A look at Mauricio Pochettino’s rivalry with Pep Guardiola

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Sunday’s Premier League fixtures are headlined by Tottenham hosting Manchester City, a game where the pace-setters will be well tested by a Spurs outfit that have continued to find ways to win despite not always playing well. An interesting dynamic added to the contest this season is the continuation of a managerial rivalry that began back in 2009, when Mauricio Pochettino took over an Espanyol side who were primed for relegation.

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It was the Argentine’s bravery in his approach that shocked his players, who were days away from a Spanish cup derby with Barcelona, then managed by Pep Guardiola. Those were the days of Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol, Samuel Eto’o, Yaya Toure, Thierry Henry, and as you can see the list seems to go on forever. Needless to say, it was a treble winning side that played a brand of football under Guardiola that the football romantics of the world had fallen into a trance-like infatuation over. It was simply sensational.

Yet Pochettino had no time for cautious measures, such as deep defensive blocks to simply avoid embarrassment. “We had two training sessions in less than 12 hours and the players looked at me with the eyes like this,” says Pochettino, raising his eyebrows. “I said to them we need to play high pressing and one against one at the back. They thought it was impossible against Barcelona, but I said ‘No, it’s not impossible’.”

It becomes much easier to convince people about your theories when they become a reality, and a 0-0 result in the derby game might as well have been considered a victory for Pochettino’s Espanyol. It was the first game that Barcelona had failed to score in since the opening day of the season, and although the second leg went to Guardiola’s side 3-2, Pochettino had built the base for his ideology.

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Indeed, his players were on board with his plan, as two weeks later they handed Guardiola his first ever home defeat in La Liga when Espanyol won 2-1 at the Camp Nou. It was the club’s first derby win in 27 years. The manner of victory was courageous, as Espanyol continued to pressure Barcelona’s back four into making an error, rolling the dice in an all-or-nothing style that left chasms of space in-behind them. The dark arts of football were also needed, as Espanyol flew into tackles, harassed the referee to give the decisions their way and kill the flow of the game by staying down as long as possible when challenged.

Subjective opinions on their style of play aside, it worked. Espanyol went on to finish in 10th position, a respectable comeback from a side who were hovering in the relegation spots in January. The gulf in quality was always bound to catch up on him, though, as Guardiola would win three of the last four meetings between the sides, including 4-0 and 5-1 hammerings.

Pochettino’s methods against Barcelona reflect his history as an Espanyol defender who returned to the club as manager to bring them out of a difficult situation in an unapologetic, no-nonsense style. It remains to be seen whether such measures will be used on Sunday, as the two now manage clubs with nowhere near the gap in quality that was present between Barcelona and Espanyol. Though Mauricio Pochettino doesn’t seem to agree.

“It’s difficult to compare Spurs and Man City,” he says. “You can see the budget, the salaries they pay and compare with Tottenham and it’s very clear. They compare with United, Liverpool. We are in a project here and for that, Spurs is different.” It is hard to argue that fact, but Tottenham have been crafty enough to use other resources to build the squad, such as their academy, as finances are limited due to the building of the club’s new stadium.

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The two managers have a good relationship, both of them publicly stating their admiration of the other. Their will be no time for affection on Sunday, though, as Pochettino looks to improve on his one and only victory against Guardiola. The record sits at five wins for Guardiola, three draws and one win for Pochettino.

Pochettino hopes to hand returns to Eric Dier, Danny Rose, Mousa Dembele and Moussa Sissoko on Sunday, while Harry Kane sits out with an ankle injury. For Guardiola, he will be without Kevin de Bruyne, Vincent Kompany and Nolito, the latter of which is serving the last of his three match suspension.

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