Ronald Koeman and Mauricio Pochettino are two of the world’s best managers. And in some ways they seem to be cut from the same cloth.
Neither have, as yet, claimed any silverware, and both bosses sprang into the Premier League at Southampton. Before that, both plied their trades across Europe to relative success.
Koeman is nine years Pochettino’s senior, with a wealth of managerial experience and a few Eredivisie titles to show for it. Pochettino, on the other hand, had only taken the reigns at Espanyol prior to his Premier League endeavours. Similarities between the two are clear. Both are largely calm characters and smart tacticians, the two of them reflect the excellence in Southampton’s recruitment as a result.
In fitting fashion, both were swept away from Southampton by clubs with greater financial clout.
Pochettino has formed Spurs into a different, almost unrecognisable, team since he arrived at the club in summer 2014. From conceding 53 league goals in 2014/15 – more than Hull City who were in the midst of their relegation season – to conceding only 35 last season, Pochettino has made Tottenham into genuine contenders at the top of the Premier League table. So far this season, they’ve conceded only five goals: comfortably better than anyone else in the league.
Initial reflections on Ronald Koeman’s start at Everton unearth similar results. After dismal defensive seasons under Roberto Martinez, conceding 55 in 2014/15 and 50 in 2015/16, the Toffees have only seen the opposition find the net eight times in ten Premier League games so far this time around.
The similarities between the two are continued in these numbers. Improving an unnecessarily leaky defence seems like the most obvious first step, but it is not easy. It does not just happen by signing Ashley Williams or Toby Alderweireld. Individuals do make a marked difference, but defending successfully is about the functionality of the unit; something that Pochettino and Koeman prioritise. Working as a team, with and without the ball, makes defending a clean sheet a collective goal. It can be argued instilling a team ethic is the goal of any manager, but it is a little different for the Everton and Spurs managers.
Star players are not afforded special rights, nor given extra opportunities should they disobey orders. Certain players are not applicable for teams functioning in this way and it requires a specific recruitment strategy. Each outfield player in Pochettino and Koeman’s sides are demanded to contribute in all phases of the game. The emphasis is on working for one another.
Defensive nightmares were a regular concern at White Hart Lane and Goodison Park. It was obvious this was holding back both outfits, but it takes a special manager to make such a dramatic impact over a short period of time. Changing the way a team acts when out of possession, and making them understand their roles more clearly, is no mean feat. Koeman and Pochettino have, without being overtly negative, looked to build their teams on a solid, reliable defence.
Defending, despite what some managers seem to believe, is not a cheat code for Premier League football. Pragmatism, paired with sensible squad building, makes these two managers two of the best in the game. Partly because of the way they opt to defend, partly because of their style in possession, stingy back lines have not made either of Koeman or Pochettino’s teams tedious – just stronger.