Mauricio Pochettino looked as bemused as anyone. “I don’t know how we did it,” he said. “Espanyol were bottom and Barcelona were top, and all the people were saying Espanyol were dead and had no chance. It was a special victory.”

The Argentine coach was discussing his Espanyol side’s 2-1 win at the Camp Nou in February 2009, a time when Barcelona were at their formidable best under Pep Guardiola. Later they would go on to win La Liga, the Champions League and the Copa del Rey, but not before they had been stunned by the audacity, the brazenness of a lowly side coached by the inexperienced, as yet unproven, Mauricio Pochettino.

In a way it was this win that perhaps best sums up Pochettino and his approach to coaching. He had been in charge for less than a month, his team looked certain to be relegated, yet there was no sense of fear or cautiousness about the way his side went about defeating unarguably the world’s greatest team at the time. This was not a conventional underdog, heroic, resilient win against the big boys – although those traits were all prevalent – instead, it was a success that came from ambition and tactical intelligence. Pochettino had taken over a group of players bereft of both belief and confidence and led them to a historic victory in the derby.

Ironically, Pochettino’s opposite number on that evening, Guardiola, had proved a great influence on his blossoming methods, along with the revered Marcelo Bielsa. El Loco had coached Pochettino as a player, a stopper while at Newell’s Old Boys, early in his career, in the early 90s, and he has often referred to the influence Bielsa had over his approach to football. Pochettino went on to play for Espanyol, where he would return as a coach, his only experience at the time a brief spell in 2008 as an assistant with the club’s women’s team.

At the Camp Nou, just weeks into a pressured, precarious coaching role, Pochettino would show the first sign of his potential. Perhaps symbolic of the style he would later enforce at both Southampton and Tottenham, there was an emphasis on attack, but always with defensive structure, high aggressive pressing, but always with supreme organisation. Bielsa’s influences were, and still are clear, but there is something more controlled about Pochettino.

Remembering how he took the game to Barcelona, Pochettino said: “That was the third or fourth game that I was in charge and I’d started to set a different style on Espanyol. The plan was to press high and to surprise them. I remember Barcelona had Eto’o, Henry, Yaya Touré, Puyol and Iniesta, all in their prime, and they were surprised how we played.”

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At half-time it was goalless. Espanyol had ridden their luck at times, as any side emerging with such a result inevitably would have to, Thierry Henry, Xavi and Lionel Messi all uncharacteristically wasteful when presented with opportunities. Seydou Keita was sent off, then Iván de la Peña scored twice in four minutes, enough for the win despite Touré’s effort in riposte. The celebrations of both players and staff at full time were irrepressible; there was hope of survival, optimism for the future with what appeared to be a mastermind coach overseeing a potential turnaround in fortunes.

Even Guardiola was impressed. “There are teams that wait for you and teams that look for you,” he said. “Espanyol look for you. I feel very close to their style of football.” In the case of Pochettino’s Espanyol, it was a more a case of being hunted and relentlessly pursued by a side that had taken very little time to adapt to a very different approach.

After the win, the club’s first at the Camp Nou in 27 years, he would go on to oversee a run of eight wins from their final 10 games, and an eventual tenth-placed finish. Hugely impressive, particularly given the circumstances that surrounded a club in relative financial turmoil, unable to compete in the transfer market.

With safety achieved, Pochettino turned his eye towards a long-term project. Borne somewhat out of necessity, he placed an impetus on youth, on providing stability through a regular stream of upcoming talent that would make up for inactivity – or simply poor business – in the transfer window. Top players were often sold to raise funds, meaning that Pochettino had to demonstrate a resourcefulness and an element of faith in the young players he entrusted with carrying out his detailed instructions.

Pochettino imposed his style of play throughout the club’s youth teams from day one. The first and B team played what would become a trademark 4-2-3-1 system, although the youth sides were restricted to using 4-4-2, a formation that Pochettino believed was most congruent with progression and development. He attended training sessions at all levels, often speaking directly to players and coaching youngsters of all age groups at the club.

To ensure that young players’ development was fast-tracked to an extent, Pochettino insisted that each team play in the age group above. Eventually, more than a dozen players from the youth system would make their debut during his tenure at the club. “We’re not interested in our youth teams winning games; we’re interested in them developing players for the first team,” said a member of the Espanyol technical staff.

There was the occasional signing that made such transition less turbulent – the likes of José Callejón, Dani Osvaldo and Iván Alonso all proving important arrivals – though Pochettino’s approach and dependence on the vitality of his young players was one of high risk. It was a risk that largely paid off though; Víctor Ruiz and Javi Márquez two examples of players that had risen through the club’s ranks and excelled during Pochettino’s time at Espanyol.

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Pochettino is a coach who has always vehemently defended his players, looking to earn their trust. At Espanyol, that togetherness was present at an early stage, although he was certainly not willing to accept any idleness. Osvaldo, a tempestuous striker that Pochettino would later be reunited with at Southampton, recalled the intensity of his coach’s training sessions far from nostalgically. “He makes you work like a dog,” said the Italian forward. “Sometimes you feel like killing him but it works.”

Murderous animosity may have been the most prevalent of sentiments when Pochettino broke the news, on his arrival, that he would be introducing double training sessions; fitness work in the morning followed by an afternoon of ball focused exercises, though they would eventually be changed to short, intense drills designed to reach peak efficiency.

Such radical changes clearly awakened something in the previously underperforming group of players. Predecessors Tintín Márquez and José Manuel Esnal had struggled under trying circumstances, but Pochettino embraced them, bringing with him a sense of identity, an infectious enthusiasm and intensity that led to drastic improvement. There would be no excuses, only an acceptance of the job at hand, and a desire to implement change.

After his immediate and commendable impact following his arrival midway through a struggling season, the following campaign – 2009/10 – Pochettino would guide Espanyol to an 11th-placed finish. It was one place below the almost miraculous standing he had achieved the previous season, but, as Sky Sports pundit and Espanyol fan Guillem Balague puts it: “The results weren’t always great, but they were good enough and we were enjoying the football. It was possession football with building from the back. He gave the players the confidence to do exactly that and he made us enjoy it.”

A mid-table finish, with heightened expectation, was not revolutionary, but Pochettino had instilled a much-needed stability. And it was exciting stability.

For all the talk of cohesion, it was during that season that Pochettino displayed a willingness to be ruthless. Publicly, the Argentine defends his players religiously, but, similarly to Bielsa, growing so fond of his players as to be sentimental is something he actively avoids. That was the case with Espanyol captain during his first full season, Raúl Tamudo: dressing room heavyweight, reputable fan favourite and long-serving, consistent goalscorer.

Pochettino had formerly been a teammate of Tamudo, even been friends with him, but he had little hesitation when stripping him of the captaincy and overseeing his departure. The same could be said for Francisco Rufete and Moisés Hurtardo, both considered expendable for a coach who favoured the insatiable energy of youth. And not just the players; Pochettino dismissed his physical coach, despite being the godfather of his son.

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There was a notable improvement following a season in which Pochettino had established his ideas and been able to fully integrate his methods. For large parts of the 2010/11 season, it seemed a real possibility, at times even a probability, that Espanyol would finish in a European place. Top four and Champions League qualification was even mentioned – fleetingly and cautiously – but mentioned nonetheless. They were fifth with nine to play, but Pochettino always warned against complacency. Unfortunately, what would have been an astonishing feat given the club’s economic restrictions was denied by a late resurgence by Atlético Madrid and a dip in form. Espanyol finished eighth.

It was a season that justified the hard work put into the youth system and the development of young players. Shunsuke Nakamura arrived as a high-profile signing but underwhelmed, while other arrivals Sergio García, Ernesto Galán, Felipe Mattioni and Jesús Dátolo spent much of the season either injured or underperforming. Not that this proved detrimental.

Pochettino’s players had truly bought into his methods, looking every bit a cohesive, tactically organised unit. “Few clubs have made a virtue out of necessity quite like Espanyol,” said Sid Lowe in an article for the Guardian. “Fewer still have done it with the bravery and balls of Pochettino. It is a huge success story.”

Bravery and balls had played a part, but so had thought. Pochettino’s analysis was as meticulous as any coach revered for a studious tactical mind, a trait he acquired having been so heavily influenced by the almost obsessive Bielsa. He would record games using a system on his iPhone, which enabled him to watch detailed replays of tactical developments during matches and at half-time, and point certain intricacies out to his players in-game.

Such a sedulous approach brought with it Pochettino’s most successful season over his near four-year spell with Espanyol. There was an efficiency about the Periquitos, but in an entertaining way, an example of the rare ability Pochettino seems to possess of acquiring both solidity and offensive fluidity, while still ardently sticking to his principles.

Espanyol finished eighth with a goal difference of minus 9, only six points ahead of 18th placed Deportivo in an incredibly tight La Liga, but their coach was lauded, and understandably. He had created a feeling of community with the fans, such were the number of homegrown players in the side and the tirelessly hard-working intensity consistently on show at Cornella.

Having spent much of the 2011/12 season in the top half of the table, Espanyol then fell to a 14th-place finish, by no means a disaster but still something of a decline. It was to be Pochettino’s final full season with the club, and he had grown increasingly frustrated at the loss of key players that seemed to become more of an issue with each passing year. There was a sense that Pochettino himself had become disillusioned, worn out even, by what he perceived to be an element of stagnation at the club. Working so diligently within his means had clearly proved draining.

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Espanyol were, however, still at that point very much a side with definable Pochettino traits. They managed a 1-1 draw against Barcelona at Cornella, again proving the scourge of their Catalan rivals. “No coach took more points from Guardiola’s Barcelona,” Guillem Balague said. “With what he had, it was a fantastic achievement.” Home form in particular was impressive under Pochettino’s guidance, something he has since replicated and taken even further with Tottenham.

Pochettino’s time at Espanyol would come to an end the following season, 12 games in and with just two wins to their name, bottom of La Liga. In November 2012 he announced his departure, just months after he had been linked with the Real Madrid job as a potential replacement for José Mourinho.

An unexpectedly poor start to the season had derailed any chance of such a high profile move, although Pochettino had not been helped by his circumstances. Ten players had left in the summer, disrupting the stability and feeling of rhythmic progression the coach had created since his arrival with the club in a similarly lowly position.

“I have been in the world of football for many years and understand that a coach has a sell-by date,” Pochettino said in the press conference to announce his exit. “We have taken a responsible decision thinking that the change is positive.” The decision appeared to be mutual, and Espanyol would go on to finish the season, once again, in 14th.

There was sadness around the club when Pochettino left. He had become an icon at Espanyol, more than just a coach, a former centre-back, but an instigator of progression and optimism in a time of “financial disarray”, as Balague puts it. Importantly, his work had not gone unnoticed. Southampton took the gamble of appointing a coach with little reputation in England, an appointment that was met largely with dismissive disapproval, similar to that of Marco Silva at Hull.

Pochettino’s impact in the Premier League since, first with Southampton and now, and most impressively, with Tottenham, has seen him emerge as one of Europe’s most progressive, intuitive and highly regarded coaches. His Tottenham side, like Espanyol, has been built on young players, and like at Espanyol, there is an unerring tactical discipline about a side that often look by far the most balanced in the country. 

If Pochettino does indeed reach the very top of the coaching ladder, as many expect he will, then his first job at Espanyol will be looked back on in years to come as the pivotal formative years. On leaving the club in 2012, he made one final promise. Amidst the clear disappointment amongst the club’s fans at his departure, he said: “I have waived the final year of my contract, but I will always be available for Espanyol if needed in the future.”

By Callum Rice-Coates    @Callumrc96