When Tim Sherwood presided over a 3‑2 victory at Southampton in his first Premier League match as Tottenham Hotspur manager in December, he probably did not suspect that his opponent would soon wind up replacing him at White Hart Lane. Mauricio Pochettino, however, is now being courted by the London club and the reason for their wooing is obvious. Even the allure of fickle Spurs can be understood in light of the Argentinian's background. If club and manager do get together, it could prove a happy union.
If they do not hook up, it will be because Southampton will have convinced Pochettino that their relationship can still bring excitement and/or Spurs will have failed to persuade him that they are ready to settle down.
Tottenham want Pochettino to cultivate an adventurous playing style so that their young players will graduate seamlessly to the first team and prosper alongside purchased talent. That, of course, is what the jilted Sherwood promised he would do if given the chance and he had the advantage of already being very familiar with the club's youth. But Pochettino, though three years younger than the Englishman, has the advantage of being able to point to a record of achieving it in the world's two most high-profile leagues (also, his wily use of the language barrier, when compared with Sherwood's abrasive straight-talking, suggests keener political acumen, which he would surely need at Tottenham).
The reason that the then-Southampton chairman Nicola Cortese headhunted Pochettino 15 months ago was that for two seasons the Argentinian thrived at Espanyol, driving a relegation-threatened team to the upper reaches of La Liga in a way that was often acclaimed by the manager of the other club in the city, one Pep Guardiola of Barcelona. Pochettino was given a fine hand to play with at Southampton – a much better one than that dealt to Sherwood, for example – and he played it shrewdly.
Pochettino's first task at St Mary's was to earn the approval of the players, many of whom lamented the sacking of Nigel Adkins, who had guided them to two successive promotions. Any doubts they had about the newcomer were swiftly dispelled despite Pochettino immediately ordering double training sessions.
The purpose of those sessions was not to increase fitness – unlike many new managers, the Argentinian made no easy barbs about the physical state of the players he inherited – rather they were intended to embed the structure in which Southampton would assert an energetic and enterprising style of play based on intense pressing and bold attacking.
"Our style of play is to win back the ball as soon as possible and then play it," he explained. "We moved forward our lines and play more upfield. When we lose the ball we must have the mentality of winning it back as soon as possible. It may seem like we are running more but really we are just running in a more organised way."
Cortese had been damned as unreasonable for ditching Adkins but the improvement under Pochettino vindicated the chairman, proving that players who had been playing well still had more potential to be tapped. Their season-on-season rise from 14th position to eighth beats the five-place progress made by Liverpool. The stylistic transformation has been less stark than the one wrought by Brendan Rodgers at Anfield, but similarly significant.
The evidence of the eyes is backed up by Opta statistics which show that Southampton have averaged much more possession in the Premier League under Pochettino than under his predecessor (59% this season compared to 49%), far more passes per match (515 from 421), more completed passes in opposition territory (74% to 70%) and, of course, conceded far fewer goals, partially because the well-marshalled high defensive line has enabled them to catch opponents offside three times more often than they did under Adkins.
"He instilled a lot of aggression into every one," said the midfielder James Ward-Prowse. "The way we play without the ball, going to press and get the ball back. He's given us a belief that no matter who the team is in front of us, whether it's Manchester City or a lower-league team, we can go out and beat them as long as we concentrate on what we do." To Dare is To Do, as a certain London club puts it.
The ambition that Pochettino nurtures may also be what takes him to Tottenham, especially if Southampton give him the impression that he risks a repeat of what happened at Espanyol. There, he was sacked after nearly four years as the club's persistent selling of its best players eventually created a quality gap that he could not bridge. If Southampton are to persuade the manager to sign a new contract, they will probably have to reassure him that a similar pattern is not going to emerge at St Mary's and that if players such as Adam Lallana and Luke Shaw are allowed to leave, he will have a large say in how the proceeds are used.
Mind you, he had a big input into last summer's transfer activity and that turned out to be one of the blots on his record at St Mary's: while Dejan Lovren proved a fine acquisition, bringing much-needed solidity to defence, the £12.5m recruit Victor Wanyama looked of more questionable value in midfield, while the club's record signing, Dani Osvaldo, was a spectacular flop, a misjudgment that reflects especially poorly on Pochettino given that he knew the player well having worked (succesfully) with him at Espanyol.
Still, while the player let him down, at least Pochettino knew what he had hoped to get out of him: if there was a coherent plan behind Tottenham's lavish recruitment last summer, it remained well hidden. That, you imagine, is something that Pochettino will want to find out more about before deciding whether to accept any offer.