Earlier this month, Mauricio Pochettino gave a lengthy interview to the Spanish newspaper El País. It’s a fascinating read, packed with detail about his tactical philosophy, his belief in a universal energy and how he managed to persuade players to stay at Tottenham. But, by far the most striking section is when he suddenly starts talking with great enthusiasm about having recently watched a video of the 1975 European Cup semi-final between Leeds and Barcelona. “That was football! You see Cruyff kicking. Fighting! It was Cruyff! The players didn’t know that they were being recorded for television. I am a lover of this football.”
Pochettino is an unusual case. As a player, he was nurtured by Marcelo Bielsa and clearly learned a lot from him but his reluctance ever to go into too much detail about the extent of that influence is telling.
He perhaps has moved on but feels indelicate about saying anything that could be read as a criticism of somebody to whom he owes so much.
He alters formations at will, regularly switching from a back three to a back four, from a midfield diamond to a 4-2-3-1, often in the same game. He is tactically flexible and clearly sees the value in adjustments of shape.
And yet he is not, as those details may suggest, a chess-player in the manner of Pep Guardiola. “Here we see a film that there are coaches who have invented possession football and it’s not like that,” he said in that El País interview. “I love playing with the ball. I want to have the ball as much as I can. But if I didn’t have the tools or the technical players to play, I would look for a different way.” What seems to have excited him in that 1975 semi-final was the sense of struggle. This, after all, is a manager who celebrated progress past Manchester City in the Champions League quarter-final by ostentatiously cupping his testicles. In his invocation of passion, desire, cojones, there is something of Diego Simeone, but there is also something very English.
When Jürgen Klopp arrived at Liverpool in 2015, he was asked about his influences. He spoke of Wolfgang Frank and the Schwabian school, but also of how inspired he’d been by the English football he grew up watching in the late seventies and early eighties. “We will chase the ball,” he said. “We will run more, we will fight more. We will work more together, better together. We will have better organisation in defence than the other teams… I don’t want to tackle too rough but if there is a tackle that is legal, that is a good tackle that gets the ball, it’s like a goal.”
Something strange happened to English football in the early nineties.
As the national side endured a miserable Euro 92 and failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1994, there was a recognition that the game had gone badly wrong. The rest of Europe had moved on during the Heysel ban, while English youth development had been undermined by the long-ball zealotry of the FA technical director Charles Hughes. There was such a mood of self-disgust that anything that smacked of physicality was rejected. Panaceas were sought. England should be more like Ajax! Should build its own Clairefontaine! No, be more Spanish!
Reboot like the Germans!
In the end, the England DNA programme instituted by the FA in December 2014 seems to be bearing fruit. Recent results in international youth tournaments have been unusually impressive. But the irony is that much of the success at club level has come through the reinvocation of the values that made English football so successful in Europe four decades ago.
Pochettino has been at Spurs for five years and Klopp at Liverpool for four. Both have had time to instil their ideas and shape their squads as they would like. And the result has been that they have started overpowering opponents. There was evidence of that last season as Tottenham bullied Juventus at times, only to be eliminated because of 10-minute losses of concentration in each leg. But this season, they overwhelmed Borussia Dortmund and then, despite the ravages of injury and fatigue, somehow found the energy to break Ajax’s resistance in the semi-final. Liverpool have been running teams ragged even longer, from Dortmund and Villarreal in the Europa League to Roma last season to Bayern and Barcelona (in both legs) this.
Money, of course, has been a huge – the biggest – factor and both Tottenham and Liverpool have enjoyed some luck along the way. But their meeting in the first all-English Champions League final in 11 years is a fitting symbol of how English football has rediscovered its faith in its traditional values.
The oddity is that it took a German and an Argentine to get them there.