Before Paris St-Germain’s Champions League match at Barcelona last month, French superstar Kylian Mbappe looked around the Nou Camp before turning to new manager Mauricio Pochettino and asking: “Hey coach, how many times have you won here?”
“Just once,” the former Tottenham manager replied. “With Espanyol.”
“Don’t worry, boss,” Mbappe said in perfect Spanish, “tonight we’ll make it two”.
After the last-16 first-leg game – in which Mbappe scored a stunning hat-trick in a 4-1 win – the pair spoke again. “I told you boss,” said the 22-year-old. “Now you’ve won twice.”
That night, a select few of us were in the stadium to witness to what looked very much like the systematic dismantling of the old order and its replacement by the new.
Football is frequently about a collection of unforgettable, individual images and the freeze frame left imprinted on my brain is that of the once great Gerard Pique desperately trying to hang on to a rampaging Mbappe, which neatly encapsulated the changing of the European football guard we were seeing in front of our eyes.
Mbappe was clearly the central figure, but it was an equally significant moment for his new manager.
A successful start in Paris – but challenges off the field
Having turned down approaches from all over Europe, including Monaco and Benfica, the decision to return to Paris – where he spent two seasons as a player – was a simple one for Pochettino.
PSG are a club with status, ambition and, crucially, the expectation of winning trophies. To the outside world, Pochettino needed to lose the tag of being the best coach in the game never to have lifted a trophy.
He and his team certainly hit the ground running.
He received the club’s offer on 24 December, and by 29 December he had signed. Just 11 days later his side won the Trophee des Champions – the French equivalent of the Community Shield – when they beat Marseille 2-1. It is probably the least prestigious of any trophy available to him, but almost certainly the most important.
Not winning it would have sent out all the wrong messages. With defeat comes unrest, loss of confidence and complaints. At PSG, expectations are higher than anywhere else he has coached.
Despite that early success, these first few months have not been without their challenges.
Fresh from his first trophy he contracted coronavirus, as did the rest of the coaching staff – Jesus Perez (his right-hand man), Miguel D’Agostino (coaching assistant but, as he has a French passport, now his translator in news conferences), Toni Jimenez (goalkeeper coach) and the new addition to the team, his son Sebastiano (sports scientist who takes the profession so seriously he has to be reminded sometimes by Pochettino that he is his son).
The hotel they are staying in, about half an hour from the training ground, provided boxes of food – he loved the unforgettable little French cakes – to their door as they all went through the isolation period.
Pochettino’s wife Karina was thinking of moving to Paris and spent 10 days in the city house hunting, but restrictions have made things difficult. Their youngest son, Maurizio, has signed for Watford and was on the bench for the first team last week, so for the now family have remained apart and Pochettino is likely to remain in a hotel until the end of the season.
Building a bond with PSG’s superstars
Top-flight managers are invariably made or broken by the relationship they enjoy with the superstars under their charge. Perhaps nowhere is that more pertinent than at PSG.
Thomas Tuchel had a decent rapport with the club’s star names, who showed their surprise when he was sacked. But having watched the team closely since Pochettino’s arrival, I have seen a side lacking direction, almost as if Tuchel, for whatever reason, had given up on converting the collection of big names into a coherent unit.
Yes, he got them to the Champions League final last season, but some inside the camp felt that came about almost by accident (certainly Atalanta were close to eliminating them in the quarter-finals).
Pochettino seems to have arrived at a time when the team welcome instruction. He has put a metaphorical arm around the shoulder of those who struggled with the distance Tuchel liked to keep with players. The new manager’s exchange with Mbappe before the Barcelona game indicated there is already a closeness and mutual respect being built between the two men.
In order to reach the dizzying heights the French forward is clearly capable of, it will be Pochettino’s job to get the player to identify and fully understand his role – he clearly tries to do too much and to be too many things.
Once he has established if he wants to be the goalscorer or the provider, the Cristiano Ronaldo or Neymar, Mbappe can work on growing and exploiting his many qualities. Pochettino wants to help develop and fulfil his potential in the same way he did with the likes of Adam Lallana at Southampton, and Harry Kane, Son Heung-min and Dele Alli at Tottenham.
Mbappe has it in his locker to be right up there as one of the greatest of his generation but when he and Erling Braut Haaland are talked about as the successors to Ronaldo and Lionel Messi as Europe’s standout players, Pochettino laughs at the clear omission. In his eyes, there is one player closer to Messi and Ronaldo, and that is Neymar, the other superstar who may help define his tenure in Paris.
Like Unai Emery found in the past, the prejudices one has regarding the Brazilian when entering the changing room are better left behind as he is in fact not that close to the image we all have of him. Instead of cocky confidence, the new coaching staff have found a young man who needs TLC.
The future of both Mbappe, whose contract expires in summer 2022, and Neymar are never far away from the newspaper back pages but the Covid-19 pandemic has made the probability of them staying at PSG more likely by the day.
Neymar earns £31.8m a year net and the likelihood is Mbappe will be offered, if not the same, then certainly a figure in that region to persuade him to carry on playing in France. He is in no rush to agree a deal but the club are optimistic both will sign new contracts.
Pochettino yet to win over the French media
One of the early criticisms of Pochettino in his Southampton days was that he conducted all interviews via a translator, even though he was known to speak English away from the camera. Roy Hodgson actually encouraged him to keep doing that, so as to keep a distance with the English media while he worked on his methods and on improving the team.
Something similar is happening in France because, at the moment, he will only speak Spanish or English at news conferences. This creates a sense of distance and the media would certainly like to feel closer to him.
But for the time being that suits him – as it did at Southampton. At some point he will bring out his somewhat rusty French and that will help with how he is perceived. Right now, it is fair to say he is not regarded with the same fondness or seen in the same light by the French media as he is by their English counterparts.
Where he will not fall short is in the personal efforts of both himself and his team. They already all spend 12 hours each day at their workplace.
The punishing schedule brought about by Covid means there has been a lack of opportunity to hone training ideas, with the team speeding from one game to the next without the chance to spend adequate time on reflection and analysis.
PSG have played 14 matches in less than two months, so any new initiatives or tactical revolutions will have to wait for now – it is mostly about playing and resting.
When Pochettino arrived 10 players were injured, so getting them all back to fitness has been another challenge. Last week against Bordeaux, PSG won a game without Mbappe, Angel di Maria or Neymar, something that had not been seen for a couple of seasons. Early signs, perhaps, of a stronger collective.
Having spent five years at Tottenham, eventually reaching the Champions League final in 2019, Pochettino knows the value of a long-term project. And while he sees the challenge in Paris in similar terms, there is no doubt he will still need to have immediate success.
That is the inevitable demand of a club like PSG. Completing the job on Wednesday and knocking Barcelona out of the Champions League will also give credit to the new regime.