Pochettino and Pencil Cases


I have supported Tottenham Hotspur since I was 4 yrs old, and in that time they have wavered from also-rans to jostling with glory in the FA Cup to relegation. Their regular underachievement has helped remind me of my own humanity. As West Brom is to Frank Skinner and Adrian Chiles, so Spurs have been to me in my teaching career. Down the years Yr11 boys would, on a chilly Monday at break time call across a cold wet playground “Unlucky yesterday sir!” and that spirit of compassionate, slightly downbeat camaraderie has often aligned me with them. Sometimes sulking helps.

Possession is one tenth of the law.
But something has utterly changed. Spurs fortunes have transformed this season and they are on the verge of doing something ridiculously successful. They are not immune from snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, but it really looks like they might do it. So what has happened? A lazy conclusion one could draw would be that they have two or three class players at last in Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Moussa Dembele. But the truth has to be different: the evidence shows that over the years even when they have had great partnerships in the same team; Ardiles & Villa, Hoddle & Crooks, Gilzean & Chivers they have never quite reached expectations. But this year the Spurs coach Pochettino has done something monumental and yet simple which is way beyond bringing in big-name players. Added to this, and incredibly, ten of the last 18 England debutantes have grown through Pochettino’s coaching philosophy, at Spurs and at his previous club Southampton. He is doing something special. Sometimes the most effective transformations come from simple ideas.

If you could distil success in football down to one key variable, it would be possession. A quick look at the correlation between possession stats in the English Premiership shows that 5 of the top 8 teams have the best possession figures. Roughly the same picture emerges across italian Serie A and La Liga in Spain. 

So then presumably possession is the number one ingredient to successful football teams. Retaining possession for around 56% of the match means that the opposition have less time on the ball and obviously, less time to score. The exception in the Premiership of course is Leicester, with their twin pairing of Mahrez and Vardy who rely on speed and attack on the break, rather than through a slow, possession build- up.  The evidence suggests that with Barcelona (the most successful club in years) at the top of the European possession league at 62% then this assertion is true. Pep Guardiola, the former Barca coach must have distilled the essentials of this approach to perfection. But of course there is more to it than that. Barcelona use an ABAC passing structure (eg. Xavi to Messi, back to Xavi then onto Neymar), which separates them from other clubs with similar high profile players (who more often use an ABCD routine). So not random possession but a carefully planned structure, which breaks through defences. The Spanish national team has dominated world football for years, and has changed football into a game that is less about brilliant attacking play and more about patience, avoiding mistakes, and making certain that mathematics ensures you cannot lose. (bear with me if you have a football allergy – there is method in my madness)

Pep Guardiola is the most wanted manager in the world and will soon move to Manchester City, the fifth richest club in the world according to Forbes’ rankings (Barcelona is second to Real Madrid). Clearly great coaches don’t come cheap. Of course this knowledge is not new. A brief look at the Spanish ‘tiki taka’ style of close touch possession football, shows that these simple concepts were built on the ‘Coerver’ method of Dutch football which emerged through the 1970s through Feyenoord and Ajax and which the Dutch master Johan Cruyff brought to Barcelona.pep

This also influenced the way that young children were coached across Britain over the last 20 years, my boys among them. Less physical, less Wimbledon 1990s long ball; more of a two-touch, non-contact possession game. And so great young coaches like Mauricio Pochettino are borrowing this knowledge, from Cruyff and Guardiola before him, and harnessing it to their advantage. I watched from the Hawthorns stands before Christmas as Moussa Dembele utterly controlled the Spurs – West Brom match  dominating possession in the middle and yet only achieving a draw. Sometimes the means do not always achieve the ends, but in creating the conditions for teams to become more reliably successful, coaches have taken some of the randomness out of the game. Great coaches develop predictable success.

Knowing that we never stay still for long, and that after half term I wanted to see another real hike in expectations at school, I decided to go and see an example of what constitutes success in education.

I went to Magna Academy in Poole four weeks ago. Sometimes disparaging comparisons between education and football management are made, but in this instance I was looking to see what simple truths & techniques the head coach/headteacher had distilled in order to springboard a school from special measures to outstanding within three years. There were many very robust and incisive approaches to tracking data and creating much more ambitious flightpaths for children the moment they arrive in year seven now that key Stage 3 is dead. Teaching was clearly changing lives. But three of the key drivers for this transformation had been:

  • Equipping all students with full pencil cases where the majority of children receive the Pupil Premium
  • Students moving in silence around the academy (while all staff stand on duty), and
  • Teachers controlling the first five minutes of each lesson with silent starters.

Establishing a baseline of behaviour routines has meant for staff that this is a joyous place to teach, has taken much of the behaviour management stress away from teachers (at a time when we are reminded daily that teachers are leaving the profession), and equally importantly has meant that children are thriving in a calm environment of exploratory, high class learning. Children at Magna Academy are now competing with the two grammar schools in Poole for progress and even for overall attainment.
Like Poole, Gloucester is a city where for years the status quo has permitted a small number of underperforming state schools to wane while the grammars and high performing state schools remain in pole position, seemingly in glorious isolation.Two weeks ago, the next step change in expectations happened at Gloucester Academy and it is that perfect combination of the trilogy of right equipment, quiet movement between lessons and perfect, silent starters which have transformed learning in the last two weeks. No excuses about equipment save hundreds of minutes each week. Our regular nudges in our schools demonstrate a desire to want our children to receive and benefit from the kind of ethos, behaviour and quality of teaching that formerly only existed in a few schools. Can this culture change that schools embracing such ‘no excuses’ transformations create social mobility? Of course it can.

It has brought greater consistency without destroying the individuality of each teacher and it has allowed students to thrive in their learning. It creates predictable success because it supports the least experienced teacher in the building. The feedback from children has been immense, and teachers describe how much more enjoyable it is not giving out equipment and being able to focus on the essentials of good quality instruction for well-equipped, well-organised students right from the outset of each lesson.
What are the things that will have the greatest impact for the least input? In sport and in schools learning from great coaches and leaders can sometimes help us distil and simplify what are essentially complex organisations in order to find simple and clear nudges which can yield surprising results. Pochettino has learnt this for Spurs and increasingly I am learning this for GA.

One thought on “Pochettino and Pencil Cases

  1. I’m a supply teacher & when I’m asked, as I often am, for a pencil-sharpener, rubber, ruler, biro etc. I hand one over whilst repeating the mantra, “The secret of success in life is a well-stocked pencil-case. What is the secret of success in life?” So I applaud the decision to invest in supplying them for less well-off pupils. When I ran an after-school languages club at my local primary school I used to get asked, “Can I take this worksheet home and finish it, please? And can I take the pencil too, because we haven’t got any at home.” Tragic.


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