Mauricio Pochettino might have the greatest front three ever assembled in football and could want to walk away to take charge of a club who conceded four at Watford. He cannot admit it in public but he may hope to leave a side with an 11-point lead in their league and who rank among the favourites to win the Champions League for one level on points with Brighton and whose defensive record is better only than Norwich’s and Newcastle’s. Pochettino’s visit to Manchester this week could feel a case of unfortunate timing: Manchester City beckon for him on Wednesday, but the longer-term destination could be Manchester United.
Pochettino may spend a couple of days smilingly deflecting questions but long before Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign at Old Trafford imploded, there was the sense the Argentinian and PSG were a distinctly imperfect fit. He is proof that not every ex-player is injected with his old employers’ DNA. In due course, it may become apparent it was never his dream job to manage Paris Saint-Germain, for whom he played 95 times two decades ago when, to all intents and purposes, they were a different club.
But there can be a paradoxical feel to Pochettino. He won more trophies in his first three games in charge of PSG than in his five-and-a-half years at Tottenham, but his great feats came with the Londoners. He took Spurs into uncharted territory by reaching the Champions League final. Win Ligue Un and he will follow in the footsteps of Carlo Ancelotti, Laurent Blanc, Unai Emery and Thomas Tuchel. Had he won the Champions League with Tottenham, it would have been his crowning achievement. Win it with PSG and it would be theirs.
Because the club of Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar feel the anti-Pochettino team. He described them as “the three kings” in an interview last week. His Tottenham had few regal pretensions as a side with humble origins – Harry Kane as the serial loanee, Dele Alli in League One with MK Dons – set out to outrun everyone.
Now a manager who believes in a concept of universal energy has a front three who prefer to expend as little energy as possible out of possession. He is the great believer in the pressing game who has a trio who prefer not to press. And so, instead of a collective commitment, there can be a sharp division of responsibilities: PSG’s September win over City stemmed from the workhorses Ander Herrera and Idrissa Gueye doing the defensive running for the static superstars.
Pochettino may be comfortable in the company of the greats, the former team-mate of Diego Maradona and Ronaldinho who has gone on to manage three of the iconic players in the modern game (and, if he should take over at United, will inherit a fourth, in Cristiano Ronaldo) but he is also the Marcelo Bielsa disciple. “Running is everything,” Bielsa once said. Pochettino’s mentor can seem to dislike indulged individuals – he exiled Juan Roman Riquelme from the Argentina team, not wanting a specialist No.10 when he could have a team with more universality – and if the PSG manager is more flexible, he is another career coach who moulds and improves players. He made stars at Tottenham, but he rarely bought them.
Now he is at a club where impatience feels institutionalised; Tuchel was sacked a few months after a Champions League final, whereas Pochettino feels more a man in search of a project. PSG have an intrusive sporting director, in Leonardo, whereas Pochettino is one of the relatively small band of managers who can be trusted to run a club. It was revealing that he seemed tempted to return to Tottenham in the summer.
His ethos is scarcely identical to United’s, with their own fixation with big names, their image of themselves as the footballing Hollywood and their own rather immobile ageing legend, but long before Solskjaer’s fortunes nosedived there was the sense that Pochettino and PSG was a marriage of convenience, and that it wouldn’t be too long before one or other decided it was becoming inconvenient.
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