The Mauricio Pochettino era at PSG began with a 1-1 draw in Saint-Étienne on Wednesday night. A slip from Idrissa Gueye allowed Romain Hamouma to dink Les Verts into an early lead before Moise Kean, thanks to a smart reverse ball from Marco Verratti, equalised a few minutes later. The second half was a thrilling, open and even affair and, with PSG surprisingly porous at times, both sides came close to a winner. Faced with an open Ligue 1, a freewheeling and unerring Lyon, uncertainty in the transfer market, a hectic schedule and a side lacking an identity, Pochettino’s challenge may be greater than many expected.
Unlike his successful spells with Tottenham and Southampton, Pochettino will have to deal with different expectations in Paris. Whereas Spurs and Saints’ intense style drew praise as both clubs punched above their weight, Pochettino will not be afforded the same luxury in France. PSG must win Ligue 1. Despite this season’s competitiveness, winning the league title traditionally draws little more than a collective shrug from the press, board and fans. Carlo Ancelotti, Laurent Blanc and Thomas Tuchel all did it without much fuss.
Pochettino will be plunged into the often baffling world of PSG politics. Tuchel’s mismanagement of his relationship with sporting director Leonardo and club bosses effectively led to his removal. “Am I still a manager or am I a politician in sport, a minister for sports?” asked Tuchel the day before his sacking. “At its heart, I love the game and I can get this satisfaction in many ways as a manager… I only love football. And in a club like this, it is not always just football.” Pochettino is likely to be more agreeable than Tuchel, whose repeated outbursts over recruitment infuriated the PSG hierarchy, but he may yet be driven to distraction.
The French press have long reported that Leonardo wanted to hire former Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri to succeed Tuchel. However, Le Parisien claimed this week that it was the Emir of Qatar who identified Pochettino as the club’s new coach. Leonardo began as Tuchel’s ally, carefully managing Neymar’s proposed move back to Barcelona and playing bad cop on squad discipline, but their public disagreements over transfers ultimately forced the two apart. Pochettino will need to be cautious.
Pochettino’s handling of relationships will also be tested by a group of players too who, despite reported frustrations over Tuchel’s deference to the squad’s South American contingent, had been far happier under him than Emery or Blanc – as Kylian Mbappé’s message of thanks to Tuchel on Instagram underlined. “It is sadly the law of football,” wrote Mbappé. “Nobody will forget your time here. You wrote a wonderful part of the club’s history and I say to you thank you coach.”
As he showed at Spurs, Pochettino can inspire fierce trust and loyalty in his players – a skill that will be crucial in Paris. “As soon as I met him… a relationship of trust was born,” Spurs keeper Hugo Lloris told L’Équipe in 2017. When Pochettino was sacked by Spurs in November 2019, Harry Kane wrote on social media: “Gaffer. I’ll be forever thankful to you for helping me achieve my dreams. We’ve had some amazing moments in the last five and a half years that I will never forget. You were my manager but my friend as well and I thank you for that relationship.”
Even if Pochettino is able to quell forces beyond the pitch and rally his players like he did in London, Champions League success is still all the truly matters in Paris. Pochettino’s only real task is to mould a team capable of beating the club’s European peers over two legs in knockout ties. In a decade of Qatari ownership, PSG have never beaten a true European heavyweight in the final stages of the competition. Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Manchester United and Manchester City are undefeated against PSG in knockout rounds in that time. If PSG are to be considered one of Europe’s premier clubs, Pochettino needs to change that.
He will face many of the same challenges as Tuchel. PSG face a hectic run of games. Unlike their title rivals Lyon, Marseille and Rennes, they have to worry about European commitments, with a last-16 tie against Barcelona beginning next month. Recruitment may be problematic too. Although QSI’s support means PSG are unlikely to face the same dire financial troubles as other clubs in the league, who are suffering due the ongoing Covid-19 and TV rights crises, they are still affected. FFP also remains a concern. For now, the customary mammoth signings are unlikely, making Pochettino’s talent for working with what he has (Spurs famously went a year without a permanent signing) and overtly improving his players paramount to any success.
While Tuchel did well to mould a more versatile and streetwise outfit, Pochettino will also need to drive evolution at the Parc des Princes, explaining upon the announcement of his signature that he would “do the maximum to give this team a combative and attacking playing style identity.” Deciphering Neymar’s role is a pressing concern, as it was for Tuchel, with the Brazilian playing on the left, as a false nine and as a No 10 recently. “We are going to have to figure out in which position he performs best,” Pochettino explained. “I don’t like talking about the system. It is about initiating moves, how a team behaves without the ball.”
“Stop laughing. Train!” Mauricio Pochettino was heard shouting at PSG players this week and that may become an apt mantra for his reign. He has the skill to lead the club to their promised land but many challenges remain. A league title, a domestic treble and a Champions League final in two seasons was not good enough for Tuchel. As the shaky display against Saint-Étienne shows, Pochettino’s own threshold for success is a long way off.
Ligue 1 results
• After just two cup appearances on the Arsenal bench since his €30m move from Saint-Étienne in 2019, William Saliba is back in France. Loaned to Nice for six months initially, the 19-year-old defender already has more minutes in his Les Aiglons career than at the Emirates after starting in Wednesday night’s 2-0 loss at Brest. Following the sacking of Patrick Vieira, Nice are in desperate need of defensive reinforcements, with captain Dante out for the season with a knee injury. Saliba desperately needs playing time and 2021 could be crucial for his development.
• After 10 years without a coaching role and 28 years away from club management, Raymond Domenech began his spell as Nantes coach with a creditable goalless draw against fierce local rivals Rennes on Wednesday. A decade on from the infamous strike at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa as part of a disastrous France exit, vilified in the aftermath and scoffed at for his use of astrology, it was assumed Domenech’s career was over. However, combustible Nantes president Waldimir Kita unexpectedly hired the now 68-year-old to keep a poor squad, who are without a win in eight games in Ligue 1. Domenech is jovial, eccentric and often contrarian, so his reign will be entertaining. Whether or not it will be successful is another matter.