At some point, somebody was going to push the Mauricio Pochettino button.
The former Tottenham manager has been without a job since November 2019, making him a persistent, looming threat for any manager of a big club whose form began to dip. For a while now it’s seemed only a matter of time before he ended up at Manchester United, Real Madrid or Paris Saint-Germain. As it turns out, it's PSG who appears to be making the move, dismissing Thomas Tuchel on Christmas Eve with Pochettino expected to replace him soon, according to The Guardian.
That Tuchel’s last game in charge was a 4-0 win over Strasbourg says everything about the vast imbalances within French football and the way domestic form has become almost irrelevant. What PSG’s Qatari owners want more than anything is success in the Champions League, and, despite a pair of domestic trebles, Tuchel has been unable to deliver that. He did take PSG to the final last season, the furthest it has ever gone in the competition, but even at the time there were doubts about how meaningful an achievement that was. PSG benefited from a favorable draw, was fortunate to beat Atalanta in the quarterfinal and then was well-beaten by Bayern Munich in the final.
Since then, the trend has very clearly been downward. PSG sits third in Ligue 1 having lost four games already this season, more than it lost in the entirety of 2019-20. It has reached the last 16 of the Champions League, but it was deeply unimpressive despite topping a difficult group, losing at home to Manchester United and away to RB Leipzig. As his midfield dropped deeper and deeper, there was little sense that Tuchel had come any closer to resolving the conundrum of playing dynamic football with a team starring Neymar than Unai Emery had.
Such are the specific issues of managing PSG that no coach can ever really leave with his reputation significantly damaged, but Tuchel certainly doesn’t come out of it well. The sense of irritability that characterized his time at Borussia Dortmund has not been eradicated. Indeed, if anything he has seemed even more tetchy in Paris, falling out with sporting director Leonardo over the latter’s decision to let Thiago Silva go to Chelsea in the summer. Their deteriorating relationship almost certainly played a part in Tuchel’s departure. Although he subsequently insisted it was little more than a joke, Tuchel said after the Strasbourg game on Wednesday that he felt more like “a sports politician” than a coach in Paris.
His reputation should be secure enough to secure him further employment at a high level, particularly given he comes from the preeminent German tradition, but with the emergence of the likes of Julian Nagelsmann and Marco Rose, Tuchel is no longer the bright young thing.
As for Pochettino, he has had a highly promising career as a coach but is yet to win a trophy at Espanyol, Southampton or Tottenham. He established Tottenham as regular Champions League qualifiers and took the club to the Champions League final before a sense of staleness set in last year, in part caused by a lack of investment in the squad. He developed young players and fashioned a hard-working and tactically astute side. The question now is whether he can do something similar with PSG, where he will be working with established stars.
Neymar represents a challenge for any coach. Although he is supremely talented, he is not the most reliable player when it comes to defensive work, and there have been occasions when his off-field antics have seemed like a distraction. Pochettino was noted for his strictness at Tottenham, notably when dropping and then selling Andros Townend; if he takes a similar approach in Paris, friction seems inevitable.
The pending appointment also eases the pressure on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Zinedine Zidane. Both had seemed locked in a consistent pattern of poor results leading to speculation about their futures and the possible appointment of Pochettino, only for results to improve enough to keep them in their respective jobs a little longer. The removal of the Pochettino threat should make them each a little more secure at their respective clubs now that the fear of missing out on appointing one of the world’s more promising coaches has gone–if only by missing out on him.
Where Pochettino went next had been one of the great unresolved stories of 2020. But his pending appointment begins a series of new chapters: for Solskjaer, Zidane and Tuchel; for Pochettino to prove himself at a superclub–and for PSG to prove itself worthy of that status and label.