If Chelsea owners and players embrace Pochettinos vision then the

If Chelsea owners and players embrace Pochettino’s vision, then the sky’s the limit – The Athletic

Mauricio Pochettino has a saying.

“When a player signs a contract, he has to understand that he is not signing a contract to play games. You sign an apprenticeship contract. Then you wait for the manager to choose the team.”

There is so much of Pochettino’s approach to management in those 36 words, including a sense of what he wants to see in his teams: hungry, humble players who don’t believe they have an innate right to start games; a unified group where everyone is equal and respects everyone else; A team that has wholeheartedly embraced the manager’s ideas, been persuaded rather than coerced, and believe they are now part of something bigger than themselves.

Those players who don’t believe in the manager’s ideas are welcome to play elsewhere.

When people think of Pochettino and what he could bring to Chelsea, they might think of the aggressive, high pressing and organization in possession, the result you see on the pitch. Or about the tireless running and the double training sessions that make it possible. That’s all true, but the basis is the human connections between Pochettino and his players and between the players themselves.

What ties these different elements of Pochettino’s work together – what really makes football thrive – is his skill as a manager and squad builder. It’s what he did so well at Tottenham, creating an ethos and culture that didn’t exist before and turning a diverse bunch of footballers into the most united and determined Spurs team in modern history. He just had to give these players something to believe in.

But when Pochettino became Paris Saint-Germain manager in January 2021, he struggled to take the same spot as at Tottenham. How do you create a unified squad of hungry, humble players when some of them are making ten times more than others? How do you convince footballers that they need to accept your methods and respect your processes when they have already won so much in their careers? And how do you tell the players that if they have been signed by the club as ambassadors for the owners’ sporting project, they do not automatically have the right to attend the games?

The big question when Pochettino takes over at Stamford Bridge is whether that job will be more Tottenham-like or PSG-like for him. Will he be able to convince players that his methods are the way to improve and build a successful team? Will he be able to get rid of those who disagree with his ideas? Will he be able to build a culture and ethos where none currently exists, and in so doing set the stage for his style of football to thrive?

Think back to when Pochettino arrived from Southampton to take charge of Tottenham in the summer of 2014.

In hindsight it seems like a fresh start or a fresh start – Pochettino walks in, hits a reset button and resets everything to zero. But football is not that easy and in reality he inherited a mess.

Pochettino in his first Tottenham pre-season nine years ago (Picture: Brian Kersey/Getty Images)

The 2013/14 season was a disaster for Spurs. They fired their manager. And then he also dismissed his successor – not for the last time.

That replacement, Tim Sherwood, had noted a perceived lack of “guts and character” in the squad. They had no identity, no true football principles and were plagued by injuries. Confidence reigned and the players stopped enjoying playing at White Hart Lane for a long time, fearing the negative atmosphere at home. Pochettino inherited a bloated squad of 34 unfit and unmotivated players. Before he did anything else, he had to change the mood.

In those first few months, he spoke of the importance of changing “habits” and “mentalities” at Spurs. Some of these were simple: everyone shook hands with everyone else at the start of the day. Pochettino was available all afternoon to spend time with players who wanted to talk to him. The aim was to get them to believe in him and his ideas, but above all in each other.

As he said at the beginning, “Our challenge is to create something special between 25 players.” Only then could he provide the platform for their talents to flourish.

That meant trusting young players hungry and ambitious enough to improve: not just Harry Kane, but also Ryan Mason, Nabil Bentaleb and new signing Eric Dier. They didn’t all play straight away, but their contracts were to train, not play – remember – and they were instilled with a belief that they had to make a difference. Kane’s 90th-minute free-kick at Aston Villa in November remains one of Pochettino’s favorite moments from his more than five years in north London, as it inspired a shared belief that Spurs are finally on the right track.

It also meant removing players who didn’t believe in Pochettino’s approach.

There weren’t too many changes at the start of the first season, but after a few months it became clear who was in and who wasn’t. And for a manager like Pochettino, you either totally agree with your job or you don’t. It wasn’t long before Younes Kaboul (who was then officially captain of the club), Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Emmanuel Adebayor and Aaron Lennon were relegated to the sidelines. After November of their freshman year, they were barely represented in the league. And when Adebayor and Lennon showed up for pre-season the following summer, they were not given squad numbers nor allowed to train with the main team.

Pochettino soon had what he wanted: a squad of hungry players totally devoted to his ideas and each other. Every win showed the team that they were on the right track and encouraged them to keep working. If the high-intensity running exercises at the end of each training session were initially unpopular, each victory showed them why they are worth it.

Adebayor and Assou-Ekotto were among the veteran Spurs players who soon fell out of favor under Pochettino (Picture: Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Playing Pochettino’s way would be impossible without this shared commitment to fitness work. High pressing, which is trying to win the ball back within four seconds of losing the ball, simply wouldn’t work if players didn’t have the legs to perform this type of football. The doubles sessions, the training sessions in the gym, the carefully controlled diet and nutrition, the monitoring program to avoid injuries: they were all carried out to keep the players in optimal physical condition.

All of this serves one idea: positional play.

This is how Pochettino sees football: he wants to dominate the game by controlling space and aiming for numerical superiority through the position of the players on the field.

It’s a very organized style – only Pep Guardiola has a more rigorous approach – and it takes hours of training to perfect. But if you watch a Pochettino team in full swing you’ll recognize their hallmarks: the precise way they play from behind, with centre-backs splitting and dropping, full-backs providing width and attacking players getting the right ones Taking positions offer options in the last third. Possession is a means to domination, but never the end in itself.

And that possession pattern is an integral part of how his teams press. Because only if you are well organized with the ball and everyone is exactly where they are supposed to be can you be well organized without it. You defend as you attack, as Pochettino and his collaborators put it, and not the other way around.

That’s how Spurs played under Pochettino in their prime and it remains their finest period of modern times: a title surge before finishing third in 2015/16, another in 2016/17 when they recorded 26 league wins and 86 points – their best season since Bill Nicholson – with second place, 77 points and another third place in the 2017/18 season. And then, of course, reaching the 2019 Champions League final.

But as we all know, when this miracle run to Madrid took place, the team was already in decline.

Pochettino’s approach requires hungry players who want to learn and improve. And no group of footballers – regardless of manager – will go hungry forever. Pochettino knew that if the team was to stay fit, the squad needed to be renewed, just like maintaining a swimming pool requires constant topping up of fresh water to keep it clean.

Pochettino comforts his players after losing to Liverpool in the 2019 Champions League final (Photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

Had Spurs successfully ousted players during the Pochettino climax, they could have maintained their lead. But Dele Alli, Danny Rose, Toby Alderweireld, Dier, Moussa Sissoko, Lucas Moura and many others stuck with it. Tottenham didn’t add a single player in the two windows of the 2018/19 season and Pochettino knew that in football either the players or the manager change. By the time Spurs started refreshing their roster again in the summer of 2019, it was too late.

Decay had set in, ethos was lost and Pochettino was sacked in November.

The problem at Paris Saint-Germain was that Pochettino could never be the same dominant figure there as he was at Spurs. Even his squad management skills and ability to create the right culture and ethos in the group struggled to make an impact in the French capital.

When Pochettino took over Spurs, he had the power to promote players he liked and take out those he didn’t like. He could assemble the squad as he saw fit, rewarding the players who trained well and punishing those who didn’t, always with the message that no one had an innate right to attend the games. In short, he was stronger than the players he coached.

But PSG is not set up like that. When he arrived in mid-2020/21 they had Kylian Mbappe and Neymar, and after his first half of the season they were joined by Lionel Messi. These were not only players from the club, but also ambassadors for the entire project. It didn’t help that the big names made it harder for Pochettino to find a spot for Angel Di Maria, who he loved. Or that the club, when they had a keeper they trusted in Keylor Navas, also brought in Italy No. 1 Gianluigi Donnarumma.

This was never a team modeled after Pochettino. It was a club dominated by egos and cliques. So it was difficult to generate the same sense of hunger, unity and common purpose that he felt at Tottenham.

There would never be much commonality or cohesion between the three megastars and the smaller players, who received only a tiny fraction of their earnings. There was also a lack of unity between the three superstars themselves, as they all had to share things at PSG – recognition, attention, penalties, the ball itself – that they didn’t want to share. Pochettino loves nothing more than working to improve individuals on the training ground, but it’s hard to convince anyone of the need to improve when they’re busy living their life like a god.

What it all meant was a group of very talented individuals who could never grow into the same cohesive group he did in north London.

The results weren’t bad: in the first half of the season, PSG missed out on getting into Ligue 1 by a point, but averaged more points in their 21 league games than in the 17 under Thomas Tuchel. In his only full season, they regained the title but were painfully knocked out of the Champions League by Real Madrid as they seemingly won the quarter-finals and were 2-0 on aggregate after an hour of the second leg. Nevertheless, Pochettino was substituted last summer.

Pochettino gives instructions to Neymar and Mbappe (Photo: Franck Fife / AFP via Getty Images)

The question again is whether the Chelsea job will be more like Tottenham or PSG.

Critics could argue that Pochettino struggled at a ‘super club’ and is better suited to working with a more up-and-coming, more ambitious side. But PSG are a unique endeavor – no other superclub is run like them – and Pochettino’s eyes were always on another big task. And it could be that Chelsea provide him with the right conditions to set the ethos and culture of the whole club again. He can offer them the same restart he offered Spurs nine years ago.

Yes, Chelsea are rich and glamorous, but they are also in a transitional phase, to say the least. Partly because Roman Abramovich’s 19-year ownership ended less than 12 months ago and her new owners are still finding their way. Pochettino will be the fourth head coach of his short tenure (fifth if you factor in Bruno Saltor’s only game as interim manager).

Yes, Chelsea have been successful in recent years, winning the 2020-21 Champions League and 2022 Club World Cup under Tuchel. But since their last Premier League title in 2016/17, their best league result is third place (twice ). This season they are likely to finish outside the top 10 for the first time since 1995/96. Pochettino does not enter a dressing room who has won so much that she has lost the ability to study. If the players he takes on have been humbled by the events of this season, they might be more open to embracing new ideas.

Of course, Chelsea spent a lot of money and far more players than they needed. But neither Neymar nor Mbappe is on the plan and no Messi is on the way either. These aren’t the most famous and successful players in the world, even if some of them cost more money than they should have. The main problem is the excess volume.

Squad management this summer will be difficult at first.

Pochettino will need a leaner squad if he is to work the way he wants to. He will quickly learn which players accept his ideas and want to improve with him and which do not. He will certainly need the support of the owners to push those from the latter camp into the abyss. Chelsea need to be bold about some changes – bolder than Tottenham in his later years – even if it means big financial losses on their investments. This is not an easy market for Premier League clubs to sell in and it will not be easy to shed fat.

But if all of that happens and the owners agree with Pochettino’s vision, you can see how it could play out.

If he can convince enough players to accept his approach, he could soon have a squad that’s exactly what he wants: hungry, humble and united, committed to each other and self-improvement. And if he can do that and establish a shared ethos and culture where everyone pulls together and stays true to his ideas and each other, there are no limits to what he can do.

(Main Graphic – Photos: Getty Images/Design: Sam Richardson)