Chants of “There’s only one Nigel Adkins” echoed almost apologetically around St Mary’s as Southampton lined up to face Everton on 21 January 2013. Adkins, who oversaw back-to-back promotions from League One through to the Premier League with the Saints had been relieved of his duties just three days before, and supporters of the club were incensed by the decision.
It came in largely unjust circumstances. The manager appeared to have saved his job by the skin of his teeth following a run of just one win in Southampton’s opening 11 games in the top flight. Their upturn in form saw them climb out of the relegation zone and up to 15th in the table, helped by a 2-2 draw away at Chelsea. The point at Stamford Bridge would prove to be Adkins’s last match at the helm, however, as Southampton chairman Nicola Cortese abstrusely opted to sack him, immediately replacing the fans’ favourite with a lesser-known manager, Mauricio Pochettino.
Archaic views were proposed in light of this controversial appointment. Many asked what a 40-year-old Argentine coach with no knowledge of the English language or experience of the Premier League would be able to achieve. There were even claims that the stands of St Mary’s would fill up with waves of white handkerchiefs in protest against the board’s decision to axe Adkins and replace him in such a ruthless manner.
Pochettino, who had been sacked by Espanyol in November 2012 as they sat rock-bottom on the LaLiga table, was unheard of by many, but Saints chairman Cortese took a particular liking to the former Argentina international. Somewhat ironically, he was accompanied by Adkins himself when he first took notice of the man who would proceed to become his successor.
Cortese, joined by the manager and RB Leipzig’s transfer guru Paul Mitchell, who was then Southampton’s head of recruitment, flew out to Spain to observe Espanyol. While the focus of the trip was to analyse the performance of a certain Philippe Coutinho, on loan at Cornellà-El Prat from Internazionale, the man on the sidelines piqued the interest of the Italian.
“On this occasion, we, with Nigel, went to scout Coutinho when he was on loan at Espanyol, and I was attracted by this young man on the touchline. I just liked his body language, I felt he had a good impact”, Cortese said. “The manager – I didn’t know what his name was at the time, but from that moment I started following his career. I started doing due diligence on him, calling agents who had players there and asking about their training regime.”
What had seemed a rash, volatile decision to sack and replace Adkins with Pochettino was, in fact, one built on the foundations of meticulous research, analysis and vision from Cortese. Albeit under harsh conditions, it was a masterstroke – and Southampton emerged as the Premier League’s giant-killing entertainers.
Pochettino’s first game in charge at St Mary’s wasn’t a classic. In a gritty, cagey affair, the Saints settled for a 0-0 draw against Everton, but signs of stylistic changes were apparent. The hosts pressed high up the pitch, with the defensive line further upfield. Clear-cut chances scarcely presented themselves as the team tired in the second half, consequential to the more strenuous approach, but Southampton were the better team.
The resentment that the Saints supporters retained regarding Adkins’ sacking soon dissipated as the signs of something special building at the club began to manifest. Although the team won only four more matches in the 2012/13 season under their new boss, they stole the headlines with their fearless style and impressive performances against the heavyweights of the division.
Southampton took the game to their opponents. They weren’t just another newly-promoted team who would cower from highly exigent tests against the so-called superior clubs, but instead, relish providing them with 90 minutes of suffering.
Pochettino saw his side complete three headline victories against Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea in the space of two months, helping to consolidate the club’s place in the Premier League for the next season. New leases of life were provided to players such as Jay Rodriguez, while a budding Luke Shaw stood out as yet another of the club’s superb academy products.
Adkins could well have steered the club to safety, but under the promising new manager, Southampton’s potential was evident. Under the previous regime, 22 points were amassed from as many games, but following the managerial switch, 19 points were taken from 16 games, highlighting only the basic level of development that had begun.
Inspired by his former manager and compatriot Marcelo Bielsa, Pochettino’s style of play at Southampton resembled that of three primary principles: intensity, organisation and speed. In possession, there was an onus on vertical, ambitious passing sequences towards Rickie Lambert, who would aim to bring creative players like the excellent Adam Lallana, the direct Jay Rodriguez and the multi-functional Steven Davis into the game.
The manager was bold in his first half-season at Southampton, and his approach reflected urgency and desire, two salient components that were necessary for avoiding the drop down to the Championship. As exciting and exuberant as the Saints had been, Pochettino urged caution, placing importance upon pragmatism and organisation, insisting that his style was not necessarily as chaotic and revolutionary as had been suggested. “It may seem like we are running more, but really we are just running in a more organised way.”
Southampton were not pressing their opponents man-for-man but ensuring that they did so in a controlled, intense fashion that would prompt them into making mistakes under pressure. Passing lanes were cut off by the front four in Pochettino’s 4-2-3-1 shape; the ball carrier would often have Rodriguez or Lallana bombing towards him, while the surrounding players occupied the opposition’s teammates, making for turnovers in dangerous areas.
“Our style of play is to win back the ball as soon as possible and then play it,” said Pochettino. “We moved forward our lines and play more upfield. When we lose the ball, we must have the mentality of winning it back as soon as possible.” He made it sound so simple, but in truth, the transformation of Southampton under Pochettino’s watchful eye was anything but.
The team rightfully earned plaudits for their efforts in his maiden campaign in English football, but it was in the subsequent season that people far and wide – notably Tottenham Hotspur chairman Daniel Levy – began to take notice.
The Saints completed just three signings in the 2013 summer transfer window. An impetus was placed upon the development of the club’s existing players while integrating quality additions, and only those would improve the starting line-up. Victor Wanyama joined in a £12m deal from Celtic, while Dejan Lovren arrived from Lyon for £8.5m. The most significant acquisition appeared to have been Pablo Daniel Osvaldo, who arrived from Roma in a club-record deal worth £15m.
The Italian striker worked with Pochettino at Espanyol, and despite his controversies, was highly thought of by the manager. Club legend Lambert had performed well during the new boss’s short reign hitherto, scoring five times and assisting four, but additional quality arrived ahead of the new season.
Osvaldo had a vast experience of working within the demands of Pochettino’s system. As the forward himself proclaimed, he enjoyed his best season in football during his tenure at Espanyol under the manager’s supervision. However, despite his undeniable talent, signing the striker proved to be a catastrophic error for Southampton, who would cut ties with the player after a catalogue of controversial incidents.
He was lucky to escape a straight red card on his debut against Sunderland, was banned for three games and fined £40,000 after a touchline brawl at Newcastle, and most significantly, was banished by Pochettino after headbutting José Fonte in a training session, leaving the defender with a broken nose.
The enigmatic Osvaldo – who proceeded to play for Juventus, Inter, Porto and Boca Juniors before retiring in pursuit of a career in rock music – and his demise left the manager to place his trust in the old faithful once again, and Lambert reclaimed his starting position. He enjoyed immeasurable success under the Saints boss. His season started on the front foot, netting the winning penalty on the opening day of the season away at West Brom soon after making his England debut, in which he powered home a header in a 3-2 win over Scotland at Wembley.
Lambert was a pivotal part of Pochettino’s Southampton. Although he didn’t boast the dynamism the manager often seeks in his forward players, the experienced attacker’s positional awareness, hold-up play and vision, coupled with composure in front of goal, made him a vital cog.
He was incredibly productive in 2013/14, directly contributing to 23 goals – 13 for himself and ten for his teammates – and proved to be far more than just an old-school target man. He was a specialist at bringing other players into the game, finding the penetrative runs of Rodriguez and Lallana in counter-attacking situations, and worked within his athletic limitations expertly.
Positional rotation and anticipation were crucial elements in how Southampton operated under Pochettino. The players deployed were required to suffocate their opponents’ possible passing lanes and ensure that their teammates were in a position to adequately cover if the first presser had vacated their position. The leader of the press, often Lallana, who started in all but one of the Saints’ 38 Premier League games, would aggressively advance towards the ball carrier on the opposing team, which saw surrounding players such as Davis, Rodriguez or Morgan Schneiderlin cover.
Southampton’s defensive midfield pairing, usually consisting of Schneiderlin and either Victor Wanyama or Jack Cork, would shoulder enormous responsibility in this system. With Pochettino’s full-backs, Nathaniel Clyne or Calum Chambers and Luke Shaw, progressing high up the pitch to aide combination play in the final third, the two holding players would often split to ensure that while positions were interchangeable, the shape was compact and consistent, and the Saints were hard to break down.
Schneiderlin explained how Southampton looked to prevent their opponents playing out from the back, with significance placed upon cutting central passing lanes to ensure that if the ball was retrieved, vertical options would be available. “When I do press, I try to leave the worst passing option possible to the opponent. Pochettino asks us not to give the opponent the choice. But it requires a massive amount of work from a collective point of view. It’s not surprising after six or seven months working on it that we’re now able to harass and fully imbalance some of the teams we face. We couldn’t do that from the start as it’s a massive work put in at training.”
Schneiderlin also described how he, being the more dynamic and energetic midfielder between himself and Wanyama – whose role chiefly involved screening the back four – would work relentlessly to cover the space left by the wide players, as they would compress their opposing full-backs to limit their time in possession. “Personally, I sometimes have to leave my zone to help on one side if a winger is out of position because he was in a forward zone and couldn’t fall back in time. I’m the closest to the ball to intervene so then even if I’m tired, I’m busting my ass. So then, the winger has to fill my zone, and then we switch positions. This is the basic philosophy.”
Robbing defenders in their own third was an entertaining trait in Pochettino’s Southampton. The Premier League had seen teams who pressed, but rarely to this extent. Few sides in world football have worked with the intensity and unrelenting pressure that the Saints did in the 2013/14 season; their style was risky, enchanting but, above all else, successful.
After settling for a 14th-place finish in the preceding season, Southampton moved up to eighth in Pochettino’s first full campaign. If not for Everton’s rampant journey to the top five, the Saints would have undoubtedly been considered as the best of the rest, but their league position was never truly the cynosure.
Supporters in the modern game often face a dilemma between paying for entertainment value or for simply accepting results. In many cases, it can only ever be one or the other, but the 2013/14 season saw some majestic football played by the Saints, who surged up the table as a culmination of the outstanding tactical and coaching ability of their manager and a receptive squad brimming with energy and youth.
Pochettino was perfect for Southampton and vice-versa. The club have perennially pushed the narrative that they operate in a way that differs from the norm, integrating academy graduates and following a particular playing model from the youngest age groups up to the first team. The manager not only indulged in this philosophy but thrived from it too.
He showcased his coaching skills with the likes of Shaw, who would earn a £30m move to Manchester United the following summer; Rodriguez, who scored 15 top-flight goals in a new role on the left-hand side; and Schneiderlin, who would become a fully-fledged France international because of the manager’s work.
It hardly comes as a surprise, now, to see that Harrison Reed and Sam Gallagher – two promising players who had been handed their senior debuts in 2013/14 – have both stagnated since his departure and been forced to ply their trades in the Championship for two campaigns apiece.
Southampton were a blank canvas for Pochettino. He could call upon greater resources than at Espanyol, the players were tactically flexible, and expectations were not particularly high. If any were in place to begin with, however, they were bettered by the performances of the team and then some.
Manuel Pellegrini’s star-studded Manchester City side romped to the title that season, playing vibrant football and dismantling teams – including Southampton in a 4-1 win at the Etihad in April 2014 – but the Saints were arguably the more exciting to watch, perhaps owing to their underdog status and utilisation of several homegrown players.
It is challenging to identify a team that has pressed and operated out of possession with the intensity that Pochettino’s Southampton did. Such was their determination to retrieve the ball across the pitch, their opening match of the season against West Brom contained the most fouls in any Premier League outing in 2013/14, with 25 of the 40 committed by the eventual 1-0 victors, who won courtesy of Lambert’s stoppage-time penalty. Intensity occasionally bred recklessness, and the team underwent substantial learning processes during the manager’s 16-month reign.
Southampton had players who were technically gifted enough to retain and recycle possession in all thirds of the pitch, but Pochettino didn’t place huge importance upon ball retention. Quick transitions and breakaways were favoured, and yet the Saints finished the season with the highest average possession share of any team in the division.
Paradoxically, they were only able to rank ninth in the successful completion of passes among their fellow Premier League sides. The team won the ball back with an unmatched degree of regularity and pushed to create chances with unwavering urgency, therefore favoured ambitious and often risky passes as they attempted to pen teams back in their own half.
Tottenham headhunted Pochettino and appointed him ahead of the 2014/15 season. Fast-forward to his fifth campaign in north London and he has overseen the club transition to a breathtaking new stadium, remain in the top-four race and involve themselves in the semi-finals of the Champions League for the first time in 57 years. Most impressively, he hasn’t spent a penny in the past two transfer windows, drawing on his unrivalled developmental qualities to extract the maximum from the group of players at his disposal.
Pochettino is a man of principles. Like his inspiration Bielsa, he is stubborn, meticulous and set in his ways. He believes football should be played in a certain fashion, and 100 percent effort from his players is the absolute minimum expectation. His tactical nous has enhanced as he has grown more experienced and accustomed to the demands of high-level football, but his fundamental beliefs as a coach have remained.
Tottenham may not play the same eye-catching football that Southampton did under the manager, but vital aspects of his philosophy continue to prevail. The aforementioned trio of principles apply: Spurs operate with high organisation, utilise speed on the break, and proceed with intensity off the ball.
At Southampton, Pochettino’s side were a one in a million outfit. Teeming with academy graduates, bargain buys and players who rose from the lower echelons of football, and managed by an individual who has never stopped silencing his doubters and critics, the Saints became the Premier League’s finest entertainers.
By Luke Osman @LukeOsmanRS