Poch pressure: Mauricio Pochettino can force players to perform or perish, irrespective of their star status

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November 8, 2020 4:30 AM

The timing was important. At a time when Ole Gunnar Solskjær is walking a managerial tightrope at Manchester United, Pochettino's appearance on a hugely popular football show probably said something, if you want to read between the lines. For the last 12 months, he had been sort of lying low.

Mauricio Pochettino (Reuters image)Mauricio Pochettino (Reuters image)

The very urbane Mauricio Pochettino appeared on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football and spoke on a range of issues. A year after he was sacked by Tottenham Hotspur, the 48-year-old Argentine made a high-profile public appearance on a UK TV channel.

The timing was important. At a time when Ole Gunnar Solskjær is walking a managerial tightrope at Manchester United, Pochettino’s appearance on a hugely popular football show probably said something, if you want to read between the lines. For the last 12 months, he had been sort of lying low.

Pochettino was asked about his next job. “I don’t know. I’m not going to close any door. I learnt when I was really, really young, (Pochettino’s former coach) Jorge Griffa would say, ‘Mauricio, football is going to dictate your way’. And I’m waiting to feel what is the right project for us, which is the right way to take,” he replied.

He added: “My energy is full, I’d love to be involved in the game but at the same time I need to understand that at the moment is a good moment that you need to wait. You need to wait for the right project and for sure football is going to bring what football wants and we need to be open and to accept or not.

Is the likely United job going to be ‘the right project’ for him? The question has to be asked, for the club is in a football mess at the moment. Without a Director of Football (DoF), there’s apparently no direction in terms of transfer strategy. The club chased Jadon Sancho during close season but ended up doing panic buying, including 33-year-old Edinson Cavani, on the deadline day. Fans and pundits alike had been crying out for a central defender, but the club’s recruitment team and more importantly, executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward barely showed any intention to fill the void. United at the moment are a collection of overpaid, bang average players who have already thrown two big-name managers — Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho — under the bus. Solskjær, most likely, is going to be the third.

Last Sunday, Solskjær completed his 100th match in charge at United. He went to the game, carrying the positive vibes of two very creditable Champions League performances — beating Paris Saint-Germain away and hammering RB Leipzig at home. But a brainless challenge by Paul Pogba saw United concede a penalty and lose the match. The team actually failed to turn up for the game. Their football was uninspiring. Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta tactically outsmarted Solskjær. Three days later, United suffered one of their biggest humiliations ever, as they lost to Istanbul Basaksehir in a Champions League fixture. All the positives they had earned by winning against PSG and Leipzig went down the drain.

United have made their worst start in the English top division league since 1973-74, when they were relegated. This season, after six Premier League matches, they are placed 15th, bereft of a home win and taking just seven points. They have already conceded 13 goals, scoring only nine. Solskjær did well to oversee a third-place finish in the Premier League last term. But after the defeat against Istanbul Basaksehir, his position probably has become untenable. Does he have the personality to turn things around? Will any other Premier League club hire him if he becomes available? Unlikely. Solskjær is not an elite manager, a Cardiff City discard in fact. He has managed to retain the dressing-room harmony. But United is one of the biggest clubs in the world and they deserve an elite manager.

Pochettino so far has a trophy-less managerial career. Then again, in his five-and-a-half years at Spurs, he led the club to the Champions League final, League Cup final, and two FA Cup semi-finals, as also four top-four finishes in the Premier League. That was seriously punching above the club’s weight.

At Spurs, Pochettino never had the money to buy star players. He developed the young players at his disposal, from Harry Kane to Dele Alli. As the head coach of Espanyol between 2009 and 2013, he gave 20 academy graduates their debut. Pochettino works with an outstanding coaching team, an area where United under Solskjær have been found wanting.

United reportedly have sounded out Pochettino’s representatives. Maybe, it is more than that. He had an offer from Barcelona last year but turned them down. As the theatre is playing out, he could be waiting for the United job.

For any coach/manager, it is almost impossible to reject United. This is arguably the biggest job in football. But Pochettino, too, would fail to resurrect United unless he is provided with a proper football structure. United’s tragedy at the moment offers a contrast to Macbeth’s final act. Macbeth had everything, but one fatal flaw, ambition. United have everything, but their hierarchy reeks of a lack of real ambition. United’s problems runs deeper than Solskjær.

If an investment banker is in charge of a club’s player transfers, then its recruitment process is bound to be shabby. If Pochettino comes, he must demand a DoF and at least £200 million for recruiting players before signing on the dotted line. If, for example, someone like Luis Campos, the DoF at French club Lille, were calling the shots in regards to transfers at United, £80 million for Harry Maguire probably would have never happened. P.S. Pochettino’s arrival could force certain players to perform or perish, irrespective of their star status. Their holidays might be over.

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