Mauricio Pochettino finesses a full lockdown beard as he Zooms in from his north London home, whites and greys vying for prominence, but everything else is reassuringly familiar, as though he were still sitting behind that long desk at Tottenham’s training base, elevated on stage, answering questions at his weekly press briefing.
There is the warmth and big-heartedness, the mischief, the machismo, the patented ability to blow his own trumpet in a matter-of-fact kind of way. There is the emotion, the extravagant rambling, the flirting with potential suitors. And, of course, there are the anecdotes, the ones that hook and enthral.
The best is about José Mourinho, the manager who took his job at Spurs last November and who, by extension, Pochettino might feel a little resentment towards. “No,” he exclaims. “Look, with José, we know each other for a long time.” And then Pochettino is back to his Espanyol days, when he was starting out in management, and Mourinho was in charge at Real Madrid.
There were stories in the Spanish media that Pochettino could be on Madrid’s radar if Mourinho were to leave. It was on the eve of an Espanyol v Real game and, when Pochettino was asked about them at the pre-match press conference, he shrugged them off while adding that “my kids are sleeping in Espanyol pyjamas every night so it’s very difficult for me to think about changing clubs”.
Mourinho picked up on that and was waiting with a present when Pochettino arrived at the stadium. “It was a very nice bottle of French red wine for me and two Real Madrid kits,” Pochettino says. “José says: ‘OK, these are for your kids to wear from now on.’ We have kept a good relationship since then and I am so happy he is at Tottenham, replacing me. I am happy as well to have left the club in the condition that we left it and for sure he is very grateful for the way that we helped to build the club, which is now his club.”
Pochettino, though, has a confession. He might not have told Mourinho this or admitted it in that press conference but the stories got him thinking. “I always think I’d replace him,” Pochettino says. “He was at Real Madrid. I say: ‘Oh, maybe one day I can take your place at Real Madrid,’ but look at how life works out. He has taken my place at Tottenham. Unbelievable, eh?”
Everything is upside down at the moment and Pochettino must rationalise how he has gone from leading Spurs to last season’s Champions League final, losing against Liverpool, to spending the past six months out of work. He still says the 2-0 defeat in Madrid, which was sparked by the concession of a penalty inside the first minute, is “difficult to accept”.
“We were much better than Liverpool and maybe we deserved a better result but finals are about winning,” Pochettino adds. “It’s not about to deserve or not to deserve. No one is prepared to concede in the Champions League final like we did after 30 seconds and that changed everything, all the emotions. It is difficult to prepare a team for that happening. I was so disappointed afterwards. It was difficult to stop crying, to stop feeling bad.”
Teams lose massive games. It happens. Liverpool had lost the previous season’s final to Real and it inspired them to dig deeper. But each team have their own story, their own cycle and, for Pochettino, this was more than a defeat. He had convinced himself during a richly stimulating three-week buildup that Spurs were going to win but he had spent five years gearing up for this moment, getting his club to this point. When it all came crashing down, the salvage operation felt too onerous.
“I knew that after five years at the club and with the way we were working and all the things that happened, it was going to be difficult,” Pochettino says. “It changed a little bit in our minds the possibility to stay open to design another plan or a strategy to build again, a different chapter. A different project should be difficult for us to maintain, to keep improving.”
It is easy to feel that the scars from the Liverpool game will never heal for Pochettino but he has made his peace with the decision of the Spurs chairman, Daniel Levy, to dismiss him after he lurched through the early months of this season. Did any part of him wish the final had been his last match?
“No, because my commitment with the club, with Daniel and, of course, with the players and the fans was massive,” Pochettino says. “I said to Daniel that we finished in the way that no one wanted but the end … it needed to happen. If not, our relationship will continue for ever! And maybe that’s no good for the club or for us. When the decision came, we needed to move on. The decision for us to be hired was fantastic and when the decision is not good for you, you need to show the respect. Always, Daniel is going to be my friend. All the people at the club will be.”
Pochettino has found his life paused – and not only because of the Covid-19 pandemic. This has been his first break since January 2013, when he joined Southampton, and he has used it to review, refine and reach out. He says he has had numerous conversations with football people he respects, including Mourinho and Unai Emery, who was sacked by Arsenal 10 days after Pochettino left Tottenham.
“Before the pandemic, me and Jesús [Pérez, his former assistant at Spurs] met with Unai for a coffee, to talk and share our experiences,” Pochettino says. “We were working in different clubs, we were at the enemy, and people were walking past and saying: ‘Unai and Pochettino and Jesús are now sharing a coffee!’ It was in Cockfosters [in north London]. It was very funny.
“It has been an amazing time to review and analyse everything: training sessions, games, our methodology, our models of training … to design specific and collective works. And, of course, to try to adapt for the new normality, to be ready for any eventuality, because the demands are going to be completely different. We are looking forward for the next job. Football is very dynamic and you need to be ready for the moment when the offer appears. We are ready. After six months, our tanks are completely full.”
Pochettino, whose Spurs gardening leave finished on Tuesday, dreams of “the perfect club, the perfect project”. He wants to aim high, he has earned the right to be choosy and his preference would be to stay in England. He says his family is settled in London, where his older son, Sebastiano, has a steady girlfriend. His younger son, Maurizio, who turned 19 in March, is a winger at the Spurs academy.
“I’m very open to wait for the seduction of the project rather than the country,” Pochettino says. “It’s about the club and, of course, the people, the human dimension. We are so open. Of course, we love England and the Premier League. I still think the Premier League is the best league in the world. It’s one of the options and, of course, it can be my priority but I am not closed to move to a different country. At the moment, my idea is to stay here, live in London – myself and my family. It’s going to be difficult [to take a job in another country] but not impossible.”
What does Pochettino’s perfect project look like? In short, he does not know or cannot say because “it’s difficult to assess from the outside, it’s difficult to measure the capacity of a club, the players and the squad until some club approaches you and you start to talk. Also, there is the pace of the project [to consider].”
But does Pochettino feel his next club ought to be in the elite bracket, one that will challenge for and win trophies? “We are going to live a completely different era in football that we need to discover,” he says. “How are these clubs or companies, because that’s what they are, going to be after this virus hopefully disappears? It’s a big question mark.
“That’s why it’s so difficult to know what project is going to be the right project. We are a coaching staff that are very receptive to listen to all the projects, all the people. We can learn from every single conversation and maybe we can see a motivation to go with them.”
Pochettino is proud of what he achieved at Spurs. He remembers when he first met Levy and the Spurs owner, Joe Lewis, on the latter’s yacht in Nice. “It was the old boat,” Pochettino says, with a smile. “It was the first and last time that he received me on his boat. Never again was I invited. But at that meeting before we accepted the job, they were very clear about what success would be over a five-year period.”
He was challenged to prepare the team to compete for a top-four finish while working with limited transfer funds as the club focused on building the new stadium. Instead, he finished third, second, third and fourth in seasons two to five, wildly exceeding expectations. And yet the lack of trophies became a stick with which to beat him.
Pochettino wants to win trophies, he always has done, but it frustrates him that the critics do not factor in matters such as a club’s relative means before making black-or-white judgments. He also cannot resist pointing out that Sir Alex Ferguson and Michael Jordan did not win championships until their seventh seasons at Manchester United and the Chicago Bulls respectively.
“Look at [Claudio] Ranieri,” Pochettino says. “He won his first title at Leicester when he was nearly at the end of his career. People can say he wasn’t a successful coach but … [he is]. The problem is that we are not a coaching staff that started at Bayern Munich. If you do that, it’s completely different to if you start at Nürnberg, with all respect to Nürnberg.
“If we talk like this then 90% of coaches in the world are losers. Coaches are not thinking only about winning titles. There are many other things around. You find the motivation and capacity to choose the right project. People can measure successful people in different ways.”
Pochettino spoke to Levy last week as he prepared to sever his professional ties with Spurs, mainly to thank him for trusting in him back in 2014. “I also joked with him: ‘Oh, you signed me because the manager you liked at that time, [Louis] van Gaal, chose to go to Manchester United,’” he says, with another big smile.
What Pochettino wants is for somebody else to show faith in him and, more generally, for football to put its best foot forward. “As football people, we need to give an example with our behaviour,” he says. “Obviously, we feel the pain for how the pandemic has affected people – with Pep Guardiola, for example. I sent him a message after his mum passed away.
“But with all the protocols that the clubs are going to implement, football is going to be a very safe place. It’s going to help the people to look forward. We can’t stop life. And not only that, we have a responsibility to the business.
“We need to be brave now and face the situation. Football is the happiness of the people and once there is football on TV a lot of people change their energy. It’s going to be a massive effort from the players and the staff but it’s similar to the effort of the people who are working – the NHS, people in the supermarket, the pharmacy, on the farms providing us with food. We need to show solidarity.”