It is a rare day indeed when a Southampton manager takes his team to Old Trafford with the away side five places above Manchester United in the league, but then Mauricio Pochettino has already outstripped all expectations in his start to the season.
His club are fourth in the Premier League, they have won away at Anfield and conceded just two goals in seven league games – a defensive record that is matched only by Roma in all Europe’s major leagues. Today Southampton go back to a stadium at which they took the lead in January within eight minutes only to be beaten by two first-half goals from Wayne Rooney.
Pochettino, 41, was asked about the United man this week and whether he could even begin to be mentioned in the same terms as Lionel Messi, whom the Argentine knows well. As an Argentina international himself, who played against England during the 2002 World Cup finals, Pochettino’s reaction was instructive, in spite of the politeness he may have felt obliged to assume.
“I think that Wayne Rooney for England is very similar to what Lionel Messi is for Argentina,” he said. “It’s also clear that they have different characteristics and skills. They are both very important for their national sides and I’m a big fan of the two of them. I think it’s probably Lionel Messi and then Cristiano Ronaldo or Ronaldo and then Messi [at the top of world football]. Then Neymar, Rooney; Rooney, Neymar – he [Rooney] is in the top 10.”
The final assessment sounded as if he was recalculating his earlier praise for the Englishman to something he considered more realistic. Either way, it was interesting to hear an Argentine perspective on the player upon whom so much importance will be placed once again next summer. Could Rooney get in the Argentina team? “No,” Pochettino said, “he doesn’t have a passport!”
“I was speaking about it with my staff and we were saying he [Rooney] is the type of football player who is able to understand what is needed and what’s required of him at every single phase of the game. I honestly rate him as high as Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi. I have a great admiration for how he is as a football player. I think he’s an amazingly talented footballer.”
As for Southampton, they come to Old Trafford with their confidence high. Pochettino and chairman Nicola Cortese have added Dani Osvaldo, Victor Wanyama and Dejan Lovren to their squad over the summer in over £35m of investment. But Pochettino has also managed what he inherited shrewdly, from young players like Luke Shaw and James Ward-Prowse from the club’s academy to Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Morgan Schneiderlin.
Even in spite of the money they have spent, Southampton still qualify as the Premier League’s biggest over-achievers, although Pochettino said that he was “not surprised” by their start. “The club starts being ambitious from the chairman and all the way down to the manager,” he said. “Every single person involved in this club is ambitious and wants the club to do well so I am not really surprised by how well the club is doing.”
Cortese described Pochettino as “basically just a department head like the others” in his speech at the Leaders in Football conference last week, a taste of the Southampton chairman’s uncompromising style. As for Pochettino, he is not the type to start a fight, especially given that he is still holding press conferences in Spanish with an interpreter at his elbow and, it seems, taking nothing for granted.
Pochettino said his relationship with Cortese was “amazing”. He bridled at the suggestion that his team’s attractive, attacking style of play was something that he has inherited from his predecessor Nigel Adkins.
“It’s always the manager that sets how the team wants to play,” Pochettino said. “Barcelona under Guardiola or under Vilanova or under Martino play in different ways. Southampton don’t play the same way as they did under Adkins as they do under Pochettino. The club has a certain philosophy and the club will try to find a manager to execute that philosophy in the way the club wants. So that’s why I am here.”
He has dropped the big signing from last season, Gaston Ramirez, and said that, with all respect, he did not see why Southampton could not win against United today. He is clearly his own man, and the sooner he masters English, the quicker English football will be able to get to know him properly.