Poch makes his mark! After his Spurs axe, Mauricio Pochettino is a man recharged in France as he opens up on coaching Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, why PSG is ‘perfect’ for him… and how he hopes to stop Pep’s City in bid for Champions League glory
- Mauricio Pochettino is making his mark with a star-studded Paris Saint-Germain
- PSG face Manchester City on Wednesday in Champions League semi-final
- Neymar has enjoys the Argentine’s tactical approach at the Parc des Princes
- Mbappe has been imperious under Pochettino with 21 goals in 22 appearances
The lights are on, the camera is rolling and Mauricio Pochettino leans into the lens, pretends to re-do his hair, touches lightly at his eyebrows and jokes about the good fortune of strong genes inherited from his parents.
Having embarked on a point about Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, and managing Paris Saint-Germain’s megastars of world football, Pochettino has drifted onto the subject of fly-on-the-wall documentaries.
‘I am not going to change,’ he insists. ‘I am not an actor, I am a football coach. I am like what I am.’
Mauricio Pochettino is making his mark with a star-studded Paris Saint-Germain squad
His French side face Manchester City on Wednesday in Champions League semi-final
Pochettino arrived in Paris in January to find Amazon filming behind the scenes just as they were when he left Tottenham in November 2019, although his role in the final cut of the ‘All of Nothing’ series proved minimal, as it became the Jose Mourinho show.
‘We were in the first episode for 25 minutes,’ he shrugs, and he grins again at an audience of reporters who know he was never comfortable to have cameras inside the Spurs dressing room.
‘Yes, yes, we are doing Amazon and I was acting a little bit because the club asked me to do something but I am spontaneous with the players, the relationship is natural and that is the key.
‘Of course, Neymar and Mbappe are important, but if you want to achieve big things everybody needs to feel they are important. I try to empathise and find out how they are and to create a good emotional link.’
His words will spark wistful memories at Spurs where they came to adore his holistic nature and his obsession with generating positive energies, whether than involved a bowl of lemons on his desk or challenging his players to walk on hot coals or break arrows against their throats.
Neymar has warmed to the embrace of Pochettino. Perhaps it is the South American connection but after Unai Emery and Thomas Tuchel, the Brazilian is enjoying a more tactile approach from an Argentine who was a teammate of Ronaldinho for two years at PSG.
‘Brazilian players are always different,’ said Pochettino. ‘They have something special inside. They are very open, happy people, always smiling. They love to play football because it’s like a dance and they play like they are dancing.
Neymar has warmed to the embrace of Pochettino and his tactical approach at PSG
Pochettino has spoken glowingly of Neymar’s contribution since he took over as PSG boss
‘They don’t feel the stress. They play with freedom. It is a characteristic of the country and the culture. They need to feel good and to feel happy to perform in the best way.
‘Ronaldinho was a really nice guy and Neymar, from the day we arrived, he was open to work. Very humble, he listens and accepts the instructions in a very good way. Like Mbappe, they both love to work and they love football.’
Mbappe, who sparked a fitness scare when he came off after scoring twice at Metz, on Saturday, has been imperious under Pochettino with 21 goals in 22 appearances, including a hat-trick in Barcelona, after promising his new boss a victory in the Nou Camp.
‘It was a conversation in the dressing room when he was having a massage,’ says Pochettino. ‘We were talking and I said: ‘Have you played here? Have you won here?’
‘He said ‘no’ and I told him I won here once with Espanyol, and I explained the game. And he said to me, very seriously: ‘Okay, tomorrow will be the second time you win’.
‘I said ‘OK, are you sure?’ and he said, ‘yes, don’t worry, we are going to win’ and then we played a fantastic game and beat them 4-1 and he was laughing at the end and saying to me on the pitch ‘I told you, I told you, I told you’.’
Mbappe, 22, converses fluently in Spanish or English, with an insatiable thirst for knowledge. ‘I say to him I need to practice my French,’ adds Pochettino. ‘He says, ‘sure, but it’s better for me to talk in English’.
Kylian Mbappe has been imperious under Pochettino with 21 goals in 22 appearances
Pochettino has been impressed by Mbappe’s thirst for knowledge regarding the game
‘Kylian is still very young but very mature. He’s very confident in his skills and talent. He’s very open, he’s a clever guy with an amazing talent. Like Neymar, he is in the top five players in the world.
‘He loves football, loves to talk about football. He asks about England. How is the game? How is the mentality and the culture there and in Spain and Argentina? He will watch every day games from England, France, Italy and Germany. It’s amazing to discover this type of talented player and how he loves football.’
The notion of Pochettino as a coach who cannot operate with big personalities seems ludicrous.
‘It’s normal that people need to find things to doubt you,’ says the 49-year-old. ‘To find something that is maybe wrong in our way of coaching, of working or managing people.
‘But we worked with superstars at Tottenham. We were dealing every day with the captain of France who lifted the World Cup. We were dealing every day with Harry Kane, Heung-min Son.
‘Now, we’re here at Paris Saint-Germain with players like Neymar, Mbappe, Marco Verratti, Keylor Navas, plenty of talented players, big characters. The most important thing is to be natural, genuine and spontaneous in the way we manage them.’
Pochettino defines PSG as the ‘perfect project’ to tempt him back after 14 months out of football.
Pochettino defines PSG as the ‘perfect project’ to tempt him back after 14 months out
At Tottenham, Pochettino reached the 2019 Champions League final but lost to Liverpool
Although it did not get off the perfect start as he recorded a positive Covid test and was forced to isolate, almost as soon as he arrived in Paris.
Four months on and he is still lodging in a hotel midway between Parc des Princes and the training ground, along with three of his coaching staff, including his son Sebastiano, who is a fitness coach.
Reacquainting himself with the city has proved impossible under a 7pm curfew but, gradually, his identity and values are making an impression.
An hour into last month’s home defeat by Nantes, a message filtered down to the touchline from PSG’s sporting director Leonardo to say Angel di Maria’s home had been burgled while his family were inside.
Reports later claimed a safe was stolen containing jewellery worth more than £400,000.
The game was level at 1-1 but Pochettino replaced Di Maria immediately and disappeared into the dressing room with an arm around his player, abandoning his post until he could be sure everyone was safe.
Pochettino’s renowned personal touch came to the fore during a game against Nantes last month (pictured), when Angel Di Maria’s home was robbed during the match
‘No-one is prepared to live this type of situation,’ he says. ‘The moment we knew about it, the game ends. The game is important, it is our job, it is our responsibility to win the game but the family is first.
‘Football took second place. The players knew something had happened and I was inside with him until he was able to connect with his wife. In the end, we lost the game because it was a crazy moment.’
The lost point may prove critical. PSG trail leaders Lille by a point at the top of the French league with four games to go but the collective bonds inside the camp tightened.
In the Champions League they continue to grow in stature, avenging the defeat to Bayern Munich in last year’s final by beating the German champions in the quarter finals.
In the previous round, PSG crushed Barcelona to soothe scars of a tie in 2017 known as La Remontada (The Comeback) when PSG led 4-0 after the first leg only to lose the return 6-1 on a night when Neymar dazzled for the Catalans.
‘The Champions League loves us,’ says Pochettino. ‘Any time we are involved in Champions League games people are not indifferent. People want to watch… need to watch.
‘Against Barcelona and Bayern Munich we grabbed the attention because both ties were fantastic. People enjoyed watching and they were two amazing ties and massive victories for the club.
‘Before we played Barcelona here, all the talk was about La Remontada. It was a bit of a strange feeling. Only a few people inside the club and the players – the most important factor – were not a little bit nervous and paranoid about it.
‘They were thinking ‘Oh no 4-1, again, Barcelona, what is going to happen if they score first’.
‘We were really calm and we reached the quarter finals and then we were drawn with Bayern Munich and it was, ‘Oh no it’s them again, the best team in the world’.
PSG beat Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals to book a place in the Champions League semis
Pochettino has reflected on Tottenham’s win over Ajax in 2019 ahead of PSG’s tie this week
‘No-one believed in us but here we are in the semi-final and we have, for sure, a massive fight against Manchester City, one of the best teams in the world with unbelievable players and Pep Guardiola, for me the best coach in the world. It’s going to be another fantastic tie.’
The breathless thrills of this PSG campaign echo the Tottenham adventure in 2018-19, when a dramatic VAR-affected quarter-final win against City was followed by the emotional scenes at Ajax where a staggering fight back left Pochettino on his knees and in tears.
‘Amazing, two years ago,’ he says, recalling the win at City. ‘The atmosphere was unbelievable. We miss the fans a lot. You can’t believe it when you watch all the things that happened in the second leg… 3-2, 4-2, 4-3 and at the end the disallowed goal with VAR.
‘You need to play well and you need to fight but sometimes in this type of competition you need a little bit of luck to go through. For me, this game and the semi-final against Ajax were amazing, very emotional. Always in the Champions League it will be there and all the people in football are going to remember.’
Remember? How could we forget?
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