It started so well for Mauricio Pochettino at his last club, Espanyol. The new Southampton boss was a Blanquiazules (blue and whites) legend who’d played 275 league games as a central defender in two spells. England fans might remember him as the Argentina defender who brought down Michael Owen to earn England a penalty and the game’s only goal in the 2002 World Cup finals.
Pochettino mixed youth with shrewdly purchased imports like compatriot Pablo Osvaldo, and experienced pros like Cameroonian international goalkeeper Carlos Kameni (now Malaga) and Luis Garcia (not the former Liverpool player who allegedly drinks Sangria).
The Argentine’s commitment to attacking football and his propensity to promote youth saw bigger clubs attracted to his most promising players. With the continued financial problems at Espanyol, Pochettino had little choice but to develop from within and their youth system was as impressive as Barça’s, though on a smaller scale. Home-grown players included Jordi Amat (Rayo), Victor Ruiz (Valencia), Didac (Milan) and Javi Marquez (Mallorca), Alvaro (Getafe). Espanyol sold all to survive. Javi Lopez and Raul Baena remain. All prospered under Pochettino. Before them, Wigan’s Jordi Gomez had been at Espanyol.
Pochettino managed a club struggling to get over the death of their captain Dani Jarque in 2009, a club who moved to a new stadium in the same year. The inspiration for Espanyol’s stadium move? A 2001 trip for a pre-season friendly to open a new stadium. To St Mary’s, Southampton, where Pochettino now works.
Pochettino’s Espanyol finished 10th, 11th, 8th and 8th until it started to go wrong in 2012. Espanyol were seventh a year ago. They entered 2012 with the fourth best away record and fans talked reasonably about a top six finish and a cup run. Their optimism increased as they continued to rise up the table, hitting fourth in February. They were punching above their weight, steadily improving and dreaming of a first Champions League appearance.
When they held neighbours Barcelona, Pep Guardiola commented on their quality and how they’d made the league tougher for Barcelona to retain. Espanyol upset the big boys.
Then the slide began. The cup run was ended by a regional third division side and that set the template for the horrendous year to follow. When a hapless, hopeless Zaragoza beat Espanyol 2-0 in Barcelona, Pochettino described it as “a little accident”. It wasn’t.
Espanyol tumbled down the table to finish 14th and the Argentine was fortunate not to join the twelve top-flight coaches who lost their jobs in Spain last season. His side were even 18th in the fair play table, with more yellow cards received than any other club. Crowds plummeted and Espanyol’s youthful beauty had been replaced by a snarling beast who didn’t know how to lose gracefully.
Pochettino was finally sacked in November. Under his replacement former Mexico and Atletico Madrid coach Javier Aguirre, fortunes finally begin to improve.
Southampton have acquired a good young (40) coach and a good man, albeit one who needs to learn English. He’ll use people he knows, mainly on the coaching and agent side, but also players he knows. His best contacts are in Spain and Argentina. It’s an interesting one.
Andy Mitten will be blogging for us throughout the season. He contributes to FourFourTwo, the Manchester Evening News and GQ magazine amongst other publications.