It’s no surprise given the success his side has seen this season that Mauricio Pochettino is now being touted as one of England’s finest young managers. Earlier this week marked the third anniversary of the Argentine’s arrival in England when he joined Southampton as a shock hire following the equally shocking sacking of popular manager Nigel Adkins. Far from wilting under the intense pressure of trying to secure safety for a struggling team in its first Premier League campaign, Pochettino thrived on it. On England’s south coast he found team full of talented, hungry young players (along with a few veterans with similar ambitions) that he quickly molded into a fierce high-pressing side that would be more at home in the Bundesliga than the comparatively conservative Premier League.

The following season the Saints rose still higher as Pochettino guided them to their best ever Premier League finish thanks to star performances from Jay Rodriguez, Rickie Lambert, and Adam Lallana, all three of whom would make their England debuts under Pochettino. (And all three of whom have been shadows of the players they were under Pochettino since leaving him.) It wasn’t a surprise, then, when Tottenham Hotspur swooped in to hire Pochettino to replace departed interim boss Tim Sherwood.

But there was actually more logic to the hire than a bigger club simply snapping up a bright young manager from a smaller club. Pochettino basically fit the vision for Tottenham that Daniel Levy seems to have had since the decision to sack Harry Redknapp. Levy seems to have reasoned, quite rightly, that Tottenham will never be able to compete with the larger English clubs on their own turf. If it comes down to bidding wars for top talent, Spurs will lose to City, United, and Chelsea every time—as they did on Sergio Aguero and Willian to name only two of the most obvious examples. Tottenham needed to shift the playing field in some way to have a better shot at keeping up with their wealthier rivals. And Levy knew the way: If a team can develop a tactical system that a) makes all the individual members of the team better than they would otherwise be and b) is unique enough that teams don’t know how to beat it, then Spurs could perhaps compete with Chelsea, City, United, and Arsenal.

This was the whole reasoning behind the Andre Villas-Boas hire. And, in hindsight, the AVB era wasn’t actually that far from being a success. In his first season at the club the team posted its highest ever points total in a 38 game campaign. Granted, much of that was the Gareth Bale Effect, but even in the early stages of the following season there was reason to hope that AVB would succeed at Spurs. Up till the 1-0 loss to Newcastle when Tim Krul played possibly the best match of his career in England, Spurs were doing pretty well. But after Newcastle, AVB (perhaps under pressure from others at the club) attempted to open things up a bit and everything came down faster than you can say “Luis Suarez scores for Liverpool.” The hire of Pochettino made it clear that Levy hadn’t lost faith in AVB’s general approach of high pressing, disruptive football; he had just lost faith in AVB.

What are the basics of Mauricio Pochettino’s tactics?

To begin, there are a few general things that can be said about it that will lay a nice foundation but not much more:

  • Pochettino believes in a 4-2-3-1 base with a high defensive line. He typically wants one of his midfielders to sit deeper than the other in order to protect the back line and to create multiple passing levels in the team’s shape.
  • He favors the use of aggressive pressing high up the field both to disrupt the opposition attack and to create chances for his team. Pochettino essentially agrees with Jurgen Klopp that the high press is the best playmaker in the game. That said, Pochettino’s approach to pressing is actually much more conservative than that of his former coach Marcelo Bielsa, Pep Guardiola, Roger Schmidt, or Klopp.
  • Pochettino wants his striker to work hard in the pressing game, particularly with closing quickly on the keeper when given the chance, and will also ask him to drift out wide on a regular basis to receive the ball. The attacking three behind the striker are given a large amount of freedom to move across the front three largely because the pressing system makes it difficult for them to be too rigid in their positioning on the field.

We’ll tackle each of these three general points below.

Pochettino’s take on the 4-2-3-1 says a lot about his entire personality as a manager.

What makes Pochettino so fascinating is the way he combines a fairly radical, aggressive tactical approach with a conservative, business-like demeanor. When you think about the sort of frantic pressing style that Pochettino teams play you often pair it with managers like Jurgen Klopp or Marcelo Bielsa. Managers, who, in other words, are known as much for their personalities as for their actual work.

Remember this?

Or maybe this?

Compared to that, Pochettino is tight and buttoned down. His use of the 4-2-3-1 is thus an interesting reflection of his personality as a manager.

The classic appeal of 4-2-3-1, of course, is its flexibility. A team playing 4-2-3-1 can shift into a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 with very little difficulty. Plus 4-2-3-1 is likely the most balanced base formation a team can play in. It’s a safe, conservative way to play that still is able to offer a lot going forward. Many other managers with a reputation for aggression and a high press favor more exotic systems. Bielsa often plays a 3-3-3-1 or 3-3-1-3 (depending on how you break it down), Guardiola can’t even be reduced down to formations, and Roger Schmidt often plays what is functionally a 4-2-4 at Bayer Leverkusen. Thus Pochettino is relatively unique in his fondness for 4-2-3-1. (The only other major proponent of pressing who uses a 4-2-3-1 base is Jurgen Klopp, although his Dortmund was often more 4-4-1-1 than 4-2-3-1 and his Liverpool so far has been more of a 4-3-3/4-3-2-1 mix.)

That said, Pochettino’s use of the typically conservative 4-2-3-1 is where we can begin to see his creativity and aggression as a manager.

First, Pochettino often directs one of his two midfielders to sit deep and play more like a single pivot in a 4-3-3 than one half of a double pivot in 4-2-3-1. At Southampton he did this with Victor Wanyama and at Tottenham he has done it with Eric Dier. The result is that one of the midfield two sits much deeper, sometimes almost becoming a third center half, while the other midfield partner is given more license to play as a classic box-to-box midfielder.

This is the role in which Pochettino used Morgan Schneiderlin at Southampton. It’s also where Dele Alli made his debut for Spurs this season and it is the role that Mousa Dembele has made his own in recent weeks. The intriguing thing about this second midfielder is that Pochettino is fairly flexible in how he asks them to play. Schneiderlin could charge at a defense, but was often more comfortable spreading the ball out to the wings. Dele Alli played the role basically like a 19-year-old version of Steven Gerrard while Dembele has rediscovered the role (and form!) he enjoyed during his maiden season at Spurs when he was partnered with Sandro in midfield.

This positioning of the two midfielders does two important things for Pochettino. First, the use of a deeper holding midfielder provides a safety measure should the high press fail. If his team presses high up the field and the opposition breaks it, the nightmare scenario is that the two center backs (already playing high up the pitch) would be forced to race backwards while also trying to control the attacking players who are running directly at them. This was a routine problem for Tottenham last season as Brett Rainbow explained in this breakdown of why Tottenham’s press failed last season.

Ideally, the holding midfielder should fix this issue. He’ll either break up the attack or at least slow it down enough that the defense can get back and some defensive support can arrive from the fullbacks or front four.

Second, by dropping one midfield slightly deeper it creates a new level in the formation. In a flat 4-2-3-1 you have four levels of play with your outfield players. But when you shift the position of the two midfielders slightly, you create a fifth level. Further levels can also be created by pushing fullbacks further forward and dropping one of the attacking three midfielders into a slightly deeper role between midfield and the other members of the front four. The result of all this shifting is that while the typical 4-2-3-1 offers very limited options in passing lanes between teammates, the modified version favored by Pochettino makes short, intricate passing moves much easier to execute:

This is a typical flat 4-2-3-1:

flat-4-2-3-1

Here is Pochettino’s modified version of the same formation:

pochettino-4-2-3-1

This graphic should also explain how Spurs can often appear to be playing 4-3-3 or even 3-4-2-1. The basic shape Pochettino prefers is deeply conservative and conventional, but then Pochettino introduces a couple small modifications that have the effect of breathing new life into a fairly solid but limited tactical set up.

Pochettino teams use a high press to both create attacking chances and to disrupt the opposition’s build-up play.

It’s fairly common to speak of teams “pressing” in today’s game. Indeed, it’s so common that the term has lost much of its explanatory power. So when we say Pochettino teams favor a high press, we need to be clear on what that means and what it does not mean.

First, we should be clear on two things it does not mean.

  • It does not mean that Pochettino teams press in the same fashion as Marcelo Bielsa teams, even if Pochettino is a Bielsa protege.
  • It does not necessarily mean that Pochettino teams press in the same way as German gegenpressing teams, although there is some overlap.

To understand the difference, we need to talk about pressing triggers. Bielsa teams typically play a completely insane man-marking system that essentially creates the press naturally by forcing every player to chase one member of the opposition everywhere they go on the field. Michael Cox has broken it down nicely over at Zonal Marking. Mike Goodman’s explanation of Bielsa’s system is also worth your time.

Neither the German teams nor Pochettino use that system. The German teams use a system that Jurgen Klopp calls “gegenpressing.” The idea of gegenpressing is obvious to anyone who has a bit of German—it’s “counter pressing.” So when you lose the ball, you immediately swarm the opposition in an effort to win it back. In the sequence below Madrid won the ball in midfield and quickly played it over to Marcelo in hopes of relieving the pressure in midfield. That… didn’t work:

dortmund-gegenpressing

However, Pochettino teams do not use this system either, although there are times where it looks like they do. Pochettino teams, instead, use a zonal pressing system that is triggered by fairly specific cues. For example, if a player is in his own third and receives the ball into his feet facing his own goal, Spurs will likely try to trap him and win possession as they did in this sequence below:

spurs-goal-vs-arsenal

In the above sequence, Per Mertesacker plays the ball into Mathieu Flamini’s feet. Flamini takes a bad first touch which dooms him because Eriksen had already started charging him the moment Mertesacker made his pass. Flamini’s bad touch, which itself may have been caused by Eriksen’s pressure, leads to a turnover. Lamela gets the ball, rolls it in to Chadli… goal. That said, there are difficulties with this approach as well.

Because of the nature of Pochettino’s pressing system, a great deal is left up to the judgment of his players. When his players make the right choice, it works marvelously. But when a player makes a bad decision about how to press, the system can break—and it only takes one player making the wrong choice for this to happen.

Consider this goal scored against Spurs early in the 15-16 season that began when Christian Eriksen tried to press a defender receiving the ball into his feet in a wide area:

failed-press-swans-spurs.0

In this case Eriksen has tried to trap the Swansea defender, but wasn’t able to either win the ball or force him to play the ball backward. Instead, he missed on the attempt to intercept and allowed a pass to be played forward. From there, Swansea passes their way down the field for the opener.

This is why, incidentally, his system can take time to implement. Though he hit the ground running at Southampton, that situation was helped by several unique factors. First, Southampton’s squad already had the ideal Pochettino mix of a small number of savvy veterans mixed with a much larger number of hungry, motivated youngsters who will develop the sort of quasi-religious loyalty that Pochettino demands. Second, with players like Adam Lallana, Steven Davis, Jay Rodriguez, Nathan Clyne, Luke Shaw, and Morgan Schneiderlin already in the squad Pochettino already had a squad that largely fits what he wants to do as a manager.

At Spurs, most of those conditions were not in place. Though Tim Sherwood had started something of a youth revival during his half-season in command, even that had only seen the ascent of Harry Kane and Nabil Bentaleb in the first team. Beyond that, Pochettino inherited a highly dysfunctional dressing room with a number of big egos whose talent did not justify the esteem in which they held themselves. Once that wave of disgruntled veteran misfits which included Aaron Lennon, Younes Kaboul, Emmanuel Adebayor, and Etienne Capoue, was exiled, Pochettino then begin trying to figure out his best squad.

And he had some limited success: Kane obviously was a revelation, but Erik Lamela, Christian Eriksen, Nacer Chadli, and Danny Rose all showed marked improvement as the season progressed. There were two massive holes in the side, however: The Ryan Mason-Nabil Bentaleb midfield was a shambolic wreck and the team didn’t have a suitable defensive partner for Vertonghen. Once those issues were fixed, everything fell into place quite nicely. But that process took time. It was only after 45-50 Premier League games under Pochettino that Tottenham truly began to look an elite side. This point also underscores why Pochettino tends to play with a pretty small rotation of players. The intelligence and physical fitness required by his system are beyond the ability of many footballers.

Pochettino’s attacking four is fluid and requires a particularly unique skill-set from the center forward.

The sad irony of Adebayor’s failure under Pochettino is that the Togolese striker is actually in many ways an ideal fit for Pochettino’s system. As we’ve explained before, Pochettino often asks his strikers to drift into wide areas to receive the ball. Adebayor is quite comfortable doing that and did it routinely when playing for Harry Redknapp during his loan season at Spurs. What we’ve not talked about as much is the reason for the striker drifting into wide areas as often as they tend to do under Pochettino.

Part of this is simply a function of Pochettino’s system. Player positions are not at all fixed when you play an aggressive, high-pressing system. When your entire defensive framework depends upon pressuring the ball and winning it quickly, that makes it all but impossible to maintain a rigid sense of position. So the strikers tend to pop up in odd positions under Pochettino because everyone tends to pop up in weird positions under Pochettino.

There is more to it than just that, however. Like many other elite young managers, Pochettino teams play in a relatively compact shape. Though it isn’t as strict as something like Arrigo Sacchi’s famous 25 yards of space between the defensive line and his attackers, it isn’t far from that either. This can create an obvious problem, of course: If your team plays in such a small, confined area, that can limit passing lanes and make it easier to stop a team’s attacking moves. In cases of low-block teams that use this system, such as Diego Simeone’s Atletico or Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester, that isn’t a problem. In their cases, the compactness is all in their own half and so it’s simply a matter of launching the ball forward and watching the counter attacking magic happen.

But for high-block teams like Pochettino’s Spurs, this can be more of a problem. If you have seven or even eight outfield players all pushed into the attacking half (and two defenders just behind the halfway line), then the opposition can simply have eight or nine outfield players sitting deep and breaking up play, waiting to launch a counter attack. As a result, the attack can stagnate as passing lanes simply do not exist due to the number of bodies the defense packs into their own defensive third.

This was something of a recurring problem for Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City. Mancini often used Yaya Toure as a number 10 and then played David Silva as a wide number 10. If a proper winger like Adam Johnson was on the opposite flank, it could still kinda sorta work, but when Samir Nasri was introduced on the wing opposite Silva, it made City’s attack very narrow and easier to defend.

The way that high-block teams work around this problem is with lateral passing and lateral player movement. As the ball is shifted side to side, the defense is forced to shift back and forth. Eventually a gap appears and then you have to hit it as hard and fast as you can. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona did this better than anyone else:

guardiola-barcelona-lateral-movement

Pochettino uses a similar approach in that he also wants his team using quick, lateral passing to shift the defense around and create gaps to attack. That said, there are two important ways in which Pochettino’s approach differs from that of Guardiola.

First, Pochettino is basically indifferent about possession. Guardiola teams wear down the opposition by making them chase the ball so everything for them starts with keeping possession and winning it back as quickly as it is lost. Pochettino teams are closer to the German counter-pressing school with regards to possession. Like Jurgen Klopp and Roger Schmidt, Pochettino believes the best attacking opportunities come in during transition passages when the ball is not clearly possessed by either team or has just changed possession. So Pochettino teams will typically not string together a 15+ pass attacking move—although they sometimes will—but will rather play 6-8 passes and use lateral movement of players to open up the defense a bit.

Thus with Pochettino the most important lateral movement is often not the ball’s movement, but the movement of his players. The 5-3 win against Chelsea during his debut season at Tottenham is one of the best examples of this that you’ll find as Pochettino used Christian Eriksen’s lateral movement across the attacking third to open up a densely packed Chelsea defense. Eriksen’s drifting would take defensive shield Nemanja Matic out of the play, leaving only Cesc Fabregas to cover for Chelsea’s aging central defenders.

The second key difference in Pochettino’s approach compared to Guardiola is that Pochettino’s teams will often bypass multiple levels of play by making a single long pass out of the back. Toby Alderweireld has excelled in that role for the team this year. To make this work, Alderweireld will move forward with holding midfielder Eric Dier, who can also play center back, dropping back to partner Jan Vertonghen. With Alderweireld in an advanced position, he can make the kind of long diagonal passes that allow Spurs to simply go over the top of a packed defense. The goal Spurs scored against Everton earlier this season is representative of how this works:

alli-goal-v-everton

Note that the lateral movement is still key to this goal, but it’s not the lateral movement that Guardiola teams are known for. Rather, it’s the outside-in run made by Dele Alli that splits the gap between the Everton right back and the right center back. This is a common tactic with Pochettino teams and, if anything, was even more typical during his days at Southampton when he had Jay Rodriguez making these same sorts of runs. Pochettino didn’t have a Rodriguez-type wide forward in last year’s team and even in this year’s team that has been a tricky thing because Heung-Min Son has not been a consistent fixture in the first XI and it took a bit of time to establish Dele Alli in the attacking three.

Briefly, then, the lateral movement by Pochettino’s attackers is what allows a high-block team like Spurs to open up a team that has parked the bus. That said, Pochettino teams do this with more aggressive passing and more lateral player movement whereas more possession-focused sides will use a greater amount of short, lateral passing. Pochettino thus takes a staple of Pep Guardiola’s attacking system and introduces a German twist to it to produce the attacking style we have seen from Spurs this season.

Conclusion

It’s easy to look at Mauricio Pochettino and see in him a disciple of two of the most established managers in world football—Marcelo Bielsa and Pep Guardiola. Yet when you take the time to better understand his system, you find that though Pochettino owes many debts to many different managers, he is very much his own man and has developed his own system. His pressing is not a straight copy of either the German school or the more aggressive approach of his former coach Bielsa. His use of his strikers is innovative. And his indifference to possession sets him apart from both managers who demand high amounts of possession (Guardiola, Louis Van Gaal), and managers who actually want to avoid possession (Jose Mourinho, Diego Simeone). When you add his commitment to youth to this tactical picture, you get a manager who doesn’t have any real parallel in world football.

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