"I jump into a sand pit for a living"
Brave New World
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Guillem Balagué, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 2017. ISBN 978-1-4091-5771-7 -7The book is a strange genre. It is written in the first person as if Pochettino is speaking. Yet the author is stated to be Guillem Balagué. The introduction says: “This is and isn’t a diary of Mauricio’s campaign. Allow me to explain. It is a kind of collage. His words, his thoughts, his experiences are in here. Some were said by him in the conversations we had on an almost weekly basis. Others were told to me by the people around him to fill in some gaps: players that he has coached in the past or that he coaches now explained private moments, crucial tactical chats, reasons for hugs. Professional colleagues recollected memories of times past. Friends did the same. Travelling companions uncovered little secrets. And big ones”.
The book is a diary of the 2016-17 season but with many flashbacks to Pochettino’s early life, his career as a player (team mate of Maradona, giving away that penalty against Michael Owen in the 2002 World Cup), his experience as a manager at Espanyol etc.
There are great insights into his management style. His daily early morning meetings with his coaches are a crucial part of that. He does not have a team psychologist because “looking after the player’s mental well-being, and understanding the context and applying solutions beyond the tactical, is one of the manager’s roles”. He develops this further: “This is a challenge for the coach. We are friends, psychologists, trainers in search of solutions which are different to the ones that were applied to us when we were the players’ ages”.
He refers to a dinner with Alex Ferguson in which Ferguson explained that early in his career he stopped being involved in training, feeling he was better served by watching from a distance. Pochettino’s approach is different: “I need to be out there, correcting things and demanding more, but often work with the players takes place in my office”.
He comes across as a manager who knows all his players extremely well and who has regular 1-2-1 conversations with them. He refers to one first-team star who originally wanted to keep his private life private but had to be persuaded that the manager needed to know about all aspects of his life to maximize his performance on match-day.
He reflects on Alex Ferguson’s view that the manager must never lose control of the dressing room and must confront a player at the first indication of a challenge to his authority. Pochettino reflects on this concluding: “I think things have changed now. The balance of power has shifted irreversibly towards the player”. He gives an example of one of his star players. When he first came into the first-team you could yell at him during a training session, but, knowing that the player could move to any club in Europe for more money, you necessarily have to strike a different tone and deal with him more sensitively.
He is very strong on the mental side of the game believing that the most important characteristic of his team should be passion and aggression. “It is always about mentality”. At the same time he recalls as a kid kicking a ball around for the pure pleasure of doing so and wonders if it is possible to recreate that in the professional game.
He refers to one amusing frustration with his players: “Five minutes before the warm-up, when their boots are on and their shin pads and kits are in place, practically all of them take another look at their mobiles. Is it that important to know if you have a new message right at that time? It doesn’t make sense”.
He refers to an incident with the team, which I confess that I struggle to understand but which gives another clear insight into his view of his role in the club. “The first time my team [Southampton] and I travelled to Wales, one of those things took place that helps everyone understand their role at the club. It was with Southampton and Nicola Cortese [chairman] was in the travelling party. Jason Puncheon, now of Crystal Palace, asked him about his holiday. I could not believe my ears. I had to make it clear to Jason and Nicola that things didn’t work like that. It wasn’t appropriate for a player to ask the chairman a personal question, nor was it the time to ask. It all had to go through me”.
The book contains some great one-liners like:
On Dele Ali: “He is naughty, with that streetwise intelligence that can’t be taught”.
“We deserved more, but at this level, deserving it isn’t always enough”.
“When the game turns into a profession, you start to lose your desire to play”.
There is one reference to faith which I will quote in full: “Do I believe in God? Yes, because my parents baptised me and I made my First Holy Communion. I do believe, however, that there is an external force that differs from the God of Catholic teaching”.
This is a very readable book with great insights into the role of the Premier League football manager. Going back to where we started I do have that one nagging doubt – whose insight is it? Pochettino’s or Balagué’s?
Mauricio Pochettino has certainly achieved one goal in his career in England by proving, in the words of the book, that “the guy in charge isn’t just a crazy Argentinean who speaks bad English”.