Here’s a question for you – and an answer you may well dismiss as perfectly ridiculous. But which Premier League chairmen are looking at this Dortmund team, and justifiably thinking: “That could be us in five years?” Daniel Levy? Possibly. Nicola Cortese? Most definitely.
Of course, we know what they do have in common. This season, both had the temerity to replace a popular English manager with an aloof whizz-kid from Iberian football – one who talked down to the press, and another who couldn’t talk to them at all. But if very few Spurs fans would now take back ’Arry, and duly remember their original outrage with quiet shame, then how bewildering must it feel down at Southampton?
Both the aversion and the therapy have been far more extreme at St Mary’s. When Cortese replaced Nigel Adkins with Mauricio Pochettino in January, he was denounced from every rooftop. Here was the effigy for the bonfire of football’s vanities. The club simmered with mutiny. Even lifelong Saints anticipated relegation with grim relish. Fans of other clubs expressed scandalised fellowship. Just when the team had found its feet, it had been lurched into a tailspin: it was sickening, embarrassing, enough finally to extinguish the last embers of your love for the game.
Only now it turns out to have been a stroke of genius. As their team glides stylishly up the table, taking the scalps of Manchester City and Liverpool and Chelsea, Southampton fans have quickly acknowledged that they owed Cortese more respect. But for the late Markus Liebherr, who entrusted his legacy to the Italian, it seems by no means far-fetched to suggest that Southampton might have shared the doom of their neighbours at Portsmouth. Cortese has not put a foot wrong so far. If he felt that a former Scunthorpe physio might have reached his ceiling, for now, then just conceivably Pochettino had more to recommend him than most people knew. Which, after all, was not saying a great deal.
Pochettino had played for club and country under one of the prophets, Marcelo Bielsa. As manager, he had salvaged Espanyol from relegation before finishing eighth, 11th and 14th; and did all this while routinely obliged to sell his best players and blood kids. “There are teams that wait for you, teams that look for you,” Pep Guardiola said. “Espanyol look for you. I feel very close to their style of football.”
So where are you now, all who vilified Cortese? Southampton fans have taken their medicine with the sweetest elixir. But what of those who pronounced upon another foreign owner heedlessly contaminating the soul of our game? How far were you misled by your own ignorance of a broader football culture? Far enough to wonder now if Pochettino might even look at Jürgen Klopp, and decide not simply to wash his hands of unequal financial odds?
Dortmund are hardly an exact parallel in historic terms, but the present team were assembled inexpensively and owe their success primarily to dynamism and an innovative young coach. If Cortese suspected that Adkins considered survival an ample ambition, he was perfectly within his rights to hire someone who sooner aspired to being Swansea, say, if not Dortmund – not yet, anyway.
Pochettino never had money at Espanyol but that will change this summer. And if there’s another Michu out there, he’d seem as likely as anyone to find him (remember, he came within an ace of bringing Coutinho along with him).
But it is remarkable what he has already achieved with the team as it stands, not least because their signature has become relentless pressing – hardly something that can be conditioned overnight. Osvaldo, who played under him at Espanyol, says that Pochettino “works you like a dog… sometimes you feel like killing him. But it works”.
In three full seasons there, Pochettino raised the average number of tackles and interceptions per game from 19 apiece to 23 and 28 respectively. Under Adkins, meanwhile, Cortese cannot have felt he was getting £7m worth out of Jay Rodriguez. Now the pundits are suddenly talking him up for England.
Rome was not built in a day. Hopes for a fourth consecutive win against West Ham may be unravelled by lingering vulnerability to set pieces. And it might seem ludicrous to build so much on so brief a run. But this isn’t about the ambition since January; this is about the ambition since the darkest days, since a 10-point deduction in League One.
The wringing of hands over Adkins suited many fans ideally. That’s why it resonated far beyond Southampton, to all of us manacled to clubs marooned beyond the elite. Helpless self-pity is our default setting. But Southampton could be the next, after Swansea, to give us all hope.