THE WORST kept secret in European football became reality as Mauricio Pochettino took the plunge and joined Paris Saint-Germain on an 18-month contract.
Why 18 months (with an option for a further year), you might ask, is there not enough confidence in the deal to give the former Tottenham manager a longer-term contract?
Let’s face it, PSG managers are not there for the long haul, Thomas Tuchel lasted 127 games, slightly more than Unai Emery (114) and less than Laurent Blanc (177). Carlo Ancelotti only managed 77 before taking the train out of Gare Du Nord.
The last three appointments made by PSG are interesting, though. They have not hired coaches with lengthy honours lists, managers who might have had their best days, but in Emery, Tuchel and now Pochettino, they have gone for men seemingly on the way up and eager to make the next step. Before moving to Paris, Tuchel had won just one German Cup, while Pochettino has yet to win a major prize, although he has gone close twice. Emery won three Europa Leagues with Sevilla and was then picked up by PSG. They have opted for slightly hungry men.
Of course, the prize that PSG’s owners covet is the UEFA Champions League and in 2019-20, they went close. If Tuchel had won the final against Bayern Munich, he may well have been given a long contract. But there was, apparently, friction for some time between the innovative German coach and the PSG suits. He had already told them he was leaving, although rumours that he was about to be sacked circulated for months. There was an underlying feeling that Tuchel was being undermined by players bypassing him and communicating with the club’s management.
The very least a PSG manager is expected to do is sweep-up at home, which the club has more or less achieved over the past decade. Only once since 2012-13 has the Ligue 1 title gone elsewhere, but in 2020-21, PSG are currently in third place, admittedly one point behind the leaders, Rennes, but they have already lost four games.
Not the end of the world, any reasonable person might ask, but PSG’s budget dwarfs the rest of Ligue 1, so the Qatari owners expect something that resembles value for money. Since 2012-13, they have spent € 1.2 billion in the transfer market and recouped € 439 million.
Perhaps it will help any PSG manager if the club’s king pawn, Neymar, played more games. Since joining the club in 2017, Neymar has only played 45% of PSG’s league games due to injury or unavailability. Interestingly, he has stayed fit enough for the UEFA Champions League and has turned out in 75%. This season, their other prize asset, Kylian Mbappé, has suffered from Covid-19 and a hamstring problem and there is talk of Real Madrid circling the 16th arrondissement on a regular basis waiting to snap-up the 22 year-old.
With or without Mbappe and Neymar, Pochettino will be expected to turn the league campaign around – not too difficult given the club’s resources – and also to have another stab at the Champions League. The problem is, PSG have to face Barcelona in the round of 16 and they didn’t cover themselves in glory in the group stage. Barca are having their own internal issues to solve and this could motivate Lionel Messi even more in his quest for one more Champions League winners’ medal. If PSG beat Barca, however, it might just push the Argentinian legend closer to a Parisian swansong. And this could be another reason for hiring Pochettino. How much easier would it be to prise an unhappy Messi away from Catalonia if it meant linking up with a compatriot coach?
PSG’s chairman, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, said all the right words when welcoming Pochettino back to the club, saying he “fits perfectly with our ambitions”, but they’ve been here before. Tuchel was “one of the best and most competitive European coaches to have emerged in the past few years”, while Emery had a proven talent to get the most out of the team. PSG, in Europe’s most romantic city, are only in love for a short while and the exit can be brutal. Tuchel was sacked after an in-depth analysis of the club’s sporting situation was undertaken. Surely, that is there for all to see, 24 x 7?
Pochettino is a fine, progressive and popular coach, but then each man who has taken over at PSG has done so with decent credentials in his back pocket. Ultimately, only one thing will count – winning the Champions League. Ancelotti, Blanc, Emery and Tuchel all failed. It’s going to be a testing 18 months for a manager who has yet to win a significant honour. The size of that challenge – and you get sacked even if you win things at PSG – might explain why a two or three year gig wasn’t on offer.
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