The sight of Mauricio Pochettino in tears at the final whistle in Amsterdam is one of the enduring images of this campaign. For the Spurs manager, it is that emotion which has driven his side to the final
INTERVIEW LAURE JAMES
“We’ve treated this competition as a blessing,” says Mauricio Pochettino of Tottenham Hotspur’s unanticipated run to the UEFA Champions League final. For the manager and his players, simply being in the competition a third straight year marks a first for a club which, prior to his arrival in 2014, had experienced only two European Cup campaigns. To reach the final, then, while achieving another top-four Premier League finish – despite playing much of the season at a temporary home at Wembley, and without a single new signing since January 2018 – just underlines how Pochettino has drawn something exceptional from a group of players he has infused with unity and purpose. Here the 47-year-old discusses the factors that have taken Spurs so far, including passion, togetherness and a vital human touch: “Above all,” he says, “we need to think about relationships with people.”
Let’s start with your philosophy and love of football. How does that manifest in your work?
In football, passion is the main thing. The football we all love comes from emotion and passion. Football inspires and excites us. That serves as a basis for working out our own personal preferences, establishing our philosophy of the game and deciding what principles to follow when organising and managing a team of people – because they are people before they are footballers. The same goes for professionals like doctors and physiotherapists: they are people first and foremost. From that, you figure out the path you want to take and put the structure in place. I think that organisation and discipline are key to that.
What are the basics that you instil in your players?
Above all, it’s about being able to adapt quickly to what the coaching staff and club require from you. On an individual level, it’s about the willingness of each player to give his best. It’s a given that players at a professional club are talented. That helps us to achieve our goals. The most important thing is the ability to adapt what we have, to what we’re up against every day. That’s a huge challenge when you’re managing a squad. We need to have the same objectives and to work together to achieve them.
What’s the most important part of being a coach, day to day, season to season?
The most important thing is feeling inspired by what you love and having the internal drive to push you on. That’s what helps you enjoy what you’re doing every day. In sport, there’s always more you can do. I think that’s one of the main characteristics of coaching a team. Then, that drive is what helps you convey your ideas so you can work on them together with the club, the staff and players. Everyone needs to feel like they’re a part of those ideas, everyone needs to be able to make suggestions and feel they’re participating. Of course, that gives you buy-in and helps you achieve your main objective.
Mauricio Pochettino leads the celebrations in Amsterdam
What is the most difficult part of being a coach?
Let’s not call them difficulties; I treat them as challenges. We face challenges every day and, whether big or small, they’re not the end of the world. They’re just things to be solved. Above all, we need to think about relationships with people. If we’re only talking about footballing matters, those challenges are much easier to sort out. The human aspect is the most difficult. If you can find solutions, it makes life a lot easier. You train yourself to get into this habit and you work on it every day.
To deal with the stress of competition, you usually look for things that make you feel secure and the only way to feel more secure is if you work on something every day. We don’t normally push ourselves like this day to day, so we need to work on feeling comfortable on matchdays. Matches come with stress, and stress is not something you can replicate on a normal day. You don’t have 70,000 people watching you on a normal day of training; you’re not being watched by the whole world as you will be in a Champions League final. I think that means you might behave differently. You need to change your routines, you need to be very tough and you have to work very hard every day. You can’t just feel motivated when you play football, because what you do every day is what makes you improve and what makes you stronger when you come to play matches. It’s all about what you do in training behind closed doors – what nobody sees, what the press doesn’t see. That’s the key.
It has been such an incredible campaign. Did you ever think you would get this far?
It’s rather psychological. In terms of our preparations as coaching staff, we always try to find ways to fight for the goals that lie ahead of us and not think too much about what’s behind us. As many people say, don’t look at the finish line until you get there, because otherwise you start to lose energy and there are distractions that might make you take a wrong turn. We’ve enjoyed every moment of this campaign and every game has been a final for us, as you’ve seen with the way we’ve celebrated and enjoyed them.
As for our preparations, we’ve been looking towards our end goal, with the fruit of that being the fact we’re now in the Champions League final. Was the target at the start to reach the final? Certainly not, but it was to win each game that we had ahead of us, get over each obstacle, put in a huge effort to know we’d done all we could, and to have the strength to achieve something wonderful.
I think we certainly deserve to be in the final, but we never saw it as something real. That ambition to fight for every moment over the ten months of competition was always part of our dreams. That’s what’s got us here today.
What have been the best and most difficult moments so far?
It’s been tough, but we’ve really enjoyed the good moments and the not-so-good moments as well, because they put us in a position to improve, show our strength, take a step forward, leave our comfort zone and try to discover something new, which was the happiness experienced in those moments. I think each moment has been magical.
How did you feel when the referee blew the final whistle in Amsterdam?
It was incredible. It was an explosion of emotions that ran through our bodies and you could see that, with the way we were all running around, crying, jumping and shouting. Everyone expressed their emotions in a different way, which is a beautiful and wonderful thing.
Can you describe what it means to you to have reached the UEFA Champions League final?
To be honest, I’m not looking for a meaning. We’re so thrilled and grateful to football, first of all. We feel thankful to this club and our fans, but above all to our players. We have to thank our players for giving us the gift of playing in it – it’s something that we’re all part of, but the players are the main participants. We just do everything we can for them to have the best tools at their disposal to achieve wonderful things. The predominant feeling across the coaching staff is that we’re grateful to football, this club and, above all, the players.
What it means is being at the top of world football, in a position that very few others have experienced. It means that after so much hard work, we have the chance to fulfil our dream of being there and representing many people across the world who are starting out in football at a young age and are finding it tough in different age groups and leagues worldwide. I think we represent all those people, by [showing that by] creating opportunities through hard work and ability, and with a touch of luck, goals can be achieved.
That’s what we’re about because we’re very down-to-earth people, so while it’s taken so much effort, we’ve also enjoyed every moment and I think that’s what we represent. It means so much that it’s difficult to describe in a few words or minutes. It’s something that hasn’t fully sunk in just yet. I think we can grasp it to some extent now, but when we’re in Madrid and the game begins, we’ll have a better understanding of it.
IN THEIR WORDS
If you respect him, he’ll show you respect back. If you work hard for him, he’ll give you his time. But he’s ruthless if you cross him. If you don’t want to work for him and don’t want to be a team player, you won’t be part of the team.
It didn’t take very long for me to understand what it meant to play as a centre-back in his side. It demanded a lot, especially physically, and he made me understand that. He made it clear I wasn’t doing enough. He was right.
He pushes people, makes them think and realise that you also play football with your head, not just with your legs – although we do run a lot!
The manager wants us pressing high, winning the ball back early and trying to dominate possession, but being direct in our way of attacking when spaces are open. He speaks a lot to the players and really helps you understand what he wants.