Arsenal vs Tottenham: Hostile derby day nothing new for well-travelled Mauricio Pochettino

After his fearsome experiences in South America, Spain and France, the Tottenham manager will not be cowed on Saturday

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The Independent Football

Mauricio Pochettino will probably not have to lie on the floor of the Tottenham Hotspur team bus as it rolls down the Seven Sisters Road on Saturday afternoon, but he would not mind if he did.

This is Pochettino’s first north London derby, but he has played and won games where the danger was far more real – in France, Colombia and Argentina – and he understands what is required. If he and his players are forced into evasive action by Arsenal fans on Saturday, that is all part of the fun.

“I would like to,” laughed Pochettino when asked if he would be crouching from missiles on Saturday, as he has done before. “It is my habit, it is not strange for me.”

Pochettino could not have achieved what he has, playing for those teams and in those games, if he was cowed by tension or danger. In fact, he revels in it. “I am more strong with a hostile situation,” he said. “I like it.”

It helps that Pochettino started off playing in one of South America’s great football cities, Rosario in Argentina. He was 14 when he joined Newell’s Old Boys, where he was coached by the legendary Marcelo Bielsa, whom he calls his “father” in football.

Newell’s main rivals are Rosario Central and that is still the first derby Pochettino mentions when asked. He calls it a “very tough game, dangerous to play”, and understandably so. The Newell’s players were always given quite a reception by the Rosario fans.

“It is difficult when you arrive,” Pochettino remembered. “You need to arrive with all the windows [of the coach] closed and everyone lying down on the floor, because it is dangerous. You need to be brave.”

Pochettino knows where derbies are won and lost. “In this kind of game, you need to be brave to get the victory. Not only outside, but inside the pitch. You need to play with aggression.”

A teenage Pochettino won Argentinian titles with Newell’s in 1991 and 1992, which took them to the Copa Libertadores, where they faced an even harder challenge.

“I will always remember the semi-final of the 1992 Copa Libertadores, in Colombia against America de Cali,” he said. Cali, near Colombia’s Pacific coast, is almost 3,000 miles north-west of Rosario and Newell’s went to the Estadio Olimpico Pascual Guerrero having drawn 1-1 in the first leg. “The semi-final was very, very difficult – getting into the changing room was very difficult,” Pochettino remembered. “The game started late.”

Five minutes in, Pochettino – who had just turned 20 – put Newell’s ahead with a flying header from a free-kick but a last-minute penalty took a ferocious game to extra time. It was settled by an epic penalty shoot-out. Pochettino skied his kick far over the bar; Cali missed two that could have won it, and when Norberto Scoponi saved from Orlando Maturana, Newell’s won 11-10. Carnage followed.

“After we won one team-mate – Eduardo Berizzo, now manager of Celta Vigo – had a big cut on his head, from a battery. For me, nothing is strange.”

Pochettino facing England in 2002

Newell’s played Sao Paulo in the final and the second leg, in front of 105,000 people in the Brazilians’ Estadio Morumbi, again ended in penalties. This time Newell’s lost.

Pochettino left Argentina to play for Espanyol, and then went to Paris Saint-Germain in 2001. PSG’s biggest match, then as now, was against Olympique Marseille, not a derby in geographical terms but still a fiery rivalry.

“In France too it was very difficult,” Pochettino remembered. Again there was a welcoming committee for him at the Stade Velodrome.

“You need to be brave if you go to Marseille. There was always private security when we arrived at the airport. It was difficult to arrive at the stadium and to leave. The supporters are aggressive, and in the dressing room and on the coach all the windows were broken.”

The difficulties continued inside the ground, where the PSG players were pelted with “radios and phones”. But in March 2003, Ronaldinho inspired a 3-0 win in front of 60,000 Marseille fans.

Pochettino was 28 when he joined PSG and was captain and leader of that side. He took the youngsters under his wing, especially an 18-year-old Mikel Arteta, who was on loan from Barcelona, keen to learn. They are still close now.

“I love Mikel,” smiled Pochettino, looking forward to seeing him on Saturday across a different divide. “I know he is in another side, the big sporting enemy, but I love Mikel because he is a great person.”

The Arsenal captain still warmly remembers his old mentor too.

“He was the captain for PSG when I started my career and he really looked after me,” Arteta said last week. “He was like a dad, even if he doesn’t like that word.” (Arteta is right; Pochettino preferred “brother” to “father” when asked.) “I always appreciate what he did for me when I started my career, all the advice that he gave me. He has been a top person in my career.”

Arteta knew even then that Pochettino would go on to be a top manager, owing in part to the vision of the game he had picked up from Bielsa.

Pochettino on the touchline at Espanyol

“He had a character,” Arteta said. “He had Marcelo Bielsa, who was his hero and his mentor. He had him in the national team and most of the concepts he has tried to put into his teams are from him.”

Bielsa also coached Pochettino at Espanyol and, 10 years on, Pochettino took over as coach at Barcelona’s second club. Coaching for a derby is different from playing in a derby, but Pochettino knows something about that too. Just his seventh game in charge – his seventh as a manager – was at the Nou Camp, against Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, who were already 10 points clear in February 2009.

“When I arrived as Espanyol manager, Espanyol were in last position and Barcelona were on top,” Pochettino remembered. “We went to play in the Nou Camp, all the people said, ‘Espanyol is dead, they have no chance’.” The Spanish press said they were “fighting King Kong with a teaspoon”, but Espanyol won 2-1, thanks to two goals from Ivan de la Pena.

“For 27 years, Espanyol had never won the derby away,” smiled Pochettino. “It was a very good start for me.” Barcelona went on to win the treble, but Espanyol managed to stay up.

So even if the details of Saturday’s particular rivalry – from the 1991 FA Cup semi-final to Sol Campbell’s defection from Spurs to Arsenal – are new to Pochettino, he knows exactly what to demand of his players.

“It is not just another game. We need to relay the feeling of our supporters on the pitch. It is our responsibility to fight for every ball, to be aggressive and to fight through the game. We need to be brave.”