PSG

Pochettino: "Would I like Messi at PSG? What do you think?!"

PSG's new coach chatted to AS about this latest step in his career, the upcoming Champions League tie with Barça and two big name players.

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Pochettino: "Would I like Messi at PSG? What do you think?!"
Michael Regan - FIFA FIFA via Getty Images

Now completely recovered from a bout of covid-19, Mauricio Pochettino sat down to chat with AS about his new job at Paris Saint Germain and the club's aspirations to win the Champions League. Last season, PSG reached the final and the year before that, Poche and Tottenham contested the trophy with Liverpool at the Metropolitano. Pochettino will have another crack at the trophy this season but first his team must get through their Last 16 tie with Barcelona...

You spent a year out of work. How does a coach keep himself occupied without a team to coach?

We have a technical team that is very active, we have plenty to keep us busty every day. We have been working very hard on our own analysis as well as self-evaluation which all of the coach staff needs on a collective and individual level. We were lucky enough to have stopped just at a critical moment in our lives and in football. New technologies allow us to stay up to date with everything that's going on. We didn't have enough time to do everything we wanted to do, but I also think the time was right to return to football.

At least the media are no longer placing you at a different club every day - one day, you were being linked to Real Madrid, the next, Manchester United… Now you are on board at PSG.

That's why I never needed to be always in the papers - I was bring written about even without wanting it. I've been lucky in that regard. My name has been linked to different clubs, but the exposure was spontaneous. I was virtually travelling from one club to another. I'm sure that, when these things were being said about me, there was probably something in it but for something concrete to happen, as it did with PSG, several things had to all come together.

With a club like PSG, a coach can't really say no… or can they?

It depends. It was important for me the way the club approached me. Also I knew the club from my playing days. All of the conditions needed for me to agree were there. We are all tremendously happy to be at one of the best clubs in the world.

You have come a long way since the days of saving Espanyol from relegation, moving to the Premier League to join Southampton, or breathing new life into Tottenham… Now the aim is to win the Champions League...

We know that. The experience we have built up has enabled us to take that step. Experience is important in as much as you know how to draw on it. The whole process is fundamental to be able to lead a project like this. There is no safety net here. Here, you have to win and you have to win the Champions League. If that is not possible in four months, then you have to do it in ten. This kind of project demands that you win as the main objective, but also that you can create strategies for a solid project which will give the club structure. Winning and creating a solid structure are compatible. It's about winning trophies and playing good football.

After losing a Champions League final, and a Capital One Cup final, ending as runners-up in the Premier League… it's taken you 12 years and 517 games to win your first trophy.

We did a lot of things during those years which were much more important than winning trophies. Getting to a position where you have the chance to win something and winning silverware is important. But it isn't the important thing. I've won three Catalunya Cups with Espanyol. If one day Catalunya gains independence, that will be worth more merit because we beat Barcelona - in consecutive years. Not just any old club. That is quite a feat… Even Neymar, Rafinha told me how impressive it was because we beat Barcelona.

You have been with your new club for 15 days. Is Mbappé as good as he seems from a distance. He is the goal machine that Xavi decsribes?

I was talking to my colleagues today about Kylian and they said, "who wouldn't want Kylian?" As a player, as a person - he's adorable, with that smile, that energy that wins you over. He's a kid who won the World Cup as a first choice started with France aged just 19… What more can I say about a player like that? He has tremendous potential. He's an incredible talent. I hope he stays with us for as long as possible.

Has Neymar nutmegged you in training?

No. I'd kick him if he did. He's a brilliant footballer. One of the world's biggest talents. We've had a good relationship right from the start. The feeling within the group is really good.

In one of your books, you write that you want players in your teams who are like wolves, hungry, ambitious players… In a sophisticated club like PSG, with so many stars, is it possible to have players like that?

Yes. That was the question I asked when I first joined Tottenham. I asked what kind of players we had, wolves or dogs? Some got a little confused. They said they were more like dogs because they were faithful, loyal… And obviously, domesticated but what I want are wolves are not domesticated. They go out to hunt alone. I my players, I look for a survival instinct and an aggressive nature - that's when we all start to become wolves. A player needs to train, have the commitment that goes with belonging to a group but without losing their killer, animal instinct. Players that want to win above everything else. Out on the pitch, players have to follow their instinct and their talent. And that is partly the responsibility of the coach. As coaches we like to have control of the team, that they function mechanically. I think that order is necessary in defending, but in attack, players need to be able to know that they can rely on their instinct and talent to surprise our rivals. That's why we need wolves and not dogs. When we have the ball it's the players who are in command. In the final third they can do whatever they want. They have complete liberty to do whatever they feel like. I would never reproach a player for what they have done in the final third of the pitch.

Did you know that the day you were appointed at Espanyol, 20 January 2009 was the same day that Barack Obama was sworn in at the White House?

Yes, I knew that. “Yes we can”. That was the slogan we used to save the team from relegation.

And you first professional game on the bench was against Barcelona… who you will meet again in the next round of the Champions League.

Yes, we had two training sessions before that meeting with Barça in the Copa del Rey (0-0)… And now, the first big game I've had was the Super Cup final against Olympique Marseille. There is a big rivalry between the two clubs. If you beat them, fine, no problem, but if you lose...  that's not good…. Of course the Barcelona game is an important date for PSG, for the fans, for the players. Having come so close last season after beating them means that we are even more hopeful this time around. 

The first leg against Barcelona is just two weeks away, is there anything you don't know about Koeman's team? They've reverted back to the classic 1-4-3-3.

However much you study them, being on the outside, it is never the same as being on the inside. That also can be said about them with us. Who better than Ronald to understand the essence of Barcelona? He is a club legend. Sometimes, circumstances require someone who can provide solutions when the time comes to compete. Every coach needs time to find what they want so that the tactical pieces come together on their own. When you first arrive, you make decisions and gradually discover what are the best combinations so that the team function how you want it to.

Can you say something about Messi that has never been said?

There's nothing left to say. I respect him and admire him so much that I would rather not say anything, or even refer to myself in the same sentence as him. That's the best tribute you can pay anyone. One thing that we share is that we both wore the Newell’s shirt and that is huge. That link unites us. That he is one of the best players of all-time is something that I am not going to find out about and when the time come when we face each other, both of us will fight for our own interests.

As a former central defender, what would you have done to stop him?

The only thing I could have done would be to give him a kick - if I could get anywhere near him. But it would have been difficult for me to stop him. He is so fast and intuitive that he breezes past so many opponents before they've had the chance to kick him. Carles Puyol said that even in training it was impossible to get the ball off him, impossible to stop him. He has such a knack of getting past players which makes him unique.

Di Stéfano once told me that the only way to mark Messi is with a piece of chalk...

It's true. You can put a cross on his chest to try and mark him… but you are not going to be able to stop him or get the ball off him.

But if you were asked if you wanted Messi in your team, you'd say yes. It's impossible to say no…

Sometimes, words fail me. Your question says it all. What coach in the world wouldn't want a player of that calibre? I totally understand the question, but it's an attempt to cause a controversy. It's a dangerous question for me to answer if my words are then taken out of context… Then we'll see 'Pochettino lacks respect, Pochettino said this, Pochettino said that...'

I don't think you can be accused of a lack of respect. It was because of your values that you turned down an offer to coach Real Madrid in June 2018 because you were under contract at Totthenham.

That depends on how you look at it. You shouldn't judge others. In life, you have to take decisions that make you happy while respecting other the next man. You have to remain true to your values.

Real Madrid were without a coach at that moment, it could have been viewed as a sign of weakness…

Of course I have weaknesses. Loyalty and honesty are qualities that should come before a lot of things in life. Things come when the moment is right. They have to come naturally - you cannot force things to happen. Sometimes, making decisions that go against reason or are against how you feel ends up with bad consequences. When I give my word, it means more than a signature. And at that moment, I had given my word to Levy that I would stay on until the stadium was finished and to see through the project which he had brought me in for five years earlier. The relationship was one of respect and gratitude because he had signed me from Southampton. He always kept his word with me and I had to do the same. I did what any other person would have done. I was loyal and honest in what I said.

For how reserved and respectful you are in your opinions, I am surprised that one day you said that you would like to coach Real Madrid and the Argentina national team. You did say that, didn't you?

Yes. As a player, I had the opportunity to sign for Madrid but for some reason it didn't happen. And when I first joined Espanyol  in 1994, with Camacho, he always told me about the culture, the mentality, what it meant to be part of a family like Real Madrid. His words always stayed with me. Then later on when I chatted to Alfredo di Stéfano. Griffa was always more inclined towards Atlético. As I got older, Camacho's influence really started sinking in. He represented the values of Madrid, the soul of the club… It was always my objective to one day be able to play for Real Madrid and when you don't realise a dream, you say, "Well, look, one day I'd like to coach Real Madrid - after Espanyol. And why not one day coach Argentina, because I was born with the Argentinean flag on my chest. Those are the two things in football that I would say I would like to achieve.