Didine, Paris Saint-Germain’s long-time kit man, has not stopped smiling since Saturday. Well, he did for a bit. He cried when he saw Mauricio Pochettino again, back at the club as a manager 20 years after being there as a player. Didine and Pochettino shared a long hug, and the tears rolled down the elder man’s cheeks as they recalled many memories from their first spell together. Sebastiano Pochettino, Mauricio’s son and the team’s new fitness coach, was five when his father signed for PSG. Didine had not forgotten him, and Sebastiano had not forgotten the kit man either.
Pochettino returning to Paris is a bit like family members getting together again, long after their last reunion. The club has changed enormously since 2001, but like Didine, some people are still there, and those familiar faces warmed Pochettino’s heart.
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That said, his heart wasn’t warmed too much by his first game in charge. Wednesday’s 1-1 draw at Saint-Etienne was underwhelming at times, and worrying, too. We saw a little glimpse of the Poch touch, though that’s expected; after just two training sessions and without nine players (Neymar, Mauro Icardi, Rafinha, Leandro Paredes, Presnel Kimpembe, Alessandro Florenzi, Juan Bernat, Layvin Kurzawa and Danilo Pereira), we could not expect to see a revolution.
We did get to see Marco Verratti playing higher up the pitch and providing an assist for Moise Kean’s goal (his 10th of the season in 16 matches in all competitions). We got to see some other tactical changes, too, with more flexibility in the 4-2-3-1 formation. Ander Herrera dropping deep as a right-sided third centre-back meant right-back Colin Dagba pushed much higher up, and Angel Di Maria could come inside between the lines. The back line was high as expected, but the counter-press still lacks the required intensity and aggression.
This is what Pochettino and his staff wanted from the players. The Argentine has 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 take it.
“I am disappointed,” he said after the match. “We are PSG, and we wanted to win this game. I think there are a lot of aspects that we can improve, we have plenty of concepts that we want to implement, but we need some time. It is only the beginning.”
It is only the beginning indeed, and it has been a crazy four days in Pochettino’s new life. Between his arrival in the French capital on Saturday and then the game away on Wednesday, he was meeting the players for the first time, with sporting director Leonardo and club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi on Sunday, taking training for the first time on the same day for a light session, then properly starting to work with the players on the Monday, before doing his news conference on Tuesday. Time flew by. “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 at all possibilities regarding transfers this month,” he said on Tuesday, without naming any names. He didn’t want to talk about Christian Eriksen when asked, but sources have told ESPN that PSG told Inter Milan that they are not interested in the Denmark international at the moment.
Could Pochettino go back to his former club, Tottenham Hotspur, and ask for Dele Alli? Does he want a centre-back? A creative player? He certainly wants to keep Kean, who is currently on loan from Everton, and the two clubs have started talks to make the move permanent given that no option to buy was put in the deal last summer.
PSG’s transfer strategy will be revealed very soon, but the most important thing for now is for Pochettino to build up the relationships with the players at his disposal. He is a manager who gets really close to the dressing room. He will have one-on-one interviews with each member of his squad in the coming days, but for now, he is on a mission to capture their hearts. Yes, he wants them to work hard, but he wants them to like him too. He was joking with Neymar, smiling with Kylian Mbappe, talking with Di Maria during his first training session, but he also made sure that the players knew that discipline and work was important.
“Are you tired already?” he told them as Sebastiano was putting them through some fitness work. “More intense, more intense,” he also shouted during the rondos. He even asked them to stop talking and work harder.
“Already, we can see and feel the difference compared to [Pochettino’s predecessor] Thomas Tuchel,” a source told ESPN. “Mauricio’s personality is very different. He is far more of a leader, soft at times and hard at times. He knows what he wants and he will get there.”
Marquinhos, who, like Pochettino before him, wears the captain’s armband for PSG, said: “It is a new era for our team. We need to work even harder to do what the manager wants us to do.”
The work will intensify, of course. In his first meeting with the media on Tuesday, the new manager stayed quite cautious, especially regarding his tactics. “We don’t like talking about formations,” he told his introductory news conference, via Zoom. “For us, it is all about animation. Our philosophy is about flexibility, having open tactics where the players can find themselves in the best position to be performing.”
Pochettino wants Mbappe to show his full potential. He wants Neymar to play where he will feel the best. He wants to go far in the Champions League. He knows he has an exceptional squad, and he is ready to face the biggest challenge of his career so far. It has started in a hectic way off the field, but quite slowly on it. So far, it’s all going as perhaps expected.