Mauricio Pochettino’s seemingly inevitable return to the Premier League has come in the most unlikely of forms. At the time of writing, he is the favorite to become the third head coach at Chelsea under Todd Boehly.
In many ways, Pochettino can bring the best elements of Chelsea managers who have come before him. Like Thomas Tuchel, he is a charismatic figure, someone who presents an engaging and dynamic image to the media and fans and exudes passion and intensity with his every action on the touchline.
Like Graham Potter, he’s generally considered to be agreeable and easy for members of a club hierarchy to work with. Yet his tactical approach is quite different to both, and he could be the solution to maximize the obvious talent of the squad and make Chelsea a more potent attacking side.
At Spurs, Pochettino successfully implemented a possession-based, high-pressing style in the mould of Marcelo Bielsa. Compared to Tuchel and Potter, Pochettino’s Spurs were much more vertical and risk-friendly with the ball, capable of pulling apart opposition defences with dynamic, fluid, football. The two pillars that made this style work are juego de posicion and an aggressive, man-oriented counter-press.
Juego de posicion means players occupy different vertical and horizontal spaces across the pitch in different phases of play to allow tidy progression of the ball, quick rotations between players, and the disruption of the opposition’s defensive structure.
At Spurs, where Pochettino usually used a 4-2-3-1 or 3-4-3, this usually translated to a 3-1 build-up structure with the defensive midfielder dropping between the centre-backs and the fullbacks pushing high and wide. The front players were quite narrow and interchanged constantly.
In particular, Christian Eriksen could drop deep to allow Dele Alli to exploit spaces in between the lines, or Harry Kane could drop into that space to allow Alli to run behind the defence into the box. These rotations occurred at rapid speed and, with the wide presence of the fullbacks to stretch the opposition horizontally, allowed Spurs to consistently generate high-quality chances.
When they lost the ball, Spurs were incredibly aggressive in their counter-press. Rather than trying to generate an immediate counter-attack from their counter-press, they usually just tried to force the opposition long. This was because the Spurs backline and midfield pivot was incredibly tenacious and physically imposing, meaning they could win most duels they contested.
As a consequence, Spurs would often be able to sustain long periods of attacking pressure during a game because every time they lost the ball, they could force the opposition long, win the ball back, and restart their attacking play.
Both of these aspects fed into each other. The narrowness of the Spurs attackers meant the fullbacks had to push very high, and the constant rotations meant that when the ball was lost, there had to be assurances they could stop the opposition from countering effectively. It’s worth noting that as the press became less intense over the duration of Pochettino’s tenure, as players became worn out by the physically demanding nature of his style, Spurs became more cautious with the ball since they were easier to attack in transition.
At PSG, this problem became the defining issue that prevented Pochettino from truly implementing his ideas. With a front three featuring Kylian Mbappe, Neymar, and eventually Lionel Messi, the Argentine lacked the necessary work rate from his forwards to initiate a strong counter-press.
This meant that the midfield often featured more industrious, less technically gifted players like Danilo Pereira and Idrissa Gueye to make up for the lack of defensive work by the front line. Consequently, Pochettino’s PSG defended in a mid-block, trusting in the defensive acumen of the midfield and the compactness of their shape to retrieve the ball rather than a high press.
The composition of the midfield also meant they played safer, simpler passes, leading PSG to be slower in the build-up. At times, this still worked well for PSG. Since they were defending deeper and passing shorter and horizontally, the opposition would be lured forward, and the supremely talented forwards could exploit the space behind them.
Despite reaching a Champions League semi-final under his tutelage, Pochettino’s PSG never quite felt like a team with his tactical imprint. Instead, it was an uneasy compromise between the squad at his disposal and his vision of the game.
At Chelsea, Pochettino finds a team better suited to his ideas than PSG were from an age, physical, and tactical profile, but one that would still pose interesting tactical challenges for him. At the back, Benoit Badiashelle and Wesley Fofana are two young, physically dominant centre-backs who are comfortable enough on the ball to play in his system.
Neither quite have the passing range of Toby Alderweireld, but they are capable enough to continually receive and progress the ball and could blossom into an excellent partnership. Should Pochettino use a back three, Thiago Silva also provides a strong option supplanted by Trevor Chalobah or Cesar Azpilicueta.
At fullback, Ben Chillwell and Reece James are ideal for Pochettino. When fit, they’re two of the best fullbacks in the Premier League, and have the necessary stamina, strength, and technical skill to participate in the demanding role he will no doubt ask them to play. Their injury records could be a cause for concern though, since their alternatives of Mario Gusto and Marc Cucurella are either unproven in English football or suffering poor form.
In midfield, Enzo Fernandez is arguably more talented than any central midfielder he worked with at Spurs. His passing range, ability to receive under pressure, and carrying will allow him to replicate Moussa Dembele’s role as the link between the backline and the attackers. He does not have the same physical presence of Dembele, but he is aggressive and tenacious, ensuring he can still contribute well to the counter-press.
There’s no obvious midfield partner for him, especially if Pochettino wants a more physically imposing, positionally disciplined player in the Wanyama or Dier mould. Perhaps he’ll adapt to having a more technically gifted partner like Matteo Kovacic or a more dynamic defensive presence like N’Golo Kante or Denis Zakaria, relying less on sheer strength and more on aggression and tenacity in his midfield to supplant the press.
Chelsea’s midfield options are also generally more technically gifted than the options Pochettino had at Spurs. That may lead him to make his team more possession-heavy. Instead of relying on the press to retrieve the ball after it’s lost and sustain pressure, he may trust his midfield’s ability to repeatedly show for the ball, circulate it, and progress it to achieve the same control.
However, this could also take away from the verticality of his football that made his Spurs side so good at creating chances. Defining that balance between an intense-press and risky possession approach versus a slightly more tempered press and more controlled possession approach will be a key tactical conundrum during Pochettino’s tenure.
In attack, Mason Mount is a perfect candidate for the number ten role should he stay at the club. He’s a smart presser, can drop deeper to dictate play if required, and has the tactical and technical versatility to interchange with other players. Kai Havertz can also provide similar proficiency and could benefit from being recast as a supporting attacker who can make late runs into the box in the vein of Alli.
Mykhailo Mudryk will likely be the long-term option for the left-wing position given his price tag, but he is more of a natural winger. It’ll be interesting if Pochettino tries to shape him into more of an inside forward or whether he adapts the role of his fullbacks to play more narrowly. On the opposite flank, he’ll need to decide if he opts for Havertz, a more static creative player like Hakim Ziyech, or a more dynamic wide player like Raheem Sterling, Noni Madueke, or Christian Pulisic.
Up front is certainly the biggest gap in the squad. Romelu Lukaku is a misfit for a system that requires lots of positional versatility and features minimal attacking transitions, while Pierre Emerick Aubameyang already looks on his way out.
Armando Broja and David Datro Fofana are unknown quantities to some degree, and may or may not have the necessary quality and skillset to lead the line. Chelsea will likely need to purchase a focal point for the team unless Pochettino tries to be creative with a workaround or trusts that Broja and Fofana can eventually grow into the role.
In summation, Chelsea have a squad that is capable of playing Pochettino’s brand of fluid, vertical possession-based football with an aggressive counter-press. They lack the same obvious physical power of his best Spurs teams, but arguably have more technical quality and players of a higher ceiling. If the squad is trimmed prudently in the summer, which albeit is no guarantee, Pochettino should be able to instil his tactical ideas into the players quite well.
He’s shown a strong track record for developing younger players, will have full weeks to work with the players next season given their lack of European football, and, if given time, could feasibly be the long-term project manager Chelsea seemingly desires.
After his underwhelming stint at PSG and after Chelsea’s disastrous first season under Boehly, the Mauricio Pochettino era will undoubtedly be a defining one for both coach and club.