“Every week I can speak with a Belgian player.” Sébastien Pocognoli smiles as he reflects on the rising number of encounters with his compatriots in the Premier League. After all, in six appearances in English football, the new West Bromwich Albion left-back has already bumped into half a dozen of his countrymen and might well see two more – Marouane Fellaini and Adnan Januzaj – when Manchester United come to the Hawthorns tonight.
Pocognoli himself is a throwback to the days of not-so-famous Belgians – “Sébastien who?” might have been the response in some quarters when he signed from German club Hannover 96 in July – yet he is fast making a name for himself in the west Midlands. Of the seven overseas players brought in by West Bromwich this summer, Pocognoli – the name comes from his Italian grandparents who emigrated to Belgium in the Sixties – is the one who has become an instant regular in Alan Irvine’s team. Tonight comes his biggest challenge yet when he faces the most expensive player in English football, United’s £60m winger Angel Di Maria.
It promises to be quite an evening for Pocognoli given it also brings a reunion with his former AZ Alkmaar coach and “best teacher” Louis van Gaal – of which more later – but the main emotion he conveys when speaking to The Independent at Albion’s training ground is simply excitement.
“It is just my dream to be in England and playing against Liverpool or Manchester United,” says the likeable 27-year-old. “I’ve played in the Bundesliga so I’ve played at Bayern Munich and Dortmund, which is also nice, but I have more of a special feeling here.”
Pocognoli’s immediate impact with Albion is reward for his determined response to his biggest career disappointment. He might have crossed paths with Di Maria in Belgium’s World Cup quarter-final with Argentina but instead missed out on a place in Marc Wilmots’ squad after picking up an injury playing for Hannover in March.
“I have not had so many disappointments in my career but I was injured at a bad moment,” he says. “But I stayed positive. I trained very hard in my holidays because I knew I would find a new club and have to be ready. I am a player who needs to run a lot so I need good fitness.”
His success in hitting the ground running has earned him a Belgium recall and contrasts with the negligible contributions of the other Albion new boys who did play at the World Cup – Jason Davidson, Cristian Gamboa, Georgios Samaras and Silvestre Varela.
Irvine’s men have now found form after a sluggish start, posting recent Premier League wins over Tottenham Hotspur and Burnley before a narrow 2-1 defeat at Liverpool. “A lot of players arrived in the last days of the transfer market and not everybody was fit,” says Pocognoli. “We should have left Liverpool with a point and I hope we play against Manchester United like we have done in the last few games.”
Outside of the Hawthorns, there was a widely held view that Albion would struggle after last term’s rather chaotic survival scrap under Pepe Mel and the summer appointment of Irvine, a fine coach but untried as a Premier League manager. Yet Pocognoli’s impressions are positive. “Mr Irvine is a gentleman. When there is pressure he stays calm and doesn’t put pressure on the players and the training sessions are very good.”
He had already heard plenty about this “family club” from Albion old boy Romelu Lukaku – “he gave me a very good picture” – but admits that playing with England Under-21 striker Saido Berahino, Albion’s leading scorer with five goals, has proved a revelation. “I didn’t know him when I came here because he is a young player, but he is one of the biggest talents I have ever seen. He is hungry to learn every day.”
Pocognoli himself is an attacking full-back who likes to “get crosses in and play on the attack”, though he will be grateful this evening for the support of Chris Brunt, his partner down the left. “He is a very smart player and for me it is easy to play with him,” says Pocognoli, who against United’s star-studded attack will also want to keep in mind one specific lesson learned from his days working with Van Gaal as a young player at AZ.
The Liege-born Pocognoli was 20 when he left Racing Genk to begin a two-year learning curve under Van Gaal – which ended with AZ’s Eredivisie title triumph in May 2009. His biggest lesson concerned a particular Dutch word, “uitstraling”, meaning charisma and self-confidence. “It is the attitude you show on the pitch,” he reveals. “For me it was important to improve my body language.
“He is very unique, Van Gaal. For me he was very important because I was young. He just finished my formation as a footballer. Defensively I was not so strong and I learned a lot about this and tactics and also about personality, because he likes players with personality.”
No Dutch team outside the traditional big three of Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV Eindhoven had won the title in 28 years before Van Gaal’s AZ achieved the feat, with the backing of Dirk Scheringa, owner of DSB Bank. “He had a lot of money [and built a] new stadium, new training complex,” Pocognoli remembers. “They bought a lot of young players which was good for the philosophy because Van Gaal liked to work with young players.”
AZ actually finished 11th in Pocognoli’s first season after which he and his team-mates had to persuade Van Gaal to stay on an extra year. They then began the 2008-09 campaign with two defeats but subsequently went 28 games unbeaten on their way to the title.
“With Van Gaal you have to be patient with the system he wants the players to learn,” he continues. “We had a lot of new players and the philosophy was very difficult to learn. He expects a lot and all the time in training [he is] in your face. Sometimes you think ‘OK, I will show him’, sometimes ‘Oh, he doesn’t like me’. But it’s not that – he is trying to push you and if you understand that, it’s no problem. In the second year we were more mature. We’d learned a lot from the previous year and we were ready.”
He expects the same to happen with United. “It will take time, yes, because it is very hard for the players to learn that,” he says. “If he receives the time I am sure he will get great results.” But not, he hopes, at the Hawthorns tonight.Reuse content