In conversation with Guillem Balague: Mauricio Pochettino's Brave New World
Speaking exclusively to The Boot Room, Guillem Balague takes us behind the writing of his new book ‘Brave New World: Inside Pochettino’s Spurs’, released in October 2017.
Balague is the author of Messi, Barça, Pep Guardiola, A Season on the Brink, and Cristiano Ronaldo. A key fixture of Sky Sports’ coverage of Spanish football, he appears regularly both on live match coverage and on the weekly round-up show, Revista de la Liga.
Brave New World is an exclusive behind-the-scenes story of Mauricio Pochettino, from his early years as a player and coach to his transformation of Tottenham into a Premier League title contending side.
Balague was granted unique access to the Argentine head coach, his players and backroom staff for the duration of the 2016/17 campaign, allowing him to put together a captivating narrative that reveals the mechanics behind one of the world’s best managerial talents.
Brave New World is significantly different to your previous work, in the fact that it is written in a first person perspective, as if we’re hearing the ongoing thoughts of Mauricio Pochettino. What made you decide to publish the book in this style?
It wasn’t initially my idea, but when it was put to me I thought ‘why didn’t I think of this before?’. This was two years ago. I was convinced Pochettino was on the way up, because I had seen him when he was at Espanyol. I had to come up with a way of putting the book together that would keep me entertained, as you spend several years writing and promoting this kind of work. Once we started, I actually thought ‘why don’t we do a biography, written in the first person?’. This meant gathering all the information as if I was doing the other books, a normal biography, but then convert it into his words, as long as he is happy with the tone and with the things that have been said by others. I found difficulties. It had to be written as if it was his thoughts. Most of the effort once all the information had been collected was to put it in a tone that represented him, especially considering his English isn’t as good as the written version that has been published. Still, it had to sound like it was coming from him. Rightly or wrongly, that was the aim.
Over the two years researching and writing the book, you must have spent a huge amount of time with Pochettino, his players and coaching staff?
I was there very Monday. I went to press conferences on Thursdays and Fridays. I would finish with Sky at 12pm, then get the car to Spurs and be there for three, four or five hours. It depended. Sometimes it was to speak to him and the players, or to see training or talk to the coaching staff. A lot of the content that is there is what Karina [Pochettino’s wife] told us of the detail of the week, or stories of the past from what Miguel [D’Agostino] told me. Once or twice a week he would send me a file of around 12 and a half minutes. That is the time it takes him to drive from his house to the training ground. He would switch it on, talk, and switch it off when he arrived, before sending it over. Jesus [Perez] was crucial, because when I sat down to talk to Pochettino, it wasn’t to talk about what had happened in the last week, so much. It was mostly about how he thinks. The detail was given to me by Jesus, and then Karina added a lot of extra material, particularly around the ‘private Pochettino’.
You have gained a rare insight into Pochettino’s private life, thanks to his friends and wife Karina. What is he like away from the world of football?
Very similar. That is something that you do not find very often. Jose Mourinho, for instance, is very different – he does it on purpose. He has his fasade in front of the media, another mask in front of the players, and finally he is that funny guy who laughs at everyone else, including himself. Pochettino is the same guy. He is just doing a job. He is emotional, he is enthusiastic, funny. That is a thing that doesn’t come through with his English. I’m not sure what those who have only heard him speak English really think of him? Do they think he is a serious guy, with no sense of humour? They don’t see what he is really like. He is funny and a great story teller – a lot of Argentine’s are. You get that sense in the book. That is one of the main reasons I convinced him to do it, because I said to him ‘they see what you do, and they know it is special, but they don’t see how you do it and what your real influence is?’ He is all of that. He has a sense about people. He knows if he can have a good relationship with someone or not. He has that extra feeling towards people and he listens. That’s another thing. He takes a lot of people and players by surprise, because they are not used to being heard.
Is it that personality that has allowed Pochettino to get the best from a relatively young group of players at Tottenham?
No doubt. There is a lot of work behind it, obviously. Training sessions are very intense and detailed. There is a lot of analysis of players’ physical and mental state. There are a lot of hours put into 25 players, plus the stuff that he does for the academy. Imagine you and me, having a boss that knows everything about us. He tells you to write a book or an article. He tells you what he wants, and why he wants you to do it, and nobody else – why of all the possible writers or journalists in the world it is you he wants to hear from. It’s like ‘Ok!’. You give more. It is no secret that is something we all want in our profession and it works so effectively in football. He is making a lot of his players think very differently about the game, which is an eye opener. Hugo Lloris says Pochettino has changed his life, not just his understanding of the game. He thought that success was the titles that you win. Pochettino made him realise that if you give everything you have, everyday, you are successful. For example, a coach that works in League Two, who finishes 15th, but has given everything to his job and everything to his team, leaves nothing in reserve, he has been a successful guy. In this sense, Hugo has started thinking differently because of his influence.
You mentioned the work that he does with the academy – that is something you don’t often hear about as a supporter/journalist looking from the outside in. Can you tell us about the work he does with the youth players, is he very hands on?
He isn’t particularly hands on. He has brought in a vision, an idea, that isn’t considering age, but goes by what the player is giving him. Harry Kane was the first who arrived based on ‘I’ll give you a chance and if you take it, you keep it”. Once he does that, it sets a precedent for others to follow. For example, Harry Winks is the latest who has established himself as a first team regular. Pochettino allows head of the academy John McDermott to do his own thing as he is very trusting. He does with him what he does with his players, which is to allow them to do their job in order to fulfil the ‘big idea’. He watches the academy side regularly, at all ages. If a side is ever badly beaten – like they were last season – he will go and be there for them. John knows that by taking an under-18 to Pochettino’s office, those ten minutes will stay with that kid forever. So, he has a presence and he builds a bridge between the first team and the academy set-up. He isn’t hands on. He couldn’t be. He loves working with the kids, but he has enough on his plate with the first team.
Now, there is view that is Spurs do not start winning trophies, the likes of Harry Kane, Dele Alli etc will leave the club in search of silverware. Is this too simplistic?
If you have to write a narrative for a newspaper, what would be sexier? ‘Dele Alli and Harry Kane want to leave Tottenham to win titles’ or ‘Dele Alli and Harry Kane are progressing well and enjoying life at White Hart Lane’. The latter is boring. Who wants to read that? Especially considering the obsession with the transfer market. People want to know where they are going next. They want to know where they are going before the players are even aware themselves. What is the rush? People are not listening. Kane is saying, ‘I want to stay for the rest of my career’. I think he will eventually move to challenge himself, but not yet. I keep saying this. I’ve heard Eddie Jones, the England national rugby coach, say, ‘everyone wants to be a part of something special’. That is what Tottenham are creating. Pochettino knows that. Daniel Levy knows that. Harry Kane, Dele Alli and the rest of the players know that. They now realise that the grass is not greener – just by leaving they are not going to become happier. They are progressing and they are on the way up. Every year there is more. It is annoying that they do not have as much money as possible, but everyone knows the rules and the limits to where they currently are. Hopefully the new stadium brings in enough finance to allow them to challenge on all fronts. But quite clearly people are not listening, because I do not feel Spurs have become a selling club. Gareth Bale was the last big player that the club sold. After that, who have they lost having not wanted to sell? Ultimately, it is difficult to change narratives when the transfer market is involved.
You have received some really good reviews online. Have you had many positive comments from non-Spurs fans and has it been a far reaching book in terms of breaking down the barriers of club allegiance?
I didn’t know if it was going to be a good of a bad book. You never know that. You put your best efforts into it and you get very close. I always hoped readers wouldn’t see it solely as a Spurs book, because in my eyes it is a book about a person, and how he deals with other people. Obviously it is a book about football, but it can be applied to any other walk of life. It is a book about leadership. It opens the doors to a football world that is so closed. It has many layers. Non-Tottenham fans have agreed – it is about many other things – and I am very happy with that.
Brave New World: Inside Pochettino’s Spurs, by Guillem Balague, is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson and is out now. You buy yourself a copy here.