The Argentine’s rare faith in young players demonstrates a conviction in his own judgments of which Kant would be proud In a sense, it is madness. To choose, consistently, players from a specific, relatively miniscule area of the world, where everyone else is choosing players from across the entire world. To choose players who have none of the experience, are wholly unestablished, and (in many cases) physically underdeveloped. To choose players in no small part simply because they come from that specific, relatively miniscule area of the world.
Yet, for Mauricio Pochettino, this choice seems not merely rational, but easy. For a man who established his own youthful self at a team called ‘Newell’s Old Boys’, his seemingly boundless belief in the ability of locally-trained youngsters, and youngsters in general, is remarkable. On Sunday against Arsenal, Tottenham’s great historic rivals and their rivals for a Champions League place, he started Enfield boy Ryan Mason, whose recent experience includes spells at Yeovil and Doncaster, peaking with a spell at FC Lorient in France. Hardly, you might think, the right poker to be thrusting into the fire of such an important game.
Mason thrived. An unimposing, even waifish figure, Mason’s presence in central midfield belied his physical stature. Quick-thinking on the ball and snappy in the pass, he exerted a calm authority where far more established players toiled and flickered, Mesut Özil chief among them.
Yet the extent of Pochettino’s faith in youngsters at Spurs, having only recently taken the managerial reigns, doesn’t nearly end there. Academy product Danny Rose has been recalled as first-choice left-back, with fellow graduate Nabil Bentaleb also starting regularly. Eric Dier, a young English defender with no previous experience in English football, was recently signed by Pochettino, starting and scoring in his first two games. Perhaps most striking of all is the emergence of Harry Kane, from bit-part obscurity at Spurs and an anonymous loan spell at Norwich, to the glare of the limelight under the Argentine.
At Southampton, Pochettino famously established an academy core which played genuinely high-octane football, with Luke Shaw, Calum Chambers and James Ward-Prowse all afforded weekly starts. He also handed the forward Sam Gallagher and the midfielder Harrison Reed regular game time, with Gallagher even scoring on his debut. That both Shaw and Chambers secured transfers worth tens of millions, joining Man United and Arsenal respectively, is great testament to his approach. That Southampton secured eighth place with matches to spare is perhaps even more so.
Even prior to that, at Espanyol, Pochettino famously rebuilt a club in crisis on the foundations of youth. He steered the club from the relegation zone to a top-half finish in under a season, promoting some 20 academy players in a two-and-a-half year stint.
Clearly, therefore, Pochettino’s approach has been extremely successful. Indeed, given academy products cost (relatively speaking) nothing to develop, it is from a purely financial perspective, the obvious choice. But what sets him apart; what renders his faith in youth so great in the first place? What makes him hand relative greenhorns a firm spot in his teams when, generally speaking, they do not guarantee short-term, let alone long-term success?
To simply point to the success of his young players, as sufficient explanation for his initial faith in them, would be patently ridiculous. To do so would be to rely on hindsight to an absurd degree, and Pochettino, for all his ability, is no seer of the future. For all Pochettino could be truly certain of at the time he brought his youngsters through, they (like all young players) could easily have failed.
Set against this truism, though, is the nagging sense that Pochettino was more or less certain, or at least, thought it highly likely, that his upstarts would succeed. The idea that he was simply foolhardy and got lucky grates in almost equal measure as the idea that he could have been certain – so consistent has his success with youth been. Which, again, points us towards the view of Pochettino as a sort of ‘seer’, albeit in a more diluted and less literal way. After all, if it was even remotely easy to predict whether youth would flourish or not (let alone in such a demanding environment as the Premier League), then far more managers would surely take Pochettino’s approach.
The answer to the riddle of Pochettino’s faith in youth, and his consistent success in developing youth, is far from simple. When you truly analyse his career and his methods, though, the answer begins (just like his youngsters) to emerge. Firstly, Pochettino largely had no choice but to pick young players when at Espanyol, burdened by financial difficulties. Such a situation, although not uncommon in management, is rarely faced on the scale Pochettino had to face it then. Hence, Pochettino was in in a sense conditioned to view the promotion of youth as a less unusual step than many other managers. But of course, it was still Pochettino’s choice to take on the job in the first place; he knew beforehand it would require the promotion of youth en masse.
Secondly, Pochettino possesses an unusual conception of risk, perhaps influenced by the experience of leaving home aged 14 to live alone in a freezing pensión, or “guesthouse” (the English translation makes it sound far nicer than it was). Before taking on the daunting Espanyol job, he told the club that “everything in life is a risk”. For Pochettino, the element of risk inherent in bringing through youngsters would not, therefore, mark it out in the same way it might for others.
Thirdly, his tactics seem unusually compatible with the mentality of young, unestablished players. It is far easier to conceive of youngsters buying into his strict high-pressing game than established players, simply because they have more to prove and are hence more likely to obey strict instructions. Yet at the same time, Pochettino allows for a high degree of positional flexibility in an attacking sense. Seeing Jay Rodriguez right out on the wings for Southampton, for example, was very common, despite Rodriguez nominally operating as a centre-forward. This flexibility gives youngsters the chance to show-off their skills without worrying as much about positional discipline, something which often only develops with age.
Fourthly, Pochettino is renowned within the game for his lack of favouritism. It is an approach he explicitly spelled out upon joining Espanyol, his first managerial job, asserting “it doesn’t matter who the person is…. As a player I was demanding; as a manager I will be too”. This lack of favouritism both helps youngsters to feel more valued, and acts as added motivation to impress.
Finally, though, it is the combination of all this that offers the true secret to his success. That is, the combination of taking repeated (but proven) risks with young but talented players, sticking by tactics which satiate such players’ desire to prove themselves, and creating as meritocratic an environment as possible in which such players can develop.
Above all, Pochettino is ‘daring to know’ – not in the sense of possessing literal knowledge, but in Immanuel Kant’s Enlightenment sense of possessing conviction in one’s own judgement – that when all this is combined, success will be had. His secret ingredient is his conviction in his own judgments. In a sense, this ingredient may be obvious. But, without it, nothing else would matter; not his tactics geared towards youngsters, not his lack of favouritism, nor even his ambivalence towards risk. It does not make it any less admirable or worthy of acknowledgement that he dares to know young players will succeed, where virtually all other managers merely dabble with them indecisively. And in this age of transfer-driven, big-name, crazy-money football, any football manager who dares to know that could hardly be more enlightened.