Bonds are forming with Neymar and Mbappe but team a work in progress
Didine, the long-time Paris Saint-Germain man, hasn’t stopped smiling since Saturday. Well, he did a little. He cried when he saw Mauricio Pochettino, back at the club as a coach 20 years after playing there. Didine and Pochettino shared a long embrace, and tears rolled down the elder’s cheeks as they recalled many memories of their first spell together. Sebastiano Pochettino, Mauricio’s son and the team’s new physical trainer, was five years old when his father signed for PSG. Didine hadn’t forgotten him, and Sebastiano hadn’t forgotten the kit man either.
Pochettino’s return to Paris is a bit like reuniting family members, long after their last reunion. The club has changed enormously since 2001, but like Didine, some people are still there, and those familiar faces have warmed Pochettino’s heart.
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That said, his heart hasn’t been warmed too much by his first game in charge. Wednesday’s 1-1 draw at Saint-Etienne was disappointing at times and worrying too. We saw a small glimpse of the Poch touch, although that was expected; after only two training sessions and without nine players (Neymar, Mauro Icardi, Rafina, Leandro Paredes, Presnel Kimpembe, Alessandro Florenzi, John Bernat, Layvin Kurzawa and Danilo Pereira), we could not expect to see a revolution.
We could see Marco Veratti play higher up the pitch and provide an assist for Moise Keangoal (his 10th of the season in 16 appearances in all competitions). We could also see other tactical changes, with more flexibility in the 4-2-3-1 formation. Ander Herrera fall deep as a third centre-back from the right side meant right-back Colin Dagba pushed much higher, and Angel Di Maria could enter between the lines. The backline was high as expected, but the counter press still lacked the required intensity and aggressiveness.
This is what Pochettino and his staff expected from the players. The Argentine told his new charges that the process will take time. During the game, he talked a lot to Marquinhos and to Verratti, in particular. He was very vocal and his switch to a 4-4-2 formation after the hour mark didn’t really have an impact. It was not the result he would have wanted, of course, but with limited time and a limited squad, he will prevail.
“I’m disappointed,” he said after the game. “We are PSG, and we wanted to win this game. I think there are a lot of aspects that we can improve, we have a lot of concepts that we want to implement, but we need time. This n is just the beginning.”
This is indeed only the beginning, and it has been four crazy days in Pochettino’s new life. Between his arrival in the French capital on Saturday and then the away game on Wednesday, he met the players for the first time, with sporting director Leonardo and club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi on Sunday, training for the first time on the same ground. day for a light session, then start working properly with the players on Monday, before doing his press conference on Tuesday. Time has flown. “He wanted to do so much,” a source told ESPN. “There was so much to do, so he focused on the most important.”
In the next few days, Pochettino will have another meeting with Leonardo to discuss the transfer window. “We are in direct contact and we are looking into all possibilities regarding transfers this month,” he said on Tuesday, without naming names. He didn’t want to talk about Christian Erikson when asked, but sources have told ESPN that PSG have told Inter Milan they are not interested in the Denmark international at the moment.
Could Pochettino return to his former club, Tottenham Hotspur, and ask Dele Alli? Does he want a central defender? A creative player? He certainly wants to keep Kean, who is currently on loan from Everton, and the two clubs have entered talks to make the move permanent given that no purchase option was included in the deal last summer.
PSG’s transfer strategy will be revealed very soon, but the most important thing for now is that Pochettino builds relationships with the players available to him. He is a manager who really comes close to the dressing room. He’ll have one-on-one interviews with each member of his team in the coming days, but for now, he’s on a mission to win their hearts. Yes, he wants them to work hard, but he wants them to love him too. He joked with Neymar, smiled with Kylian Mbappechatting with Di Maria during his first training session, but he also made sure the players knew discipline and hard work were important.
“Are you tired already? he told them as Sebastiano made them do fitness exercises. “More intense, more intense”, he also shouted during the roundabouts. He even asked them to stop talking and work harder.
“Already, we see and feel the difference compared to [Pochettino’s predecessor] Thomas Tuchel,” a source told ESPN. “Mauricio’s personality is very different. He is much more of a leader, sometimes soft and sometimes tough. He knows what he wants and he will get it.”
Marquinhos, who like Pochettino before him wears the PSG captain’s armband, said: “It’s a new era for our team. We have to work even harder to do what the coach wants us to do.”
The work will intensify, of course. During his first meeting with the media on Tuesday, the new manager remained quite cautious, especially when it came to his tactics. “We don’t like to talk about formations,” he said during his introductory press conference, via Zoom. “For us it’s all about animation. Our philosophy is flexibility, having open tactics where players can be in the best position to perform.”
Pochettino wants Mbappe to show his full potential. He wants Neymar to play where he feels best. He wants to go far in the Champions League. He knows he has an exceptional team and he is ready to take on the biggest challenge of his career so far. It started hectic off the pitch, but quite slowly on it. So far, everything is going as planned.