Mauricio Pochettino’s second departure from Paris Saint-Germain, where he was on Thursday finalising the pay-off for severing his contract as manager, feels a little like his first. He was captain 19 years ago when he played his last match for the club, came tantalisingly close to fulfilment in it, but left deeply disappointed.
In the 2003 French Cup final against Auxerre, PSG took an early lead. Fourteen minutes from time, a lob over the head of Pochettino invited the Auxerre striker Djibril Cisse to equalise. With a minute of normal time left, he was slumped to his knees as Auxerre scored a second.
“We can’t be happy with the season,” a deflated Pochettino, long-haired and long-faced, told reporters. Both he and the club’s then star, Ronaldinho, would soon be heading off to play their club football in Spain.
Pochettino’s next job in management may yet be in Spain. Among those bidding for the presidency of Athletic Bilbao is a candidate who wants the Argentinian as manager.
A few months ago, ‘Poch’ was being eyed as a contender to take over at Manchester United, although they opted instead for Erik ten Hag. Real Madrid have also had him on potential shortlists, although events of recent months pushed the idea of a new coach off their radar. What all these suitors knew was that Pochettino would not be at PSG beyond this summer.
He will leave a year short of the end of his deal, with a Ligue 1 title freshly achieved, plus the 2020-21 French Cup victory from his first half-season back in Paris. But he has never seemed entirely at ease at a club of soaring ambition, huge spending power and a vastly different corporate character – since the 2011 takeover by Qatari owners – from the PSG he played for.
Coaches tend not to stay very long in Paris, although Pochettino’s 18 month stint falls well shy of the two and a half years Thomas Tuchel was there, and short of Unai Emery’s two seasons – to cite his immediate predecessors.
PSG win French Cup final against Monaco
Tuchel took the club to their first ever Champions League final, and was gone the following December. Emery survived the setback of not winning the league – PSG have been champions eight times in the last 10 years – but, like Pochettino, found that not making a big splash in Europe, where the club want to be recognised as true heavyweights, was what really counted against him.
The club had imagined Pochettino, inspirational for much of his five years managing Tottenham Hotspur, might coax Champions League success from a squad that, while unbalanced, boasts brilliant attacking talent.
A half-hour collapse in Madrid in March scotched that dream, and it sealed Pochettino’s fate. Rather like that 2003 Cup final, he watched helpless as PSG let a lead turn, late in the contest, into a defeat, Real Madrid rebounding from 2-0 down on aggregate to win 3-2 in the last-16.
He heard his and his players’ names booed by home supporters in the aftermath, even as PSG waltzed towards the Ligue 1 title, and his capacity to draw the best out of star individuals questioned.
Lionel Messi scored a mere six league goals in his first campaign in France. Gini Wijnaldum, another high-profile free transfer of last summer, was voted ‘Biggest Flop’ of all the new faces in the 2021-22 French top division.
Real Madrid 3 PSG 1: player ratings
Gigio Donnarumma – who, with Keylor Navas, never felt quite sure if he was the number one pick in goal under Pochettino – knows his debut PSG campaign will be remembered most for the way he was hustled off the ball at the beginning of Madrid’s stunning comeback at the Bernabeu.
Pochettino’s replacement – the Nice manager Christophe Galtier is strongly placed, after Zinedine Zidane and Juventus’s Max Allegri were cool to PSG’s approaches – will be asked to gain more from Messi and massage Donnarumma’s confidence.
He will benefit from Kylian Mbappe’s decision to stay in Paris rather than join Real Madrid, and, with an eye on fresh incoming talent, will want to be reassured that a complaint lodged this week with Uefa by Spain’s Liga about perceived “continued breaches” of the European governing body’s Financial Fair Play rules will not lead to PSG being penalised – or their activities in the market suddenly constrained.
As for Pochettino, he is at a crossroads. Eighteen months ago, he was the bright young capture for PSG whose reputation suffered mainly for a lack of silverware from his spells at Espanyol, Southampton and Spurs. He has French domestic medals now.
Tuchel, of Chelsea, and Emery, at Villarreal, would tell him that to be fired by the restless Paris club does not prevent a coach going on to thrive elsewhere. But it has been a difficult episode for ‘Poch’. He needs his next job to be successful, and to restore his joy in the game.