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Managerial replacements series: Mauricio Pochettino

The man many wanted last year, could he be available again?

Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Tom Purslow/Manchester United via Getty Images

He was the favourite to take the Manchester United job following Jose Mourinho’s departure in 2018. Much has changed since.

For the final installment of this series, we’re going to have a look at the man who cut short the fairytale of the focus from our previous installment in the 2018/19 Champions League semi-final.

Mauricio Pochettino

Mauricio Pochettino’s is football’s great Rorschach test.

To the doubters, the Argentine flattered to deceive with no silverware to match the progress he made during his five and a half years in charge of Tottenham Hotspur. He often fell short on the final hurdle and was an embodiment of the catchphrase ‘Spursy’.

Interestingly enough, Spurs are the Premier League side that has gained the most points from a losing position in the competition’s history after Manchester United. We might have to reconsider our position on that tag and Mauricio Pochettino.

To the believers, he’s the North London club’s greatest manager since Bill Nicholson. He punched well above his weight despite no transfer incomings during the 2018/19 season and had to settle for home games at the Wembley Stadium for large parts of that season. He was the first to take them to the final hurdle and made them real contenders for the Premier League title in two of those five seasons.

To the doubters, his stint at Paris Saint-Germain has been a bit blasé. He’s now had the time to get his philosophy (more on that later) across but the team looks extremely disjointed with ideas scant in and out of possession.

That remind you of another team in Europe this season?

This stat on their pressing was also doing the rounds recently.

The believers will point you towards his Southampton side, who were the first side to really bring highly coordinated counter-pressing to the league. They’ll remind you of the game at Old Trafford under David Moyes where this sprightly young side with Luke Shaw and Morgan Schneiderlin would circle you on a throw-in and be ready to pounce without a moment’s hesitation.

To the doubters, his lack of tactical insight in press conferences at Paris sits in stark contrast to the animated figure of Thomas Tuchel, who did not need a translator to be transparent about his thinking before and after games.

To the believers, his cherubic countenance and affable disposition should to not be confused with naiveté and that he’s just been caught in the maelstrom that is Paris Saint-Germain.

This was, after all, a manager whose training sessions had become the stuff of legends. They weren’t merely a mythmaking exercise. This is a manager who also has a history of freezing out players on the final years of their contracts. He took no prisoners.

In the famous Champions League quarter-final and semi-final comebacks from 2018/19, his use of Fernando Llorente is perhaps the most fascinating. His believers might’ve seen that as a departure from his methods. The doubters might’ve seen that as the pragmatism that his teams always lacked.

So, who is right and who is wrong? More importantly, who is Mauricio Pochettino?

Rorschach tests, Energia Universal, and a VertiMax machine

Negative and positive. That’s the package with Mauricio Pochettino. This is the underlying spiritual philosophy that guides the emotionally charged Argentine.

When he got onto the English shores, he didn’t just bring pressing. His sides were among the first to dominate the flanks with full-backs. He had Luke Shaw and Nathaniel Clyne at Southampton. Danny Rose and Kyle Walker did the same at Spurs. Kieran Trippier followed.

Hugo Lloris was the first goalkeeper to show signs of sweeper keeping. In Toby Alderweirld and Jan Vertonghen, he had the two best ball-playing centre-backs. When Eric Dier would drop into a back 3 from midfield, it wasn’t quite positional play but it would set the template for the modern Premier League.

In 2021, much of this is commonplace and with an influx of new managers in the league, it does not look as impressive. Many of the English players that had a breakthrough under him are no longer favoured in the national team set-up.

It’s well-known that Pochettino wanted fresh faces at the club before his sacking. From his autobiography Brave New World, we learn that he sees Sir Alex as a reference point and has even formed a cordial friendship with the great elder of Old Trafford.

We learn that like Sir Alex, he believes in a four-year cycle. We know that Pochettino could not go ahead with that transition at Spurs, which leaves you wondering what could’ve been. His style is also quite demanding on the training ground. There will always be questions about its sustainability.

It’s also not synced at Paris Saint-Germain. There’s an interesting excerpt from the autobiography that might lend to why this might be the case.

Pochettino highlights how players reacted differently to the VertiMax — a piece of training equipment that he’d installed at Spurs and Southampton.

There’d be no surprises if the PSG players aren’t charmed by the VertiMax.

Now, the semi-final place in last season’s Champions League by overcoming Barcelona and Bayern Munich along with their current position in Champions League and Ligue 1 table doesn’t read disaster but Thomas Tuchel’s comparatively identifiable style at the club has made Pochettino’s less granular style of football look a bit pale in comparison.

Having consulted PSG fan Ali Radhi for this piece, he’s stated — in no uncertain terms — that the football at the Parc des Princes since the Argentine’s arrival has been dire. However, he’s not had any real falling out with players or members of a volatile boardroom. That remains one of Pochettino’s great strengths.

His warm and paternal style of man-management has been received well by most players who’ve played under him. Most of them hail Pochettino as the best manager they’ve ever worked under. Could he be the best manager for Manchester United?

Let’s wrap this up.

No longer the favourite?

Brave New World is a bit of a vanity project but we really get into Pochettino’s head and we learn of his ambition.

This is a manager who isn’t really a true auteur like his former manager Marcelo Bielsa. He was an indie darling with spells at Espanyol and Southampton. His five seasons at Spurs weren’t quite an HBO prestige drama but it’d probably be the top Netflix drama. It bought him mass appeal, critical acclaim, a few nominations, a lot of love on the red carpet but no real awards.

The next step’s always felt like a blockbuster. That’s always felt like the endgame for the Argentine. In Paris, he’s finally got the big studio and the blockbuster budget but creative freedom has been restricted. They’re doing all right on the box office but the rotten tomatoes score isn’t great.

The PSG job could be seen as a failure with no Champions League trophy to show for at the end of this season but managing those stars could also be a great learning experience before taking the hot seat at Old Trafford.

The United job might just be the right fit. The energies might just match. He’ll have the budget but you’d think he’ll get more creative freedom. He might just land that award. But we can never be sure of anything with Mauricio Pochettino.

Will he save the ship? Will he steady it? Will he captain it to glory? Or has the ship sailed?