From the moment Paris Saint-Germain appointed Mauricio Pochettino to the moment they walked away with a 1-1 draw against Saint-Etienne since then the air around the club has felt very surreal. Not wrong or right, just surreal although that may be more down to the fact that this just feels weird.
This has nothing to do with Pochettino himself but more to do with the fact that this mix just feels very weird especially given what PSG want to do. And they’ve made absolutely no qualms about it with their entire project screaming out the facts. From “we want the Champions League” to “we want to be Kings of Europe” with a hint of “we want to be the greatest football club that ever lived or ever will be."
They’ve made no effort to hide that at all with world record moves for Neymar and Kylian Mbappe after a combination of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani failed to do the trick. And it worked, nearly with the abject finishing letting them down in that Champions League final against Bayern Munich. Because for those claiming Bayern dominated that game, they didn’t but what the Bavarians did do was take the chance that PSG handed to them and turned it into a simple goal for Kinglsey Coman.
The rest is as they say history but for PSG, it meant failure in their first-ever attempt at a Champions League final. Few clubs win their first-ever attempt at a Champions League final with Juventus, Barcelona and AC Milan all failing at that first attempt. Even Marseille, the only French side to win a Champions League trophy, failed it the first time they tried with Red Star beating them on penalties.
That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been done, with Real Madrid and Liverpool, according to Transfermarkt, winning it the first time they reached the final. But technically, if you want to be pedantic about it, Liverpool lost their first attempt at a European crown when they lost to Borussia Dortmund in the UEFA Cup Winners Cup final. Real Madrid, on the other hand, went another way altogether as they won their first five attempts at the Champions League (European Champions Clubs’ Cup) and then lost two finals in six years.
Then they embarked on a 31-year drought in the Champions League, although they did make two Cup Winners Cup finals but lost both. See the point? Very few win Europe’s top club competition in their first go and if you do manage it, keeping up the challenge is tougher than it looks. But in the age of instant gratification, results must be had especially after the money he has been spent.
It is why Frank Lampard and Chelsea are under such immense pressure right now and the same cannot be said for any other club across Europe. Arsenal and Mikel Arteta went through a torrid period but things were never this bad with the same going for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United, Pep Guardiola at Manchester City and even Hansi Flick at Bayern Munich. But for Thomas Tuchel, the same problems saw him get sacked, a mere seventeen league games into the season.
And it has very little to do with his ability to coach because Thomas Tuchel is a fine coach in his own right and nothing proves it more than PSG’s performances over the last few years. But even then, Tuchel was never really the greatest fit at the club and he said it himself, “Am I still a manager or am I a politician in sport, a minister for sports?” and on the eve of his sacking no less. However, the German also had a problem with Leonardo, the Sporting Director, especially with the influence he had over the other board members.
Because for all his faults at Borussia Dortmund, Tuchel worked his magic in Paris and left Mauricio Pochettino a streetwise team that is versatile enough to attack any possible challenge. Not just that, he also left Pochettino an example and it’s what makes this appointment a weird one. Because for PSG, this appointment does two things; one it convinces Neymar and Kylian Mbappe that they’re serious about building a team for the future.
And two, by appointing a coach as well revered as Pochettino, PSG show that French football has the lure to attract the best. And yet, you ask, what does this do for the Argentine? It brings him back to his former club, it hands him the tools to thrive and maybe even finally win a trophy but the pressure that PSG put on their coaches is back-breaking. And as Tuchel aptly put it, this is a team where being a manager feels more like a “sports politician” which makes Pochettino’s job even tougher.
His German predecessor failed to deal with that pressure while trying to win a Champions League and play effective football while accommodating both Neymar and Mbappe. And whether he likes it or not, or whether he is prepared for it or not, Mauricio Pochettino will face the same problems and for someone who is as good at helping teams dream bigger, this is a doozy. Not that he hasn’t had problems in the past but at both Southampton and Tottenham, he took over teams that never expected much.
Nigel Adkins left the Saints three points above the relegation zone while at Tottenham, Poch walked into a mess created by Tim Sherwood and Andre Villas-Boas. But no matter how weird this smells, there is that aching feeling at the back of your head. The one that never stops itching and irritating you, that makes us believe that Pochettino could actually do this. That if there was one manager who actually got what Neymar and Kylian Mbappe need to survive and thrive, it’s Diego Armando Maradona’s former roommate.
Moise Kean has scored 8 league goals in a season for the first time in his career.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) January 6, 2021
Paris Saint-Germain’s first goal under Mauricio Pochettino. pic.twitter.com/KRn1enN8Aa
If there was ever someone who understood why Neymar needs to host a six-hundred plus six-day Christmas party in a global pandemic, it’s Ronaldinho’s former teammate. And if there was ever someone to transform this team into something beyond their current levels, it’s the man who made Harry Kane into the superstar he is today. But make no mistake, this cannot be a short-term project with one goal, it has to be rather a long-term project with one goal especially given the state that this PSG team is in.
Sure, they have two of the best players in the world and a few others but this isn’t a team balanced enough to win that elusive trophy. There are pieces of it lying about but perhaps with a better midfield and a slightly more solid defense, this could very well be a team that transforms the European football landscape. And that will be Mauricio Pochettino’s ultimate trick, making Neymar and Kylian Mbappe buy into not just his method of a team but into the collective as a whole.
It will be, indubitably, his greatest trick and biggest challenge but even then, it may not be enough.