The Argentinian sought divine inspiration – with some apparent success – when trying to save Espanyol from relegation but he does not have the advantage of being a club idol now
Espanyol needed a miracle so Mauricio Pochettino decided that was what they were going to get. Their coach gathered up his backpack, put on his walking boots and hiked 12km from Barcelona to the religious mountain shrine of Montserrat, with its black virgin. There, he asked for divine inspiration.
He had taken over at Espanyol at the halfway stage of the 2008-09 season, becoming the club's 13th coach in 11 years under the president Daniel Sánchez Llibre, but he had not been able to turn them around yet. With 10 games left they were bottom, eight points from safety.
And then they started winning. Epsanyol survived. The following season they finished 11th, then eighth, then 14th. Just before November, Pochettino departed with his team bottom of the table. They had won only twice in 14 games. He had been at the club almost four years, the fourth longest-serving manager in their history, but they needed a change. Even Pochettino's status at Espanyol did not help – the Argentina international, who is famous in England for conceding a penalty in the countries' 2002 World Cup match, played more games for the club than any other foreigner. Since taking over from him, his replacement, Javier Aguirre, has lost just once.
Pochettino may reflect that he should have taken the Sampdoria job when he had the chance. Every summer he watched as the club, gripped by financial crisis, sold their best players. Ten departed last summer alone. There were internal battles between shareholders too. And slowly, it unravelled. Now he has taken over at Southampton, where the sacking of Nigel Adkins has surprised and disgusted fans.
When he departed there was a sadness about the place, a recognition that Pochettino had been good for Espanyol. He had worked closely with the youth system, redesigning the setup, laying down tactical guidelines to be followed throughout the club and insisting on making each team play in an age group above, to increase their competitiveness and accelerate their development. It was not just an idea, it was a necessity. More than a dozen kids made their first-team debut under him and only three First Division teams had more youth-teamers in their first-team squad.
There, they encountered a man with charisma and commitment. Players described his sessions as "fun" but "intense". He recorded every detail of his matches and set up a system that allowed him not only to use videos before matches but at half time. He made his team aggressive, pushing high up the pitch. He wanted them to keep the ball and play from the back. "There are teams that wait for you and teams that look for you: Espanyol look for you. I feel very close to their style of football," said Pep Guardiola.
Pochettino was close to his players but tough: when he first turned up he encountered men that had been team-mates, and good mates, of his. He did not hesitate to shift out those he thought were not good enough. The problem was that with each passing year, more of his players were not good enough. He too appeared to have grown tired; his impact diminished. A club idol he may have been but results were no longer good enough. At Southampton, that is an advantage he does not have. Communication will be harder as he does not speak English. Pochettino has vision but, after the sacking of Adkins, he will have to get results too. And fast.