“I think every single club is different.”
These are the words of Mauricio Pochettino in his first press conference as Paris Saint-Germain’s new head coach – his first job since being sacked by Tottenham Hotspur in November 2019.
“Paris Saint-Germain is one of the biggest clubs in the world, and of course Tottenham, today, is too.
“It’s difficult to compare because we are in France, and Tottenham is an English club.”
He’s right. There are some differences.
PSG have been, more recently, famed for their wealth. Their front three of Neymar, Kylian Mbappé and Mauro Icardi, cost a combined €417 million – only €5.48 million less than Pochettino spent on permanent transfers during his entire spell at Tottenham.
In 2018, Spurs earned the dubious honour of becoming the first Premier League team to not make a signing in a summer transfer window. In fact, at one point, they went 517 days between signings. In contrast, PSG spent at least €49 million per season on transfers from 2011 to 2020.
Pochettino will have money to spend, that’s for sure. And it will be the kind of money he never had when he was in charge of Tottenham. This may help prevent the kind of poor results that ultimately led to his sacking at Spurs. In August last year, the Argentinian told Spanish media outlet El Pais: “After the Champions League final, four years in the top four, two years without signing, a different management strategy was needed.
“Sometimes the vision of a coaching staff is not accepted by the club management.”
Pochettino took Tottenham to a Champions League final in the same season the club purchased no players, and perhaps this factored into Daniel Levy’s thinking when he made the decision to sack his manager. Maybe Pochettino thought more signings would get the club out of the slump that eventually cost him his job, and then eventually help Tottenham win silverware. Maybe Levy thought he’d been a success without numerous signings, a clamber for new players was just an excuse, and thus any spending would be unnecessary.
But did Tottenham have ‘success’?
Spurs’ last trophy was in 2008, beating Chelsea 2-1 in the League Cup final. Despite finishing in the top four in four of his five full seasons at the club, Pochettino never won a trophy. He lost three semi-finals and two cup finals.
In those same five years PSG won 17 trophies. But regardless of how competitive Ligue 1 may or may not be, the prizes still sit in PSG’s trophy case. As such, Pochettino finally lifted the first piece of silverware in his managerial career earlier this month, with his PSG side beating Marseille 2-1 in the Trophée des Champions.
However, these aren’t the trophies that PSG covet. They’re famously desperate to win the Champions League. And in that respect, they’ve built up a reputation of being ‘nearly men’ or simply ‘bottlers’. Making it to the final last season was a huge achievement for the club (they’d not made the semi-finals since the 1994/95 season) but they still lost 1-0 to Bayern Munich.
One after being 2-0 up on aggregate against Manchester United after the first leg – only to lose 3-1 at home. Marcus Rashford’s injury time penalty meant PSG were knocked out on away goals. The other last 16 collapse came courtesy of the biggest comeback in Champions League history. PSG beat Barcelona 4-0 at the Parc de Princes in Paris. They were then 5-3 up on aggregate with 30 minutes remaining in the second leg, having also scored an all-important away goal. Barcelona then scored three goals after the 88th minute. PSG lost 6-5 on aggregate.
This is where Pochettino and Spurs are not unlike the French club.
Even before Pochettino made his way to North London, St Totteringham’s Day, a match against Arsenal where a 2-0 lead turned into a 5-2 defeat and an FA Cup semi-final loss against a club bottom of the Premier League were the kind of events Spurs had become known for. And they didn’t stop under the Argentinian.
In 2016, during the ‘Battle of the Bridge’, Spurs were 2-0 up against Chelsea, knowing anything less than a win would hand Leicester City the title. Then, Danny Rose’s tackle on Willian lead to a ‘melee’ in front of the dugouts, and a Mousa Deméblé finger into the eye of Diego Costa. After half time, Gary Cahill made it 2-1, and then Eden Hazard scored the equaliser against a visibly agitated Tottenham. Then, as David Hytner said in The Guardian: “When Eden Hazard equalised for Chelsea, there were still seven minutes plus stoppage time for Tottenham to find the winner but, by then, they had lost their heads completely.”
Spurs capitulated further on the last day of the season. They lost 5-1 to an already relegated Newcastle team, meaning they finished third, and below Arsenal – or as some put it, ‘third in a two-horse race’.
Was this all Pochettino’s fault? Of course not, but in almost every season since, they had been seen as serious title challengers, only to falter down the stretch. A 1-0 loss against West Ham in 2017 (which ended a nine-match winning streak) all but gave the title to Chelsea, and a 3-1 loss at home against newly promoted Wolves in 2018 ended their title challenge almost as soon as it started.
All of this aside, Pochettino improved Spurs drastically. He turned them into regular Champions League participants, something that could not be said of the team before his arrival.
Having been previously linked with Barcelona, Juventus and Real Madrid, Pochettino wasn’t appointed simply because he was the best manager available – six-time Serie A winner and two-time Champions League finalist Massimiliano Allegri is still without a job. The club must have seen Pochettino as the man capable of providing the trophy they yearn for, and he knows his time in Paris will ultimately be judged by his side’s performances in Europe.
But combining the manager known for overseeing the ‘nearly mean’ of the Premier League with the ‘nearly men’ of European football is a joke PSG must have known they could very well end up being the punchline to.
“For Paris Saint-Germain, and for any club, the Champions League is the most important competition,” Pochettino told reporters.
Important because it would remove the ‘bottler’ labels both Pochettino and PSG have been stuck with. Important because it would improve reputations and stop jokes. Important because it would lead to redemption and justification. Everything that had happened previously would no longer matter.
And in that respect, maybe Pochettino was wrong. Paris Saint-Germain and Tottenham Hotspur aren’t so different after all.