Emery exposing extent of Ten Hag and Pochettino’s failings

Unai Emery knows better than most the suffocating pressure that comes with managing some of the biggest clubs in Europe, so the Aston Villa coach will know perfectly well what Mauricio Pochettino and Erik ten Hag are enduring at Chelsea and Manchester United respectively.

Two of the Premier League’s most successful clubs, who have each reached three Champions League finals in the past 15 years, have become the definition of dysfunction. Both clubs have made a habit of tarnishing the reputations of some of the most respected coaches in football before paying them off and hiring another big name and repeating the process. But when a team is failing, it is ultimately because of the coach. They either get a grip of the squad and how it performs or they don’t. Emery is doing that at Villa, but neither Pochettino nor Ten Hag are succeeding in their roles.

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When results and performances don’t meet with expectations at the top clubs, coaches can — and do — find plenty of mitigating factors and excuses to justify the failure to meet expectations. It can be injuries, poor recruitment, bad luck with refereeing decisions. In Chelsea’s case, Pochettino could argue he has too many new players attempting to settle in — he even called for more signings in January after Sunday’s 2-0 defeat at Everton — while Ten Hag could point to his United squad being overloaded with inadequate players who have been there for too long.

Emery endured the coach’s nightmare of losing control of his position at both Paris Saint-Germain and Arsenal, each time suffering a combination of unsatisfactory results and an inability to successfully deal with high-profile players. But the four-time Europa League winner is now enjoying an exciting renaissance at Villa. Perhaps the 52-year-old has learned from his bruising experience at Arsenal, where he lasted 18 months, with Villa now reaping the rewards. But as James Olley’s report on Emery’s time at the Emirates highlighted, it was a failure to communicate properly with players and staff, tactical confusion and an inability to pick a settled side that combined to accelerate his departure in November 2019.

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Pochettino and Ten Hag are both making similar mistakes at Chelsea and United right now. That is bad enough for their job prospects, but what is making the situation worse for both is that Emery has taken Villa from being midtable also-rans into the top four in the space of 12 months. The Spanish coach has arguably done so with an inferior squad, and certainly with fewer resources, and his success is shining a harsh light on the failings of his counterparts at Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford.

What Emery is achieving at Villa is an example of how a coach can grip a team and transform its fortunes in a positive fashion. The opposite is happening at Chelsea and United. Top coaches simply find a way to overcome the obstacles in their way. Emery is doing that at Villa with largely the same squad that was heading for relegation last year under Steven Gerrard, but United and Chelsea are lurching from one crisis to another because their respective coaches are creating problems for themselves in already difficult circumstances.



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Chelsea lost 2-1 at United last week on a night when Pochettino selected the out-of-form left-back Marc Cucurella on the other side of the defence. That poor selection led to United dominating that flank through Alejandro Garnacho until Cucurella was withdrawn at half-time. Similarly, Ten Hag selected the right-footed central defender Victor Lindelöf at left-back in the 3-0 derby defeat against Manchester City earlier this season, despite having the specialist left-back Sergio Reguilón fit and on the substitutes’ bench. With both Cucurella and Lindelof, the coaches made an inexplicable selection decision which backfired, at the same time as eroding the confidence of the players in their manager.

Perhaps they were only small issues, but both Pochettino and Ten Hag have made other selection errors and each one creates a sense of confusion and doubt. They have shown too much faith in Nicolas Jackson and Anthony Martial, neither has been prepared to drop their own error-prone goalkeeper and they both continue to fail to resolve defensive problems that have led to each side losing seven of their 16 Premier League games so far this season.

For two coaches with such top-level experience, both domestically and in the Champions League, Pochettino and Ten Hag have been unable to instil the basic principles of good defending and organisation into their teams. So while players at both clubs can rightly be blamed for under-performing, it ultimately comes back to the coach.

It is the coach who picks the team, devises the tactics, works with players on the training ground and supposedly motivates and cajoles them. Sir Alex Ferguson ticked those boxes while guiding United to the title in his final season at the club in 2012-13. The following season, with the same group of players, David Moyes was fired after 10 months in charge because United trailed in seventh. One manager did everything right, the other did pretty much everything wrong, but that’s how it works with coaches. Emery has done the trick in reverse by inspiring Gerrard’s failing players into the title race at Villa.

So for all of the mitigating factors, a team is usually only as effective as the coach who is charged with making it win, and that is why Pochettino and Ten Hag are failing.


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