Photograph: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images
Hence, Chelsea need a big-name manager, an ultra-charismatic chap who can take care of the superstar players’ egos and also develop the younger players, offering them encouragement. They need someone who knows the Premier League inside out, who also knows London. And they need someone who reshapes the squad, who trims the fat, who actively prefers to work with a lean first-team group.
It’s not really hard to see the attraction of Mauricio Pochettino, who isn’t yet the club’s new manager but is getting so close to the job that it is pertinent to ask what the future would look like at Stamford Bridge with him at the centre. Even to overlook the disclaimer about how quickly things can change in football, as anything can happen, particularly at Chelsea under Todd Boehly and Behdad Eghbali.
The Chelsea owners have applied the spell in recent days, trying to reassure Pochettino and presumably make it clear that they are not the type of guys whose idea is to burn two permanent coaches and two caretakers in one season, to throw the water away sums in the mouth in the transfer market without a guiding principle.
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But for all the chaos of their tenure so far, with the team languishing in 11th place in the table – even out of cup competitions – it’s easy to see why Pochettino has been enthralled, why his positive energy is growing as expected. come.
Every manager knows that clubs almost always come to them because it didn’t work out for the previous person; they come in times of crisis. And Pochettino must see a parallel with his appointment from Tottenham in May 2014 after his 18 months at Southampton.
Back then, Spurs looked broken, burned by Tim Sherwood’s tenure, confidence on the floor. The team needed rebuilding, and that too on a budget. What they needed, as Chelsea do now, was someone who was ruthless, who would move against underachieving regulars, creating pathways from within and convincing mainstays. Hugo Lloris, for example, had thought he should leave to boost his career. Pochettino turned him into one of his key lieutenants.
Pochettino’s success at Spurs has come from a low base – he would work without compunction to build players’ fitness and confidence – and the thing to be said about the Chelsea squad is that starting levels are quite high, despite the embarrassment of championship position.
When Pochettino analyzes him, he probably sees two areas for improvement: goalkeeper and centre-forward. Kepa Arrizabalaga has not always convinced and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been sidelined, with no explanation forthcoming, which makes him consider his future.
But in all other areas, there are the kind of players Pochettino would like to work with, including such prominent figures as Thiago Silva and N’Golo Kanté. Then there are the younger ones: Reece James, Wesley Fofana, Enzo Fernández and Kai Havertz plus those fighting for a breakthrough, including Noni Madueke and Carney Chukwuemeka. Conor Gallagher feels like a prototype Pochettino player.
There is a lot of talent in midfield, even if Mason Mount were to leave, and Pochettino would line up to bring it all together, counting on the human touch that has been a motif of his career.
Everyone can tell or have told stories about Pochettino’s inclusiveness, how he strives to make every member of staff – and not just the players – feel part of a club’s wider community. Here’s another one. Bonfire Night 2017 at the Spurs, and Pochettino brings everyone together for a barbecue; players and their families, as well as staff and their families.
The person flipping the burgers on the grill is wearing a cap and normal clothes, head down as he concentrates, and no one really notices until they go to eat. When he looks up, they see it’s Pochettino. He loves to put himself at the center of things, to be in the field, together with his assistants Jesús Pérez, Miguel D’Agostino, Toni Jiménez and Pochettino’s son, Sebastiano; to watch academy matches, to connect his club from bottom to top.
Pochettino has always been a development coach; there was a time when it seemed every English debutant had been one of his at Southampton or Spurs. It makes players better. But he knows what it means to compete at the highest level, having managed six consecutive seasons in the Champions League (one final, one semi-final, two round of 16), leading one of the continent’s elite clubs in Paris Saint-Germain and some of the best players.
In the last two World Cups, the winning captains and top scorers have played football with their club under Pochettino – Lloris and Harry Kane (2018); Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé (2022). PSG have a reputation for being impossible to manage and Pochettino has done as well as most of his 18 months there. It is significant that he has maintained good relations with many players, including Mbappé, Neymar and Marco Verratti.
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It’s expected to be a summer of change at Chelsea in terms of player eliminations, but that would suit Pochettino, who sees no problem pitching against one of Spurs’ rivals. The thing for him is that it’s not their most hated rivals, in other words, Arsenal.
When Pochettino moved to Spurs, they told him all about Arsenal, how that derby was the one to mark in his diary, how it was so important to finish above them. Just as he would never have managed Barcelona due to his links with Espanyol, he would never have worked for Arsenal. Shortly after his departure from Spurs in November 2019, Arsenal tried to persuade him to replace Unai Emery. For Pochettino, it was not a start.
Chelsea is a different story. Spurs support is unlikely to give them their blessing, that they will have rose petals ready for their next encounter. The romance would probably be over. Pochettino is determined to look ahead.