Before St Germain’s Champions League match against Barcelona last month, French superstar Kylian Mbappé visited the Nou Camp and then turned to his new coach Mauricio Pochettino and asked: Hey, coach, how many times have you won here?
The former Tottenham manager only responded once. With Espanyol.
Don’t worry boss, Mbappe said in perfect Spanish, we’ll make it two tonight.
The two are back in talks after the first leg of the round of 16, in which Mbappe scored a stunning hat-trick in a 4-1 victory. I told you, boss, said the 22-year-old. Now you’ve won twice.
Some of us were at the stadium that night and witnessed what looked very much like a systematic dismantling of the old order and its replacement with a new order.
Mauricio Pochettino is known as a great manager of men and one of his main tasks will be to make sure Kylian Mbappé is happy.
Football is often a collection of unforgettable individual images, and the one that sticks in my memory is that of former great Gerard Pique desperately trying to pin down the feisty Mbappé, which sums up the changing of the guard in European football that we have seen before our eyes.
Mbappe was certainly a central figure, but it was an equally important moment for his new manager.
Successful debut in Paris – but problems off the field
Paris Saint-Germain have won seven of the last eight Ligue 1 titles, but Pochettino will have to fight to take the trophy this season.
Having turned down offers from all over Europe, including Monaco and Benfica, Pochettino’s decision to return to Paris – where he had spent two seasons – was an easy one.
PSG is a club with status, ambition and above all the hope of winning trophies. The world outside of Pochettino must have lost the label of best coach in the game to never lift the trophy.
He and his team really knocked it out of the park.
He received the club’s offer on December 24 and signed on December 29. December. Eleven days later, his side won the Champions Trophy – the French equivalent of the Community Shield – by beating Marseille 2-1. It’s probably the least prestigious trophy he’s been offered, but the most important.
If he hadn’t won, he would have sent the wrong message. Defeat is accompanied by unrest, loss of confidence and unease. Expectations are higher at PSG than anywhere else he has coached.
Despite this initial success, these first few months have not been without their problems.
Fresh from his first trophy, he’s caught the Corona virus, as have the rest of the coaching staff – Jesus Perez (his right-hand man), Miguel D’Agostino (assistant coach, but because he has a French passport, and now interpreter at press conferences), Tony Jimenez (goalkeeping coach) and a new addition to the team, his son Sebastiano (a sports scientist who takes his job so seriously that Pochettino sometimes has to remind him that it’s his son).
The hotel where they were staying, about half an hour from the training ground, delivered boxes of food – he loved the unforgettable little French pasties – to their door while they went through a period of isolation.
Pochettino’s wife, Carina, was considering a move to Paris and spent 10 days in the city looking for an apartment, but restrictions made it difficult. Their youngest son, Mauricio, has signed for Watford and was on the bench with the first team last week. So the family are sidelined for now, while Pochettino is expected to stay until the end of the season.
Bond construction for PSG superstar
As the former coach of another Barcelona team, Espanyol, PSG’s 4-1 win at the Camp Nou was a highlight of Pochettino’s career.
Executives are invariably made or broken by the relationships they have with the superstars who report to them. Nowhere is this more relevant than at PSG.
Thomas Tuchel had a good relationship with the stars of the club, who showed their surprise when he was sacked. But after watching the team closely since Pochettino’s arrival, I saw a team that lacks direction, as if for some reason Tuchel refused to turn a collection of big names into a cohesive whole.
Yes, they reached the final of the Champions League last season, but some in the camp felt it was almost an accident (granted, Atalanta almost eliminated them in the quarterfinals).
Pochettino seems to have arrived at a time when the team welcomes instructions. He put his metaphorical arm around the shoulder of those who take issue with the distance Tuchel likes to keep from the players. The altercation between the new manager and Mbappé before the game against Barcelona showed that a close relationship and mutual respect has already been established between the two.
To reach the dizzying heights that the French striker is certainly capable of, Pochettino will need to get the player to fully define and understand his role – he is certainly trying to do too much and do too many things.
Once he decides if he wants to be a goalkeeper or a provider, Cristiano Ronaldo or Neymar, Mbappe can work on growing and using his many skills. Pochettino wants to help him develop and live up to his potential, as he did with Adam Lallana at Southampton and Harry Kane, Son Heung-min and Dele Alli at Tottenham.
Mbappe has everything it takes to become one of the greats of his generation. But when he and Erling Brauth Haalande are talked about as successors to Ronaldo and Lionel Messi as outstanding players in Europe, Pochettino is amused by the apparent omission. In his eyes, one player is closer to Messi and Ronaldo and that is Neymar, another superstar who could help define his stay in Paris.
Unai Emery would do well to dispel the prejudices that exist about the Brazilian when he enters the dressing room, as he doesn’t really fit the image we all have of him. Instead of arrogant confidence, the new coaching staff found a young man who needed care.
The futures of Mbappé, whose contract expires in the summer of 2022, and Neymar are never far from the back pages of newspapers, but the Covid 19 pandemic makes the likelihood of them staying at PSG more likely by the day.
Neymar earns £31.8 million net a year and it is likely that Mbappe will be offered, if not the same, an amount in the vicinity to convince him to continue playing in France. He is in no hurry to accept a contract, but the club is optimistic that he will sign a new one.
Pochettino has yet to convince the French media
One of the first criticisms of Pochettino during his time at Southampton was that he conducted all his interviews with an interpreter, although he was known to speak English off-screen. Roy Hodgson even encouraged him to keep it that way to stay out of the English media while he worked on his methods and improving the team.
Something similar is happening in France, because at the moment he only speaks Spanish or English at press conferences. This creates a sense of distance, and the media would certainly like to feel closer.
But as long as it suits him – like Southampton. At some point he will bring out his somewhat rusty French, and that will help his perception. It could be argued that the French media do not view him with the same affection or in the same light as their English counterparts.
Where he will not be outdone is in his personal commitment and that of his team. They already spend 12 hours a day at the workplace.
Covid’s penalty schedule means there is no opportunity to refine coaching ideas as the team rushes from one game to the next without adequate time to reflect and analyze.
PSG have played 14 games in less than two months, so any new initiative or tactical revolution will have to wait – it’s all about the game and rest.
When Pochettino arrived, 10 players were injured and getting them fit was another challenge. Last week against Bordeaux, PSG won the game without Mbappé, Angel di Maria or Neymar, something that hadn’t happened for a few seasons. The first signs of a perhaps stronger collective.
After five years at Tottenham and a Champions League final in 2019, Pochettino knows the value of a long-term project. And if he feels the same way about the challenge in Paris, there is no doubt that he has yet to make an immediate impact.
It is an inevitable requirement for a club like PSG. Wednesday’s denouement and Barcelona’s elimination from the Champions League will also be a tribute to the new regime.