“In the beginning, it was really painful to watch Tottenham’s games, really painful,” Mauricio Pochettino says, the emotion rising, seemingly out of nowhere. “Because when you feel a club is like home, it’s not easy to split from this feeling.”
It is Wednesday afternoon, Pochettino is zooming in from Paris Saint-Germain’s training ground and England is on his mind, partly because his team are at Manchester City in Champions League Group A this Wednesday coming. But mainly it is because of Spurs. “Today is 17 November,” the manager continues. “And in two days, it is the anniversary. The two years since we left Tottenham. It’s in my mind, no?”
Pochettino truly is the most gloriously soppy of former Argentina centre-halves and this is what a breakup looks like – the regret, the sudden pangs – even if he says that he is doing better these days, he is moving on. “When I watch the games now, it’s always with a smile and trying to support them because when you love a club and you feel at home, always you wish the best for the people that you know,” he says.
One of them is Harry Kane who, if things had worked out differently over the summer, would have been lining up for City at the Etihad Stadium against Pochettino. “I love Tottenham fans and I love Tottenham and I am so happy that Harry is in Tottenham,” Pochettino says. “But I want the best for Harry and I want the best for Tottenham. That’s it, no?”
If feels like the moment to ask Pochettino whether, if things had worked out differently for him over the summer, he might have found himself back at Spurs. It was Steve Hitchen, the technical performance director and Pochettino’s close friend, who had explored whether the sensational reunion could happen as the club cast the net for a permanent successor to José Mourinho.
Pochettino said nothing at the time in late May, which went down badly in Paris, and he is keen to explain the stance. In short, Pochettino did not drive the story so why was he going to comment on it? “You never know from where these rumours appear and I am a person who doesn’t like to take advantage of these things,” Pochettino says.
“That’s why I didn’t talk. The people criticised me here in France, the media … ‘Why doesn’t Mauricio give his word about staying in Paris?’ But when you don’t create things, why am I going to say something? I don’t need to clarify things. Of course, I listened to everything. But, yes … never happened, that.”
Did Pochettino not end up extending his PSG contract? “No, we didn’t extend,” he replies. “When I signed in January, it was one and a half years plus the option of one more. The club activated the option and now it’s this season plus one.”
Was it to discourage Spurs? “Haha, maybe,” Pochettino says. “I don’t know. I didn’t ask the president and I didn’t ask Leonardo [the sporting director]. Maybe it was that”
Pochettino will never lose his sense of mischief, his joie de vivre, but it feels as though it has been tested during his 10 and a half months in Paris, where he continues to live in a hotel. His wife, Karina, younger son, Maurizio – who is on Watford’s books – and beloved dog, Sansa, remain in London and it is a long way from being ideal for such a family-oriented man, although his older son, Sebastiano, is with him at PSG where he is the fitness coach.
“The situation is a little bit strange,” Pochettino says. “It’s not easy but we’ll see what will happen – if I can find some apartment or house then I will move soon. With coronavirus and the lockdown, it was difficult to find a house and the right house. But I’m OK. I’m not in a bad place. I’m in a good place. The good thing is that I’ve found very nice people in the hotel. Now we are like a family. It’s unbelievable how all the staff treat me.”
Pochettino must deal with suffocating levels of expectation, with PSG required not only to win every match but to do so in style. “This season is massive and all the people believe that we should be winning the games before we play – after one minute, if you have not scored three, four or five goals, the disappointment is massive,” Pochettino says, without the hint of a smile.
PSG are well clear at the top of Ligue 1 while they trail City by one point after four Champions League games, with a four-point cushion to Club Brugge in third. But the football has sometimes been unconvincing, lacking in beauty and thrills, and the criticism has been remorseless. It is put to Pochettino that no matter what he does, it can never be enough. “No, exactly,” he says. “That is the feeling. But that is good because we are living a very good experience. It is an amazing experience.”
It is probably Lionel Messi’s fault because, with him arriving in August to supplement Kylian Mbappé and Neymar up front, rival defences ought to be little more than quivering wrecks. Plainly, it is not that simple, with none of the trio appearing to suit Pochettino’s fast-pressing style or to be overly bothered about tracking back. Balancing the team is a fiendishly difficult task, although does anybody want to hear that?
“Each of the three can be the king of any club in the world,” Pochetttino says. “But you have three kings in the same club, three with different needs and who need different things from the team. Mbappé needs space to run and high tempo in the transition. Neymar needs to have the ball and feel the ball, and sometimes he needs to drive the ball. And Messi needs maybe another tempo in the game. That is not easy to put all together.
“We’re working to find the right way to play in which Mbappé feels comfortable, Neymar and Messi feel comfortable and then the rest of the team understand that sometimes we need to increase the tempo and sometimes we can play on the space, sometimes we need to play more horizontal and build in the slow possession. It’s not an easy task but it’s an amazing challenge which we are enjoying, a beautiful time to have the possibility to work with these amazing players.”
What Pochettino seemingly must do is win the Champions League, because regaining the domestic title and retaining the French Cup is not enough. If he did not deliver the biggest prize, the one that the club’s Qatari owners have craved since their takeover in 2011, he would most likely be branded a failure and he knows it.
“I agree,” Pochettino says. “The feeling is about winning the Champions League and, if not, you will feel that you have failed. For sure. The people translate that feeling.”
Pochettino is not blind to the realities of life at PSG. He signed with his eyes wide open to them. “It’s all about winning,” he says. “It’s completely different to another project. When I accepted the job, I knew that if you play well and you don’t win, there’s nothing to do.”
And yet Pochettino continues to push a more layered take, his own reality, in which time to adapt and build are recurring themes. If they apply to the collective, then they must do so on an individual level for Messi, who has previously known only life at Barcelona for so many years.
“We hope that we have the time to develop in the way that we want to play,” Pochettino says. “It’s only with time and commitment. If we have the capacity to create this commitment, all together, I think it’s going to be an amazing journey. If all the players are committed to the project then, for sure, we are going to be close to winning the Champions League. That’s the job we are doing now – to work, to convince and to make that happen.
“The easiest thing for us would have been to wait for another project, a normal project, with no pressure and to build something long-term. But we are brave and we love the challenge. It makes us grow. We are enjoying this period but we know that the line is so thin. You can be over the moon one day and, the day after, you can be at the bottom. That is how these types of clubs live.”
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