Could Mauricio Pochettino work at Manchester United?
It seems that Mauricio Pochettino’s name will always be linked with the Manchester United job and those rumours don’t seem to be going away any time soon.
There’s been no secret in saying that Pochettino is Manchester United’s number one choice to be the next permanent manager.
Now, he may be the board’s number one choice, but he’s not mine. I feel that he doesn’t seem to have that cutting edge that will deliver the club success consistently for the long term.
But the club wants him, and he’s not necessarily a terrible manager. So, I will look at why he could work at Manchester United, which is possible, given he is currently working well at a big club with PSG.
From a tactical perspective, the majority of Pochettino’s principles are influenced by Marcelo Bielsa, the Leeds manager. This is because Poch is a Bielsa disciple and he’s not the only manager to have been influenced by the Argentine, with former Barcelona manager, Gerardo Martino and current Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone also being influenced.
During his time with Espanyol, Southampton and Tottenham, Pochettino had a recognised brand of football that was offensively oriented, but also for blending quick offensive transitions with positional play, by attacking spaces to generate movements and passing opportunities — without losing their defensive balance.
His sides tend to dominate possession, with his PSG side averaging 64.2% possession in Ligue 1. There are a few reasons for this, and one of them is how he sets out the side from a formation perspective.
More often than not, Pochettino would utilise a system that would include a back four with three in midfield, with the triangle in that midfield being the only variation, with three forwards in front.
At PSG, Pochettino has most often deployed a 4–3–3, to allow superstars Neymar Jr, Kylian Mbappé and Lionel Messi to thrive but to not lose balance, he deploys three workmen like midfielders who can accommodate the front three’s lack of defensive efforts.
At Tottenham, he utilised a 4–2–3–1 as that allowed him to play narrowly, particularly with his front three, and press with intensity and swarm the centre of the pitch, limiting the opposition to creating chances from wide areas only.
Another reason why his sides are offensively successful is because he leans on a Bielsa principle, numerical superiority.
Pochettino favours building possession from the back. From the first pass — perhaps a goal-kick — his teams seek to gain numerical advantages to work the ball forward and to reach the attacking half in an organised manner.
So for instance, if the opposition pressed with three forwards, he would instruct the fullbacks to adopt a deeper position in a goal-kick situation to create a 4v3 advantage.
Defensively is where Pochettino gained a lot of praise, with his high intensity and energy press being a notable feature of his gameplan.
I mentioned Pochettino’s sides look to adopt a narrow shape when in possession. This is not just to facilitate his short passing possession game but whenever his players lose the ball, they’re not too far away from the ball, so that they can press with intensity and aggression very quickly.
Sometimes in big games, Pochettino would look to sit back and not take risks, but if he is with Manchester United, he would have no choice but to take risks and defensively as well as offensively, these need to happen.
When he would take risks, such as deploying an incredibly high block against Manchester City in the 2016/17 season, it normally works to good effect.
When Pochettino’s sides are brave both in and out of possession, they look to be a threatening side and ultimately, that’s an element United fans want to see within their side, a team that wants to take risks to win games.
Poch at United
For me, that bravery that was shown in Pochettino’s Tottenham, particularly during the 15/16 and 16/17 seasons, would be where the Argentine could win me over. The fearlessness, that’s what United need. Too long since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure has the team been accustomed to being apprehensive, fearful and naive when it comes to playing football.
Now, unfortunately, Pochettino’s sides more often than not during his time as manager at Tottenham and at times with PSG have been rather defensive and not looked to stay true to their philosophy. This has not led him to gain many victories against difficult opposition.
But, the squad at Tottenham was most often inferior to their opposition, not just in terms of starting eleven but depth as well.
However, at Manchester United, Mauricio Pochettino would have access to a wide range of resources that would allow him to invest in the team and create a side that could go toe to toe with the big clubs, not just in the Premier League, but in Europe.
So how could Pochettino’s side look at Manchester United?
The key when it comes to predicting how his side would be looking at how he structured his best Tottenham side, given he would be keener to implement that style of play rather than the style he’s somewhat forced to adopt at PSG.
Pochettino has specific roles for his outfield players at Tottenham. I think with United, he would look to use the 4–2–3–1, given that is his preferred system.
The fullbacks would be essentially wingbacks, as they would predominantly provide the width, due to the wingers coming inside. The centrebacks would be required to be “ball-playing” defenders, players who can progress with the ball and pick out passes.
With the two holding midfielders, one would have to be a ball carrier while the other would act as a controller or as a destroyer-type defensive midfielder.
For the three attacking midfielders, there are separate roles each. One of the wingers would be deployed as an inside forward, where he would look to operate in the half-space and link up with players in those areas. The other winger would act as a playmaker, but he too would look to operate inside as well. The central attacking midfielder would operate as a second striker, looking to make runs beyond the centre forward.
The striker would look to be a deep-lying forward, where his objective would be linking the midfield with the attack. The player will drop deep, hold up the ball and supply passes to teammates (either spreading it wide or playing in the second striker).
So with those roles now established, the most realistic starting lineup would be this, transfers included (which I will explain in due course).
Now there’s probably going to be some questions raised over certain aspects of the lineup, as there are players I’ve included who people may disagree with. That’s fine, as ultimately, we won’t know what the lineup will be, come Matchday 1 of the 2022/23 season until 1 hour before kick-off.
In goal, David de Gea. Strangely, there have been people criticising de Gea throughout the season, which is weird given how many times a game he has saved us. I can’t see Pochettino dropping him as he has established himself as Manchester United’s number one.
At left back, here’s one area that could cause debate. Luke Shaw or Alex Telles. For me, I feel Telles would be selected given how offensively oriented he is as a fullback. Give him a solid run of games and he would prove dividends for United. For instance, in the 2019/20 season for Porto, he scored 11 goals and registered 8 assists in 31 games.
At right back, Diogo Dalot should be the choice going forward. Aaron Wan-Bissaka has lost his starting place at United and it’s because of how poor he is on the ball and the fact we’ve seen little progression with his offensive ability. With the fullbacks having a crucial role going forward, there’s very little chance Wan-Bissaka would start over Dalot.
The centreback partnership I feel Pochettino would consider would be Manuel Akanji and Raphaël Varane. The Frenchman this season has been world-class for United and has certainly aided United’s defensive structure massively.
Akanji would be one signing I feel Pochettino could make, given how good his ball-playing abilities are (for instance, he boasts a 90.6% passing accuracy after completing 70.45 passes per game). Further, he’s aggressive and quicker than Harry Maguire. With Pochettino also favouring a high-line, Maguire makes that a vulnerability for United in transition.
So with Akanji and Varane being quick, Pochettino may look for that deal, especially given the Swiss international being valued at £30 million by Borussia Dortmund.
The midfield is where the most action would be seen in terms of transfer incomings. Manchester United like to make marquee signings every summer basically, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Harry Maguire and Paul Pogba being the latest big-money acquisitions over the last 5–6 years.
With Pogba likely to leave this upcoming window, Pochettino would want a solid ball-carrier to replace him. Enter Frenkie de Jong at FC Barcelona. For me, if United are wanting to make a big-money signing, which is something the club love to do, especially the Glazer family, de Jong should be the player the club should invest £100 million + in.
De Jong is one of the best ball carrying midfielders in the world, with his ability in terms of progressive carries being one of his most impressive attributes. Now progressive carries, for those unfamiliar with the term, they’re carries that move the ball towards the opponent’s goal at least 5 yards or any carry into the penalty area.
The Dutch international averages 7.09 per game, which places him in the 94% of midfielders in Europe’s top 5 leagues.
Now as he is one of the best midfielders in the world, he will cost a lot of money. I would be prepared to spend as much as £150 million on this guy if I was Pochettino, as de Jong brings quality and style to United but more importantly, he’s young so his value will only increase, as will his talent under the Argentine.
In terms of a partner for de Jong, I feel that United should look to use their brains and buy a quality midfielder, who’s young, acts as a destroyer type defensive midfielder and he’s free.
Boubacar Kamara currently at Marseille would be the one I would go for. Kamara is a ball-winner in multiple forms — someone who excels with pressing, winning duels and intercepting frequently. But, he’s also as comfortable against the press as he is when pressing himself.
Now statistically, his numbers are raw from a defensive perspective, with the majority of the stats falling under the mid 60–70% percentile when compared to other midfielders. However, he’s still young and Pochettino has a proven track record of developing young players and in particular good young midfielders, with Mousa Dembélé and Eric Dier being two notable improvements during his time at Tottenham.
The attacking midfielders are current Manchester United players in Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes and Jadon Sancho. The last two names of those three are guaranteed starters in my view, with Fernandes being an integral player for United going forward and Sancho who’s starting to find his feet.
As for Rashford, I have been highly critical of his performances this season and have suggested the club move him on. But perhaps a more feasible solution could be Pochettino just coaching the player mostly on his decision making.
Poch was instrumental in the development of Harry Kane who was able to make that transition into becoming one of Europe’s best strikers. I think Pochettino could give Rashford the right guidance and coaching into becoming a top player, which is necessary for United to be successful.
In terms of roles for those three, I feel Sancho would take the playmaker role, Rashford the inside forward role and Fernandes the second striker role. Those three could excel in those roles respectively and thus gain the chemistry/relationships required to be a formidable force going forward.
With the deep-lying forward, the rumour has been that Pochettino would like Harry Kane should he be the United manager. However, with the massive investment in de Jong (in this hypothetical situation) it would be unreasonable and unrealistic for United to go for Kane.
I feel in the short term, Poch would opt with Cristiano Ronaldo, given he has transitioned into that deep-lying forward role to assist United’s build-up play. In the long term, Pochettino may look to sign Darwin Núñez given he has a similar profile to Harry Kane and could be developed into a top striker.
As I stated previously, Mauricio Pochettino is not my number one choice to be the next Manchester United manager. However, I am not completely opposed to the proposition.
There are qualities Pochettino does possess that other managers linked to the job do not have, with one major aspect being the Argentine’s knowledge of the Premier League.
It all remains to be seen, however, Pochettino is desperate for the job. He’d want to succeed at the club.
Whether he will be a success is unknown but there’s potential for him to be a top manager at Old Trafford.