The date is etched in Mauricio Pochettino’s memory: November 19, 2019, two years to the day last Friday since he left Tottenham.
Now, Pochettino is not one of those cagey managers who hides his true feelings beneath a hard facade of emotional repression. He is shrewd in many respects but his heart might as well be emblazoned on his sleeve, like a minor shirt sponsor.
‘Of course now, it’s the 17th [November]’ he says, looking rueful on a Zoom call from Paris Saint-Germain’s training ground on Wednesday. ‘In two days it is the anniversary, the two years since we left Tottenham. It’s in my mind. It’s really painful.’
Mauricio Pochettino has given Sportsmail an insight into his new life with Paris Saint-Germain
It is like listening to a spurned lover who knows the precise time and date of a break-up from their partner.
‘To be honest, in the beginning it was really painful to watch the [Tottenham] games. Because when you feel a club like home, it’s not easy to split from this feeling. Of course, we feel lucky that we were part of the family of Tottenham.
Five-and-a-half years. It was an amazing journey. We could not deliver a trophy for the fans, for the club — a trophy that the players deserve, the club deserves, our president, Daniel (Levy), and of course the fans. All of us worked so hard to try to deliver this and we didn’t achieve [it].
‘But the journey was amazing and we create something special in between us, all together. Of course, [it’s] always in our heart. But now, when I watch a [Tottenham] game, it’s always with a smile and trying to support them because when you love a club, you always wish the best for the people you know.’
Pochettino has arguably the best squad in the world but an immense pressure on his shoulders
SO much for the past. Last summer it briefly seemed as though there might still be a future for these star-crossed lovers, Daniel and Mauricio, as Spurs hunted a new manager. Paris, though, remained the city of true love.
‘Being honest, [there were] many, many rumours, many things,’ says Pochettino. ‘I am a person who doesn’t like to take advantage of these things. That is why I didn’t do nothing, I didn’t talk.
‘The people — the media not the club — criticised me here in France: “Why doesn’t Mauricio give his word about staying in Paris?” I say I don’t need to talk about things that. I don’t need to clarify things. And then you prove you are here and of course I am in Paris Saint-Germain, trying to respect the club that signed me.’
It is a lengthy explanation which seems to say it was never a realistic possibility. His contract with PSG was agreed until 2023 in the summer.
‘We didn’t extend the contract,’ says Pochettino. ‘When I signed in January, it was one-year-and-a-half plus [an option] one year. And the club used this clause to make the option done. And now it’s this season plus one.’
This week he will be back in England to play Manchester City in the Champions League and face his old adversary, Pep Guardiola. They first met as players at Barca and Espanyol respectively in 1994 and their storylines have been entwined ever since. Pochettino was also back in London last weekend, but only for a family visit. ‘I saw the sun for one second! Unbelievable. Dark! But good, good people and good time,’ he says.
The shock availability of Lionel Messi this summer saw PSG construct the most formidable forward line in European football
His wife Karina still lives at the north London family home with son Maurizio, who plays for Watford Under 23s. In Paris, approaching the one-year anniversary of his appointment, he remains ensconced in a luxury hotel.There is no hiding that it has been a hard year.
‘It was difficult because Karina was in London with my son. It was difficult to find the right house. It is now 10 months-and-a-half living in the hotel. But I’m in a good place. I find very nice people in the hotel. It’s like a family. It’s unbelievable how all the staff treat me.’
He has his coaching assistants, Jesus Perez, Miguel D’Agostino and Toni Jimenez, and his son, Sebastiano, with him in Paris. Emotional support is imperative and he has perhaps both the best of jobs and the worst of jobs.
If you are lucky enough to manage the best player in the world, you will also spend a good part of your time and energy dealing with the global obsession with him.
So when Pochettino subbed Messi at half-time against Lille recently (PSG were 1-0 down at the time and won 2-1), the post-match analysis was not overly concerned about the tactical nuance of a well-coached comeback.
‘That is the challenge,’ he says, laughing. ‘I agree with you, when you have in your hands this type of player, it is not easy. For us [he means his coaching team], we feel the same way as when the name is different.
Messi and Pochettino did not see eye-to-eye when the superstar was subbed against Lille
‘When you need to take some decision to affect the player, I don’t care when he is a big name or a player that is at the start of his career. Of course, after, the consequence of the media or this type of thing is completely different. I understand.
‘But our priority [as coaches] is never to change. Same priority we had in Espanyol, Southampton or Tottenham is to protect the players, try to protect the interests of the club and the fans.
‘Sometimes you have to take some decisions that maybe make people not happy. Or maybe people are expecting different things. But that is our job. When you decide to be a coach, a manager, you know that this type of thing will arrive. But for us it is an amazing challenge.’
Of course, it is not just Messi. It is Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. Pochettino has three of the world’s greatest players at his disposal — Messi scored his first Ligue 1 goal and Mbappe was also on the target as PSG beat 3-1 last night.
It is a scenario not really seen at any club since the Barcelona team of 2015 or the heyday of the Real Madrid Galacticos in 2006. While it may appear a coach’s dream, it has considerable complexities. When Pochettino suggested recently Messi should win the Ballon D’Or, he had Neymar and Mbappe asking why not them? It is also a conundrum.
‘[Either of] these three players can be the king of any club in the world. But you have three kings on the same club: three kings with different needs, who need different things. Mbappe needs space to run and high tempo in the transition. Neymar needs to have the ball, feel the ball and sometimes he needs to drive the ball,’ Pochettino says.
Pochettino’s came close to ultimate glory at Tottenham, but the demise took much out of him
‘And Messi needs maybe another tempo in the game. It’s not easy to put all that together. That is why we are working in trying to find the right way to play, so that Mbappe feels comfortable, Neymar and Messi feel comfortable and the rest of the team understand that sometimes we need to increase the level of the tempo of the game and sometimes we can play on the space. Sometimes we need to play more horizontal and build in the slow possession. It’s an amazing challenge, which we are enjoying.
‘It is a beautiful time for coaching staff like us, to have the possibility to work with these amazing players. We know very well the demands and expectation.’
At PSG, backed by the state billions of Qatar, winning the French league title is taken as a given, though Pochettino arrived last January and in the final five months of the season, though they won the French Cup, they finished second in the league to Lille.
They did progress to the Champions League semi-finals, disposing of Barcelona and Bayern on the way, before losing to Wednesday’s opponents, Manchester City.
There is one trophy that matters more than any. It is 10 years since Qatar Sports Investment bought PSG and they have yet to win the Champions League. There is a sense that a PSG coach can win everything but the Champions League and still be a failure.
Thomas Tuchel, Pochettino’s predecessor, won the League, Cup and League Cup treble but lost the Champions League final in 2020 and was sacked six months later.
‘Being honest we don’t feel the pressure or stress [any different to] when we were in Tottenham, Southampton or Espanyol,’ says Pochettino.
‘The only thing changed is the expectation. This season is massive. All the people believe we should be winning the games before we play. When you start again after one minute if you have not scored three, four or five goals, the disappointment is massive but that is only that you need to manage a little bit the expectation.’
Good luck with that when you have the team he has. Sergio Ramos is approaching fitness after moving from Real Madrid in the summer. Georginio Wijnaldum shores up midfield and will soon have Marco Verratti back alongside him, when fit. Angel Di Maria plays when one of the three kings cannot.
Even Italy’s Euro 2020 final hero, Gianluigi Donnarumma, sits on the bench as No 2 keeper, such is the embarrassment of riches. Come the new year, it will feel like Champions League or bust.
‘I agree with you,’ says Pochettino. ‘The feeling is about winning the Champions League. And if not, you will feel that you have failed. For us it’s different because we are not doing drama.
‘We know if we are going to arrive with the chances of winning, we need to build something special and with all the talent we have, that talent needs to work together.
‘We are capable and if all the players are committed to the project then, for sure, we are going to be close to winning the Champions League.
‘[But] people think like it’s an obligation to win. In football, if you play like you feel there is an obligation, it’s difficult to be successful, to win.
‘We are competing with Chelsea, with Real Madrid, with Barcelona, with Manchester United, with Liverpool, with Bayern Munich, with Manchester City, with many clubs who are building projects to try to win — and Paris Saint-Germain is trying too. After 10 years [since QSI bought PSG], only in the last two years have they arrived at the final and semi-final for the first time in history.
‘Being close, you start to build your belief. And, of course, in many aspects you not only have to play well and be strong but have some luck to win.
‘For sure in the future for Paris Saint-Germain, working in this way, it is going to arrive.
‘Maybe it will arrive this season. I hope so, because it will be good for us! But you never know. We’re going to try.’