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Mauricio Pochettino

– Interview by Jake Bambrough

                          

Known as an uncompromising defender during a playing career that spanned 17 years and more than 500 games, Mauricio Pochettino has taken the same no-nonsense approach to management, to become one of the most exciting managers in the Premier League.

His high-intensity, pressing style of football, inspired by his mentor at Newell’s Old Boys, Espanyol and during his 20 caps for Argentina – Marco Bielsa, has seen Pochettino become one of the most respected managers in the English top flight, with Sir Alex Ferguson even supposedly naming him the best in the Premier League.

When he joined Southampton in 2013, he was only the second Argentine manager in the history of English football – and a controversial choice in the eyes of some. But after leading them to their best ever Premier League finish, Saints fans were lamenting his move to Tottenham less than 18 months later.

Often working 12 hours a day or more at the training ground, Pochettino takes a holistic view to the health of his players, as well as the wellbeing of the club. His regimented leadership has led to the seamless integration of the medical and other support elements at Spurs, as well as an exciting brand of football, and most importantly, results on the pitch.

 

How has sports medicine in football changed since you started your playing career in the mid-1990s?

The knowledge on training, prevention, treatment and return to play has improved massively. During my career the approach was very basic, but now there is influence from many different areas of sports science and medicine – and this is what makes the difference and as a result, football is a much, much quicker game these days.

 

What was the worst injury you suffered during your playing career and what was the recovery for this?

I suffered a big tear to my rectus femoris. I also tore my collateral ligament and it took 3 months to recover. The rehab was very interesting, I was playing for Espanyol in Barcelona at the time. Barcelona has high performance medical centres for athletes, so during the rehabilitation I shared this space and spent a lot of time with athletes from many different sports. It was tough, sometimes I was there from eight in the morning until eight in the evening, but I really felt that I benefitted from being in this multi-sport environment, it had a great effect on my mentality during my recovery as well.

 

You were able to continue your playing career until you were 34, do you think sports science and medicine helped your longevity?

For a short period at the end, yes. But I don’t think the science was at the level at the start of my career to help me in that way. Knowing what I know now and the development of the science, perhaps now I would be able to play even longer.

 

Playing professional football is very demanding on the joints and cartilage, do you notice any difficulties with this since you retired from playing?

Yes, everything hurts! My knees, my ankles, my back – all the joints. Football is a very demanding sport, it is normal to have this pain as a former player. The way injuries used to be treated was not as advanced in the past and that may also contribute to this.

 

As a coach, how important to you is the medical team?

It is one of the most important parts of a football club. But I wouldn’t detach it from the other aspects of the game. It is just as important as the tactical, physical and psychological elements of football, but importantly, these all have to function correctly and together.

 

How much does the medical team contribute to a successful season? Can they be the difference between winning a trophy and not?

It is one of the areas which can lift you to win a trophy, but at the same time if it is not done correctly, it is an area that can cause a team to fail.

 

You like your teams to play a high-pressing style of football with pressure starting from the strikers. This is a very physically demanding style of play, do you think it can increase the risk of injury?

No, I think if we look at our injury record, we can say that we have prepared the team well to play in our style and avoid injuries. We train the players the way we want them to play for an intense, high-pressure system.

 

Does your team do any injury prevention work?

Yes, definitely. Prevention is one of the basics of our training and we do it daily. We do weekly conditioning sessions as well as specific recovery sessions after games as these form part of the prevention strategy as well.

 

As a coach have you ever played a player against the advice of the team doctor? How do you make the decision on when an injured player can return?

If the doctor has any doubt, never. The doctor has the last word, he knows the exact risks and that decision has to be made medically, the health of the player is the first priority and I won’t go against the doctor on that. With regard to return to play, it is always a collective decision. The player will go through different stages, but when the medical team clears the player to train and the sports science team says he is fit to play again, we will double check everything at each stage and make the decision together as a committee.

 

Do you prefer to select the team doctor yourself?

I like to know the doctor personally, to see how they work and how they think, their characteristics and how they react to the specific demands of the job and most importantly, how they buy into the coaching philosophy. It would be very difficult for a coaching staff to move club without their medical staff going with them.

 

What qualities/characteristics do you look for in the team doctor?

The doctor has to be open-minded. All doctors have good knowledge, some have more experience than others, but being open-minded is most important. They must have a desire to improve and a willingness to do the right things.

 

You place a big emphasis on the importance of the mentality of your players. Can you tell me a bit about this? You have some unusual techniques for getting players in the right mind-set, for example walking on hot coals during a pre-season training camp?

Football is a team sport, but it is also a sport with a lot of individual expression. Anything that can help strengthen the mental state of the player and the team is of benefit.

 

Do the Tottenham players work with a sports psychologist at all? You had the youngest squad in the league last year, could this kind of work help the young players maintain their focus?

Sometimes individual players will work with a sports psychologist, if necessary. But we don’t use one on a regular basis. All of the staff look out for the players and help them – in a way we are all psychologists. I don’t think there is any relationship between age and mentality. You can have a 20-year-old player who is very mature and a 30-year-old player who is struggling to maintain his concentration. It is an individual quality that differs from player to player.

 

You are famed for your tough training methods, does this require that you monitor the players very closely? At Southampton you assessed saliva samples and had players complete sleep and wellness questionnaires every morning before training?

We take a very professional approach but we are not tough on the players. Everything is monitored very closely, using saliva, using the wellbeing questionnaires, using GPS and various other data. But we are also very flexible, we treat the players as people. Sometimes you need to push them hard to get the best from them, but ultimately we want them to learn, to teach them what they need to do as an individual to improve their performance. My door is always open to players and they can come any time to talk about how they are feeling. The training is about quality, not quantity, so if a player feels he needs to rest then that may be the best way to avoid any physical or psychological problems and get the best from them.

 

Do you like to be personally involved in this monitoring, or do you leave it to the sports science staff?

There are different teams collecting lots of different data on the players. The sports science staff and me as the manager analyse this. But the most important part is making sure the player knows what is going on and making him aware of everything.

 

What makes the difference between a good football coach and a great football coach?

First of all, it is important to have good players to work with, whether that is the choice of players in the squad or the capacity of the players to work hard and improve. I can be a good trainer but not have players to work with.

Secondly, it is very difficult to measure how good a coach is. In Formula 1 you have Hamilton and Rosberg driving the same car and you see which one is faster. But in football no two teams are the same and therefore you cannot compare two managers. Not even the results will necessarily show who the better manager is. If Lionel Messi is in your team, you can just play him and he will score goals.

Every coach has a different method and different philosophy, football is not mathematics yet managers keep or lose their jobs based on results. Claudio Ranieri is the best manager in the Premier League at the moment, because he won the title. But how do you measure this? Is it because of his skills as a manager, was it a formation or team structure, player performance, the team dynamic – it’s impossible to tell exactly and that’s why it is difficult to compare managers.

To answer the question as best I can, I think it is about the way you approach people, not only the players, but all of the staff and how you implement your football philosophy.

 

 

The Aspetar Sports Medicine Journal would like to thank Dr Hakim Chalabi for facilitating this interview.

 

 

Image by Víctor Gutiérrez Navarro

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