Will Pochettino’s team building work at PSG, a club where the individual is king?

Argentinian will have to find a way to harness players unlikely to be willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause

Mauricio Pochettino is exoected to be named as the new manager at Paris Saint-Germain. Photograph: Andrej Isakovic/AFP via Getty Images

Mauricio Pochettino is exoected to be named as the new manager at Paris Saint-Germain. Photograph: Andrej Isakovic/AFP via Getty Images

 

The first thing you need to know about the six-day underground Christmas disco that Neymar is allegedly hosting for 500 people in the soundproofed annexe of a mansion outside Rio de Janeiro is that Neymar denies its very existence.

Nevertheless, CNN Brasil has reported that in recent days an unusually high number of cars have been seen pulling up outside Neymar’s home in the small beach town of Mangaratiba. Local hotels have been registering a surge in bookings, despite rising coronavirus cases in the region.

A source for the municipal government has described the alleged gathering as “a sanitary disrespect”. And a representative for a Brazilian folk band called Vou Pro Sereno has confirmed that they have been booked to play an underground Christmas disco that Neymar – and we really can’t stress this part enough – insists is not actually taking place.

Look: who knows if any of this is true? The guests certainly, although seeing as Neymar has allegedly banned the attendees of his alleged six-day underground Christmas disco from bringing their mobile phones, it is unlikely we will ever find out for sure.

For our purposes, at any rate, the existence or otherwise of the Neymar six-day underground Christmas disco is largely irrelevant. The aim is to offer just the briefest glimpse of the confusion – the noise, the confusion, the real scandal, the fake scandal, the chaos – that awaits Mauricio Pochettino as the new manager of Paris Saint-Germain.

PSG’s last manager was Thomas Tuchel, a fine coach who nonetheless struggled with the internal currents at the club. Just before Christmas he gave an interview to German television in which he said he felt like “more of a sports politician or sports minister” than a football coach. “At a club like PSG, there are many influences,” he said, a point the club’s Qatari owners neatly proved a few days later by sacking him.

Despite leading them to a first Champions League final, Tuchel never quite fitted in the PSG universe: a world of competing agendas and competing truths, where everything is football and everything is something else. It’s a benevolent luxury brand. It’s a front for an autocratic government. It’s a decadent star vehicle. It’s a magical dream factory. It’s built on hard work and Parisian elan. It’s built on CO2 emissions and modern slavery. It’s all real. Nothing is real.

Thomas Tuchel struggled with the internal currents at PSG. Photograph: Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images
Thomas Tuchel struggled with the internal currents at PSG. Photograph: Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images

To thrive as a PSG coach is to be able to hold all these ideas at once, perhaps even to believe in them all equally. Eventually it all got too much for Tuchel, a man who ultimately just wanted to coach some football and win some cool trophies. He could refuse to comment on the six-day underground Christmas disco. He could deride it as a distraction or media obsession. He could pretend not to notice. What he couldn’t do – fatally – was unsee it.

And so into the breach steps Pochettino, a man who in his last job took a Tim Sherwood team to a Champions League final in the space of five years on a net transfer spend of about £30 million. Naturally, his impending arrival has catalysed all sorts of feverish speculation about who else might be joining the revolution: Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen, perhaps even Lionel Messi. The more interesting question, in the short and long term, is how he deals with what he already has.

This, after all, is Pochettino’s gift: he shifts your horizons, raises your expectations, redefines the boundaries of the possible. He is your bridge between Sherwood and Jose Mourinho, between Nigel Adkins and Ronald Koeman. He forces you to dream a little bigger.

The problem is that none of this really applies to PSG. They don’t need their expectations raised. They don’t want to go on a holistic journey of growth, renewal and self-realisation. This is the most intriguing aspect to the appointment: Pochettino made his name as a team-builder, a coach who demands humility and honesty and suffering, and who draws his squads tight like a family. What happens when he takes over a club that demands the exact opposite? Where the individual is king? Where all the forces spin outwards?

Thomas Meunier left PSG in the summer and remembers his four years there as “nothing but birthday parties”. The club president, Nasser al-Khelaifi, is said to have a direct line to the dressingroom. The sporting director, Leonardo, wields the sort of influence that goes well beyond what Pochettino will have experienced with, say, Les Reed at Southampton.

Put more simply: in almost every facet of the job, Pochettino will be confronted with reminders of his basic powerlessness. Five-nil wins over Dijon will be scrutinised for signs of potential decay. Every substitution will feel like the end of the world.

Then there will be the questions about Messi, the questions about birthday parties, about imagined feuds and real feuds, questions that will demand braggadocio, obfuscation and lies. On the pitch all he has to do is to persuade Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, two of the world’s most individualistic attacking players, to sacrifice themselves to a collective high-intensity pressing game and win the Champions League. Good luck with that.

This is how it comes apart. But this is also how it all comes together. Because this is the possibility we must also confront: that somehow PSG’s entitlement and Pochettino’s zeal and PSG’s lust for pleasure and Pochettino’s thirst for pain complete each other. That on some level, each has what the other needs. And right now, it feels possible to believe in both outcomes equally. – Guardian

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