Well, it requires centre-backs with top concentration skills and exceptional anticipation ability. A turn of pace is also particularly beneficial. All qualities that Southampton are currently lacking in their central defensive areas.
The two first choice full-backs Luke Shaw and Nathaniel Clyne, look perfect for this style as they are dynamic, athletic players. But the same cannot be said for centre-halves like Jose Fonte, Jos Hooiveld and Maya Yoshida. All three have had their separate struggles in the Premier League so far this season.
Ironically, it was Andre Villas-Boas’ Tottenham side gave a clinic in this style of defending at White Hart Lane against Arsenal. Villas-Boas was lambasted for what many thought was kamikaze defending in his short stint at Chelsea. But the reality is that he was never really given the time necessary to get this right. And it certainly does take time.
Under Villas-Boas at Tottenham, Jan Vertonghen and Michael Dawson may not be the quickest across the ground, but against Arsenal they were so sharp reacting to any potential danger that might see Spurs in trouble in behind their defence.
This is how defenders have to operate as part of a high line, close off passing lanes and defend on the front foot.
Southampton do not have the same quality as Spurs in the back line. But it is testament to the time it takes to get this right, as for all of Spurs quality, it has taken seven months of Villas-Boas’ reign for them to start getting to grips with this. Pochettino will persist with it. He is notorious in standing by his principles.
Expect Southampton to strengthen at centre-back this summer with players to compliment this style of defending.
Ricky Lambert has seen a subtle change in his role under Pochettino
By no means did Southampton play an unpleasant style football under Nigel Adkins, but the new man has encouraged a much more all encompassing passing style. If Saints fail to win the ball high up the pitch, expect them to build from defence and across midfield.
The defenders have clearly been encouraged to bring the ball out and look for short passes into the feet of Schneiderlin and Cork centrally, or Clyne and Shaw pushing forward from full-back. The change has been quite dramatic in that respect.
Under the previous manager, we often seen Southampton try to hit Ricky Lambert early, with the centre-forward keen to peel away towards the full backs and create aerial mismatches. If Southampton won the second ball from Lambert’s knock down, it would be neat and tidy from then on.
But these long balls onto the opposition full-backs have been cut out and Lambert’s role as has undergone a subtle change. Now, Lambert stays very much at the spearhead of the attack and offers an outlet as Southampton look to spring attacks quickly from deep, or from within the opposition territory.
He has seen more passes into his feet, as Pochettino has clearly tasked him with holding up the ball and bringing midfield runners into play. Obviously to benefit the forward bursts of Schneiderlin and the Southampton wide payers, who like to drift inside.
Pochettino’s style is about the team playing as a unit. Being composed and crisp in their passing is obviously just as basic a requirement as being part of a titanic defensive pressing effort. If one player is expected to do something well, it seems the whole team is expected to do it to an equivalent level.
Saints players are starting to get used to Pochettino's intense running style
For a team to keep up the kind of pressing that Pochettino demands from his players requires some supreme physical conditioning.
So as you can imagine, training sessions must be intense. As one his former players Pablo Osvaldo put it;
“At times you want to kill him because he makes you suffer like a dog. But you get the results”
A flaw in pressing high up the pitch as a unit can occur if one player fails to do their job properly. Obviously as players become fatigued both mentally and physically this can become a serious issue.
It’s for that reason the Spanish and Barcelona sides that have had unprecedented success have exceptional technical ability which is matched by their potent closing down and all round fitness levels.
This stems from the fact that their running and work-rate comes with a purpose. Running non-stop for ninety minutes in pursuit of your opposition is physically draining and mentally demoralising. As Schneiderlin explained prior to the Manchester City victory:
“It may seem like we are running more, but really we are just running in a more organised way.”
If the Southampton side are pushed right up the pitch, as Pochettino will expect them to be, then they should not have to run further than ten yards to get right in the faces of the opposition. The training will be centred on quick bursts and closing off angles.
What do you think about Pochettino’s early impact? Let me know in the comments section or on Twitter @MattJFootball