Not for Mauricio Pochettino the delights of trash talking. Ahead of his heavyweight clash at the Emirates tomorrow, the Southampton manager was full of praise for his opposite number. Unlike Jose Mourinho, he saw no value in attempting to discomfort the Arsenal institution, preferring instead to smother Arsene Wenger in an onslaught of superlatives. No one nicer, no one better, no one shrewder in the business, the Argentine reckoned. It would be a long time before he could earn proper comparison. He is a long, long way behind the great Arsenal boss.
And yet Pochettino will take his Southampton side to north London tomorrow with a chance of supplanting Wenger at the top of the division. Win by two goals and he will become the first manager in Southampton history to take his side to the top of the Premier League. There is still a long way to go, we are still only at the end of November, but for a club which only four seasons ago was lurking in the lower reaches League One, hamstrung by administration, the turnaround has been extraordinary. And the question that seems to be occupying the lips of many a Saints fan is this: how did it happen?
There is one man who would certainly like to claim responsibility for that prodigious ascent. Nicola Cortese runs the place on behalf of the estate of Markus Liebherr, the Swiss financier who took control of what was then a business basket case in 2010 and died before his vision of what the club could become even began to be realised. Cortese believes he has established a method of operating which is not dependent on any individual manager. He calls it the Southampton Way, and it is based on judicious transfer business mixed with the promotion of locally developed talent. As if to emphasise his faith in the wider philosophy he has been quick to remove managers long before they have reached their sell-by date, seeing Alan Pardew and particularly the popular Nigel Adkins off the premises with a haste that was widely regarded as unseemly.
But there are plenty of observers who are beginning to think that the immediate success of the club – emphasised by the inclusion of three of its players in the last England squad – is more to do with the mop-haired bloke in the dug-out. Not least Adam Lallana, the club captain and one of those spotted by Roy Hodgson.
"I can see him at a place like Old Trafford one day," Lallana said of Pochettino. "Really, he is that good."
There is no doubt the players have a different attitude to the former Argentine international than they had to the previous manager. There is a deeper respect that there was for Adkins, the erstwhile Scunthorpe physio. Not least because, under the boyish fringe lurks the kind of South American defender assumed to have blood on his studs. He may not raise his voice on the training pitch, but there is real authority in that glare.
But it also because of what Pochettino has done. He had a brilliant summer in the transfer market: new buys Victor Wanyama, Daniel Osvaldo and particularly the centre back Dejan Lovren have contributed significantly to the team's progress this season. And if that seems at odds with the Cortese aim of promoting academy graduates into the first team, the manager has also given plenty of pitch time to youngsters like James Ward-Prowse, Callum Chambers and the seriously good Luke Shaw.
Mostly, though, what he has done is something no managing director making airy generalisations about philosophy and corporate strategy can affect: he has sorted out the defence. Marshalled by Lovren, the back line, pressing right up the pitch into the faces of the opposition midfield, are extremely difficult to by-pass. As they showed at Old Trafford when they did not wilt to a United comeback in a way their predecessors would have done, they don't leak goals. Admittedly tomorrow they are facing the most significant challenge of their season so far, but even Arsenal's cornucopia of attacking talent might find it tricky to outwit them.
Mind, if it is a revolution Pochettino has unleashed it is a quiet one. This is no south coast Paolo di Canio. Perhaps wisely given the nature of his employer, his public statements are wholly diplomatic and modest. That is mainly because unlike Mourinho, Roberto Martinez or Andre Vilas Boas he hides behind the language. This is clearly a tactic. He can understand far more than he lets on, but still prefers to conduct his business via a translator. When I asked him a pretty straightforward question in a recent press conference – was it him or the wider philosophy of the club that was responsible for their current league position – it took his translator three attempts to communicate the meaning of the inquiry. Which, given that he had understood from the word go what was being asked, bought him time to formulate a tactful response. Though when it came, the answer spoke volumes.
"Southampton doesn't play the same under Pochettino as it did under Adkins," he said, before slipping into English. "What do you think? Is the same?"
Quiet he may be, but this is evidently not a man without self-worth. And this is the worry for Southampton fans: how long will the ambitions of the modest, calm, rational South American be contained by their club? Because there is no doubt who is largely responsible for the position the Saints now find themselves. And it is not Nicola Cortese.