LONDON – When Southampton appointed Mauricio Pochettino as manager in January 2013, former Saints player and TV pundit Jamie Redknapp called the decision “deluded.”
This was understandable as the Argentinian was virtually unknown here, his coaching resume comprising two successful seasons with Espanyol before, amid a financial crisis and a boardroom night of the long knives, Pochettino was sacked in November 2012.
Southampton chairman Nicola Cortese proved far from deluded by bringing “MoPo” to England and the following season Saints finished eighth, their highest Premier League placing. The prospect of joining Tottenham, potentially a huge club but a serial underachiever, saw Pochettino move to White Hart Lane in May 2014.
If — the biggest word in football, Bobby Robson used to say — Spurs beat Liverpool on Saturday and Pochettino’s previous club, Southampton, does him a favour and defeats Leicester on Sunday, the Foxes’ lead at the top will be two points. Game on. The title race may yet be a photo finish.
Such is the impact Pochettino has made in English football, this correspondent would like to see him as Roy Hodgson’s successor when he steps down, almost certainly after the 2018 World Cup. An Argentine in charge of the England national team will horrify many of the septuagenarian suits within the F.A., though the younger power-brokers will have noticed that 11 of the last 19 England debutants have played under Pochettino. He is already doing his bit for England.
At Tottenham, Kyle Walker, Danny Rose, Eric Dier, Dele Alli and Harry Kane have progressed under Pochettino and all five will be in England’s Euro 2016 squad, maybe even the team.
Pochettino is far from a football writer’s dream. He is helpful, polite and friendly to the media, but measured and reserved. You will not find him “blasting” anyone, criticizing match officials or opponents. Or anybody, really. He is a warm, sociable, intelligent, engaging person though he does not provide back-page headline writers with any salacious ammunition.
His coaching and man-management is superb. Tottenham has the best defensive record in the Premier League, which is very un-Spurs. Moving back-up central defender Dier to a midfield holding role was a masterstroke. Erik Lamela has become one of the Premier League’s most effective wide attackers. Alli has made a seamless transition from League One with MK Dons to become first choice with England. Moussa Dembele looks a different player under Pochettino while Kane’s progress has been staggering.
There is no fitter, better-conditioned team than Spurs, whose high-energy pressing game — harrying and harassing opponents to win back possession — is effectively defending in the opposition’s half. Pochettino’s training sessions are intense, varied and educational. He has revolutionized Tottenham and maybe, just maybe he can be given the chance to do the same with England.
Case for the defense: England 3, Germany 2. Netherlands 2, England 1. Notice the common link? Both of England’s opponents scored two goals, a statistic that will probably give Hodgson more food for thought in the next three months than Wayne Rooney’s role at Euro 2016, which has obsessed the English media this week.
At major finals, especially at the knockout stages, teams tend not to need three goals to win a match. England has never overturned a two-goal deficit at the World Cup or European Championship; when the spring friendlies end and the competitive stuff starts in France, sides that concede two goals in a game will almost certainly say an early “au revoir.”
In the NFL, they believe offense wins games, defense wins championships and it is a similar story in soccer. World and European champions tend to have the best goals-conceded record and while England has a potential wealth of attacking talent in Kane, Jamie Vardy, Danny Welbeck, Daniel Sturridge, Alli and Rooney, the back line gives cause for concern.
At the highest level, opponents find weaknesses and ruthlessly expose them, as England has found out too often. Only goalkeeper Joe Hart and center half Chris Smalling do not make England fans reach for the worry beads. Gary Cahill is the safer option to partner Smalling with John Stones a more naturally talented though inexperienced choice. None of the full backs, Nathaniel Clyne, Walker, Kieran Gibbs, Rose or Ryan Bertrand, are true European international class.
Hodgson revealed he had spoken to John Terry — “a really nice guy,” said the England manager, though many would beg to differ. The Chelsea captain retired from international football four years ago and bringing him back would be a giant step in the wrong direction and a gigantic public relations blunder as Euro 2016 approaches.
Villa in crisis: Aston Villa brought in former Football Association executive Adrian Bevington to work with new Villa director and former F.A. chairman David Bernstein and the board in conducting a review into Villa’s season, which is set to end in relegation.
Here are some clues. You have a manager in Tim Sherwood who guided you to the F.A. Cup final last May. You sell Christian Benteke and Fabian Delph and allow Ron Vlaar to leave on a free transfer — your three best players left and were replaced by 10 players, many unknown here and of minimal talent, chosen by people in the club other than the manager.
Only one of those brought in, Jordan Ayew, a Ghana international from Lorient in France, has been any good. You then sack Sherwood and bring in, on a three-year contract, Remi Garde, a man who most could see was totally unsuited for a backs-to-the-wall relegation challenge. Hours after Bevington arrived, Garde, who inherited the squad that got Sherwood dismissed, left “by mutual consent” (really?) after Villa had won two of 20 Premier League games in the Frenchman’s four months at the club.
Garde followed chief executive Tom Fox and sporting director Hendrik Almstadt through the exit door. It has been mismanagement on a grand scale and the person who has overseen all this, American owner Randy Lerner, would like to sell the club but unsurprisingly cannot find a buyer for his sinking ship. This attitude of uncertainty and negativity has spread throughout Villa Park.
Just a few reasons why things went belly up, Villa. You’re welcome.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
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