Mauricio Pochettino remembers the way that the eyes of his players had widened in astonishment. Or, perhaps, it was fear. He had taken over at relegation-threatened Espanyol, it was late-January 2009 and his first game in charge – his first of any kind in football management – was at home to Barcelona in the Copa del Rey. It was Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, the team of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta – and the one that would finish the season with the treble.
“My first training session had been on the afternoon before the game and then, we trained on the morning of it,” said the
Tottenham Hotspur manager. “It was two training sessions in less than 12 hours. I said to the players that we needed to play with high pressing and one-versus-one at the back. Their eyes were like this! They thought it was impossible against Barcelona but I said: ‘No, it is not impossible.’”
Against the odds, Espanyol would draw 0-0. Pochettino’s managerial career was up and running. In the away leg the following week, Espanyol lost 3-2 and, when Pochettino took his team back to the Camp Nou in La Liga at the end of February, he was still searching for his first win. On a memorable occasion, they would win 2-1 . Espanyol have not beaten Barcelona since.
“The 0-0 against Barcelona was a fantastic result and it was then easy to convince the players to play in a different way,” Pochettino said. “Where did I get the idea we had to press them? It’s about your personality, who you are. You show on the pitch who you are. If you are brave in your life, you cannot behave in a different way on the pitch. I don’t understand how to play in a different way. Always, be brave. I like to be brave.”
Pochettino had many battles with Guardiola when they were players with Espanyol and Barcelona respectively, and many more once they had crossed over into management at the two clubs. Pochettino was a part of the Espanyol team that beat Sir Bobby Robson’s Barcelona 2-0 at home in 1997 and there is footage of him on YouTube monstering into a challenge on the Brazilian Ronaldo. But that match, plus his first victory in management, have represented his only successes against Guardiola, who brings his Manchester City team to White Hart Lane on Sunday for a top-of-the-table collision. Pochettino won 4-1 in the corresponding fixture last September , when City were managed by Manuel Pellegrini, and it was a result that energised Tottenham. But it feels as though the stakes have been raised again, largely because, well, City have Guardiola and they have looked imperious this season.
It will be another occasion when Pochettino demands bravery from his players and another one in which he will hope to see evidence that they can get the better of a powerhouse. Pochettino’s stated aim for the season is to win the title. “The big challenge for us is to try to win the league,” he said, two weeks ago. On Friday, he was quick to say that nobody ought to read too much into the City result. It remained too early in the season, he said. But imagine the reaction if Tottenham were to win?
Pochettino’s team have started well and there are a clutch of factors that fire the belief that it could be their year, chief among them the sense that, despite their lofty early season position, they have not yet truly clicked – apart from in the 4-0 win at Stoke City . They have dug out most of their results, showing plenty of personality. There is more to come, which is a good sign.
Pochettino’s squad also has greater strength in depth, following the club’s summer transfer business, which was characterised by the desire to build from a position – and in positions – of strength. The club had excellent midfielders last season but they still spent a combined £41m on Victor Wanyama and Moussa Sissoko. More than ever, with the demands of a Champions League campaign, it is a squad game, and the squad was needed on Tuesday. Pochettino was without five key players for the high-pressure Champions League tie at CSKA Moscow but a remark from Hugo Lloris spoke volumes. “From the first minute I saw the teamsheet, I never thought about the missing players,” the captain said. Tottenham won 1-0.
Pochettino’s promotion of academy-developed players has created a connection with the fans and a feelgood factor, and then there is the defence, which was the joint-most miserly in last season’s Premier League and is the most miserly so far this time.
Jan Vertonghen notes how he has played “maybe three-quarters” of his career matches with Toby Alderweireld, his Belgium and former Ajax team-mate, and their central defensive partnership has come to be characterised by steel and understanding.
Title-winning teams are built on strong centre-half pairings and they are ready to take on Sergio Agüero, who has 10 goals in nine league games against Tottenham.
The Champions League has brought excitement and opportunity but also tremendous extra pressure, both mental and physical. It felt significant, and a little worrying, that Eric Dier and Mousa Dembélé both suffered injuries against Sunderland after the Champions League opener against Monaco. Pochettino has spoken about how there will be less rotation this season, because players are not OK about sitting out Champions League ties.
Tottenham’s biggest concern, at present, involves the lack of clinical edge – can Vincent Janssen score enough goals in the absence of the injured Harry Kane? – while there is the wider question of whether their rivals might simply be driving improvements at quicker rates.
Ahead of City’s visit, though, the rhetoric from the dressing-room was heavy on self-belief. “It’s true that the Guardiola effect took place very early at City but we are more focused on ourselves,” Lloris said. “We know that we are able to do great things against top teams. In front of our crowd, anything is possible.”
Pochettino’s duel with Guardiola is one of the principal subplots and the paths that they have taken to Sunday’s showdown have been markedly different. Shortly before he got the Espanyol job, Pochettino completed his Uefa Pro License with a spell as the assistant manager to the club’s ladies’ team while after Espanyol he took over at Southampton, who had also been in a lowly position. Guardiola, by contrast, went from Barcelona B to Barcelona, where he inherited Messi & Co.
“Guardiola is the face of a new managerial era, in which the vision of romantic football was mixed with [the appliance of] new technology,” Pochettino said. “He is the face but it’s not only Guardiola. I have been involved and [so have] different managers like Luis Enrique and Diego Simeone. We are the same age and in the same level. Guardiola was the face because [good] results always put you at the top. I think always you can see better when you have Messi in your team.”
It is not difficult to detect professional tension between Pochettino, the fighting Argentinian, and Guardiola, the gilded son of Catalonia.
The playing field feels more level than when they met in Spain. Pochettino is determined to make a statement.