Barbs wrongly thrown at Southampton's coaching change
Sometimes results are not enough to keep a coach in his job. Last week, Leonardo Jardim was sacked as coach of Greek league leaders Olympiakos with the official line that, despite being unbeaten after 18 games and 13 points clear at the top, the defensive style of football was not to the liking of owner Vangelis Marinakis.
In England, days after Southampton beat relegation rivals Aston Villa 1-0 and drew 2-2 at third-place Chelsea, chairman Nicola Cortese sacked Nigel Adkins, the coach who led them to two successive promotions and a place in the Premier League two years ahead of its five-year plan. Not only that, but Southampton, with the youngest average age in the league, was clear of the drop zone (admittedly only by three points) at the time of the dismissal.
The move is reminiscent of Newcastle owner Mike Ashley's decision to dispense with Chris Hughton as coach in December 2010. Hughton had won promotion with Newcastle the previous year, and it was coping well, sitting ninth in the table. Ashley brought in Alan Pardew, claiming he was the man "to take the club forward." Fans gathered outside the stadium to protest, and former players, including Alan Shearer, condemned the decision. It actually proved a good one: Newcastle finished ninth that season but last year, Pardew's first full campaign in charge, Newcastle finished fifth (injuries and lack of squad depth have left it struggling this season, though).
There was a similar discourse around the Adkins dismissal. The Southampton Independent Supporters Association urged fans to wave white hankies in protest during Monday's draw with Everton, but that failed to materialize (in fact the loudest chant of the night came when Southampton's Jason Puncheon needed a lavatory break midway through the second half, and returned to the song, "Jason Puncheon, he went for a s**t!"). Matt Le Tissier, one of Southampton's most popular ex-players and a long-standing critic of Cortese, also attacked the decision, suggesting the Italian's "ego problem" was threatened by Adkins' popularity. Lawrie McMenemy, an ex-coach, was more offended by the identity of his successor, Mauricio Pochettino.
"It's not as if they have brought in [Jose] Mourinho or [Pep] Guardiola in," McMenemy told BBC Sport. "They have brought in a chap -- with due respect he might be a nice man and a very good coach -- but who nobody has heard of. We don't know anything about the man coming in."
McMenemy is clearly wrong, but he might be onto something by mentioning Mourinho and Guardiola; Pochettino has called Mourinho hIs role model, but his philosophy when he was at La Liga side Espanyol was based more on Guardiola's style at Barcelona. In his first 10 meetings against Guardiola as coach, Pochettino's side only lost three times.
"I like football to be played well from the back, to have movement both in and out of possession, to pressure high up the pitch, and to be aggressive," he told Onda Cero radio station. "Modern football is about speed, dynamism and putting teams under pressure."
Guardiola's mentor is Marcelo Bielsa, whose Athletic Bilbao team wowed Europe on its run to last season's Europa League final, but Pochettino is even closer to the eccentric Argentine, who signed him as a teenager to Newell's Old Boys (where they reached the 1992 Copa Libertadores final, losing to Sao Paulo on penalties). Bielsa sat his players in front of games involving their next opponents and made them write their own scouting reports.
"He made us feel like the coach even though we were players," Pochettino said.
The Argentine does not give his players quite the same responsibility, but his work with the youth academy at Espanyol would have attracted Cortese. More than 12 academy graduates made their debuts under him, and the success of players like Victor Ruiz (center back, now at Valencia) and Jordi Amat (center back, now at Rayo Vallecano) reflects well. Southampton has a prodigious youth academy, with graduates Luke Shaw, 17, James Ward-Prowse, 18, and Adam Lallana, 24, all impressing this season. Expect more to come through under Pochettino.
Argentina has exported great players to Europe -- just think of Diego Maradona, Daniel Passarella, Fernando Redondo, never mind Lionel Messi -- but it has been a different story with coaches since Helenio Herrera set the standard with 16 different titles with four different cubs spanning a 19-year career in Europe, including the 1964 and 1965 European Cups for Inter Milan.
Cesar Luis Menotti (Barcelona in 1983, Atletico Madrid 1987, Sampdoria 1997), Carlos Bilardo (Sevilla 1992), Alfio Basile (Atletico 1995), Carlos Bianchi (Reims 1986, Nice 1989, Roma 1996, Atletico 2005) and Passarella (Parma 2001) have all failed in Europe, while those that have succeeded -- like Bielsa, Diego Simeone (currently second in La Liga with Atletico Madrid) and Hector Cuper (coached Valencia to successive Champions League finals in 2000 and 2001) -- are seen as more European in their approach.
"Argentine coaches are not well prepared: they don't look at data, they just improvise and trust in players' talent," said Federico Bassahun, writer for Argentine paper Perfil. "They don't even watch international football: that's why they are surprised by Germany at every World Cup, as nobody here watches the Bundesliga. The coaches here think they are still coaching teams in the 1980s."
Pochettino does not fit that profile: in fact he sees himself as a coach from the Catalan school, and its stock is not doing too badly at the moment.