In January 2001, Paris Saint-Germain unveiled the mid-season signing they hoped would stabilise a campaign that had wobbled off course. He was a tall, Argentinian centre-back who wore a headband to tame his long hair. He said all the right things about his move to Paris.
“It’s a great step forward to be joining the biggest club in France,” declared Mauricio Pochettino, then 28. “I’m eager to get going as quickly as I can.” And, voila, so he did.
Pochettino scored on his home debut at the Parc des Princes, and PSG supporters were soon admiring his aggression. He picked up yellow cards within 10 minutes of his first matches against major rivals Olympique Marseille and Olympique Lyonnais.
Twenty years on, Pochettino could read from the same presentation-ceremony script to accept his offer to be manager of PSG, replacing the sacked Thomas Tuchel. Only this time, he would not be flattering his new employer by calling them the "biggest club in France."
Pochettino the player arrived at PSG a decade before the club’s takeover by Qatar Sports Investments. Back in early 2001, they were mid-table in Ligue 1. It had been seven years since they won the title, and they were about to watch Lyon win the next seven.
The PSG who want to entrust the management of their expensively assembled superstar players to Pochettino are a different beast. They have won seven of the last eight French championships, and Tuchel departs having seized a full domestic Treble in 2019-20. The German also achieved something no PSG coach ever has. He took them to a European Cup final. Just four months later he was dismissed.
Pochettino would sympathise with that abrupt loss of faith. He is available because his last job, at Tottenham Hotspur, came to an end just 170 days after he had made history with Spurs. In June 2019, he had them in a Champions League final, unprecedented for Tottenham. In November, Spurs replaced him with Jose Mourinho.
The slump in form that brought an end to Pochettino’s five and half years of transformative work at Spurs was deeper than the blip that undermined Tuchel in Paris.
Third place in Ligue 1, where PSG have ended 2020, is a couple of rungs below standard but they trail Lyon and Lille only by a point. As required of a club who line up the most expensive pairing of forwards ever traded, the €400m-plus combination of Kylian Mbappe and Neymar, PSG are still outscoring everybody else in the division.
So PSG’s pitch to ‘Poch’ includes the promise of the one thing his excellent managerial record lacks: trophies.
Pochettino has elevated every team he has managed, from Espanyol, where he had been a popular player and who drafted him in as a novice coach to stave off relegation; to Southampton; to Spurs. But he never delivered silverware.
Modern PSG coaches always do. Each of the four that have been taken on since PSG came into their vast wealth – Carlo Ancelotti, Laurent Blanc, Unai Emery and Tuchel – have won at least one Ligue 1 title.
None lasted longer than Blanc’s three years, which is the best measure of how taxing a job it can be, even while PSG lord it over the rest of French football.
Emery was not alone for sensing his authority regularly diminished when superstar players seemed indulged by influential club executives. Tuchel had a difficult relationship with the director of sport, Leonardo, who was brought in during the German’s two-and-half year stint.
“We will of course remember the good moments we shared together,” said the PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi, announcing Tuchel’s departure. The choice of successor has most likely been made, and centred on a very different type to the sometimes abrasive Tuchel, and on a manager with a reputation for close bonds with his dressing-room. Pochettino has cultivated those at all the clubs he has coached.
At Tottenham, Southampton and Espanyol, he could appeal to underdog instincts, his teams competing as near-equals with opponents who spent far more on recruitment.
PSG are something else, a club who gazump almost every other European heavyweight in the marketplace, with a sky-high salary scale.
Their new manager will be welcomed by owners who are contemplating whether or not to offer a record-breaking deal to Lionel Messi when Messi’s Barcelona contract expires in June.
They will tell the new coach he is expected to do better than Tuchel’s second place in the Champions League, and he will see their immediate gaze is set less on improving the current Ligue 1 position than on the last-16 of the European Cup in mid-February. Barcelona are PSG’s opponents.