What is it that makes Spurs boss so good?
‘You love playing for him. You’d run through a brick wall for him, as he’s a lovely man’
Mauricio Pochettino has the same routine. He arrives at Tottenham Hotspur’s training ground in Enfield, just off the M25, by 7.30am. He holds meetings with his staff, as most managers do, but then he positions himself on a sofa in the players’ canteen, waiting for them to arrive.
Normally, he is in place by 9am. If Spurs have lost, Pochettino can sometimes be seen just after 8am, waiting to see if the players come in any earlier, wanting to get to work after the setback, and observes their demeanour, weighs up their moods.
“Generally, he likes to be in early to discuss the plan, the message of the day,” says a friend, who spoke to
Telegraph Sport on condition of anonymity, given the sensitivity over Pochettino’s future. “But he also likes to have connections with people. He’s a people person, and his emotional intelligence is so high, and so sensitive, that he actually observes the way people walk, they way they are, the way they interact with him.
“He can actually dissect whether there can be a problem that day or the following day just by the energy that is transmitted by that person coming into a room, how he communicates, how he welcomes the others. His skills in that area are exceptional.”
Pochettino refers to this as his “sixth sense”, how he can analyse “auras” – and there is an aura around him. His Spurs side face Manchester United at Wembley today, and despite the impressive start Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has made to his caretaker spell at United – five wins out of five and a dramatic transformation of the mood around the club – Pochettino remains United’s No1 target.
In saying that, no final decision has been made, and no approach has been entered into – not least because Pochettino would not welcome it at this time. All those who know him say the same thing – that he will work as hard as he can, stay focused and allow events to take a natural course.
They also point out two things: that Pochettino wants to work for a club who continue to progress, who match his burning ambition; and that he knows that in football things come along that are too attractive to turn down.
The “process” that United promised when they sacked Jose Mourinho last month is genuinely being run. All options are being considered. Real Madrid are also strongly interested in the 46-year-old Argentine, while Pochettino may, just as easily, decide to remain at Spurs, where he signed a new five-year contract last summer.
It is easy to see why United are interested. There is the commitment to developing young players, a strong attacking style of football and an overall approach which is akin to Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, who take the roles of coach, friend and confidante without losing the players’ respect.
Pochettino has similar traits to Sir Alex Ferguson, not least in the paternal approach he creates, the sense of family, of, for example, knowing the name of everyone at the training ground, of having a good sense of humour and attention to detail. But he also has what has become a buzz phrase of modern football: emotional intelligence.
When he arrived at Southampton, from Espanyol, in January 2013, he could not speak English. Yet within a couple of weeks he had not only transformed the team’s playing style to make it far more positive, but stunned the club by “character-referencing” the entire first-team squad and offering detailed analyses of them all.
“He’ll see it before you see it,” said Dele Alli, while the former Spurs midfielder Ryan Mason says: “You love playing for him. You’d run through a brick wall for him, because he’s a lovely man. Don’t get me wrong – I would never, ever cross him, because his morals and values are so strong.”
Andros Townsend discovered that. He pushed Spurs fitness coach Nathan Gardiner after being frustrated at not playing in an FA Cup tie in November 2015. Pochettino was shown images of the incident as he left the White Hart Lane press room and Townsend never played for Spurs again.
“He’s a protector, he’s a captain, he’s a leader,” says another source who works closely with Pochettino. “You also know you are dealing with a man, and if you want to have conflict and be aggressive he can more than hold his own in that arena as well.”
Pochettino is also a workaholic. He never switches off, is fully across all aspects of sports medical science, conditioning and psychology while stories of him sending WhatsApp messages to players such as Harry Kane, tips on how to improve, clips and matches to watch, are all true.
Pochettino is well aware of two accusations levelled against him – that he does not like to work with “big players” and has not (yet) won a trophy.
The first is dismissed out of hand, given there are fewer bigger players in the Premier League than Kane, he has a World Cup-winning captain in Hugo Lloris and he has managed to keep everyone happy at a club where money is not thrown around.
The second is more nuanced. Of course, Pochettino wants to win trophies, but what appeals to him is developing a club. He has taken Spurs from being a Europa League team to a Champions League team. He has changed their “landscape”.
Can he take the next step and win things with them, or will United make their move and ask him to “reset” them? “He will always push the clubs he works for to be better,” the friend says.
Attacking belief: Mauricio Pochettino quickly transformed Spurs’ playing style when he was appointed in 2013