For PSG, firing Tuchel, choosing Pochettino was a long time coming

Thomas Tuchel can’t say that he didn’t see it coming. The now-former Paris Saint-Germain manager had sensed for some time that he was swimming against the tide. He knew that the Ligue 1 defeats at home against Marseille and Lyon for the first time in more than a decade would count against him. He knew that the third place in the table at Christmas was not a good look. He knew that, despite he and his team showing great character to get through to the Champions League round of 16, it was not enough because of how poor they had been throughout the campaign.

– Sources: PSG axe Tuchel; Pochettino to take over

He will be able to recall RMC Sport’s interview with PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi straight after the win at Manchester United. When asked if it was Tuchel’s victory, Al-Khelaifi answered that the players had been amazing and demonstrated fantastic spirit. There was nothing for the manager, not a single word of praise or congratulations.

Yet, it wasn’t always like that. Al-Khelaifi had often hailed Tuchel as the best coach in the world, like in September 2018 after he won his first five Ligue 1 matches, or two months later when his side beat Liverpool in the Champions League at the Parc des Princes.

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Things, of course, have changed. In the president’s eyes, Tuchel is no longer the right man for the job. He never really was for sporting director Leonardo.

Tuchel was appointed by Leonardo’s predecessor, Antero Henrique, and the Brazilian never accepted the coach he inherited. The two fell out many times, both in private and in public, most recently in the summer when they disagreed massively on transfers. Tuchel wanted a centre-back, specifically Germany international Antonio Rudiger of Chelsea. Leonardo wanted a defensive midfielder, so he signed one in Danilo Pereira. To make a point, Tuchel played him at centre-back, which was both childish and unnecessary. Once Leonardo told the media in October that Tuchel’s comments and attitude were damaging for the club, it was evident his days were numbered.

In the end, Tuchel departs with the best win percentage of any manager in Ligue 1 history (75.6%) and the highest average of points per game (2.37, tied with Unai Emery). He took the club to its first-ever Champions League final, just last August, when on another night his team would have taken their chances and beaten Bayern Munich. But he is still set to get sacked, sources tell ESPN, six months before the end of his contract, which won’t cost the club too much.

Tuchel’s biggest problem is that he never really managed to give his PSG team a genuine identity. The style of play this season was poor; PSG were never convincing and there were no patterns or themes to their style of play. In fairness to him, he never had the opportunity to properly prepare for this campaign. There was no preseason because of the Champions League run, and due to several injuries and positive COVID cases, he was never able to field his strongest team.

There’s also the added context that he never felt at ease in the French capital. As Tuchel himself admitted on French TV on Wednesday after his team’s 4-0 win against Strasbourg, “Paris are definitely a particular club.” And he was growing tired of it. In an interview with German broadcaster Sport 1 just before the Strasbourg game, he expressed his frustration.

“Here in Paris, expectations are extreme, inside and outside the club,” Tuchel said. “We feel that recognition, especially in the league, is not the same than for Bayern, for example. It is missing a bit. They always say, ‘They have [Angel ]Di Maria, [Kylian] Mbappe and Neymar; it is normal that they win in Bordeaux, it is not an achievement.

“Sometimes, it is very easy to deal with this dressing room. Other times, it is a big challenge because a club like PSG has many influences, beyond that of the interests of the team. I just love football, and in a club like [PSG], it is not always about football. Some days, I think it could be so simple. It was only a substitution: why is it talked about for two weeks? Then, I tell myself, ‘But I only want to be a coach.'”

Clearly, there was a fatigue about Tuchel, considering both the context in Paris and the particular energy at PSG. And he’s right: it’s not a club like many others. There are high expectations, ceaseless politics and demanding fans, owners and media. There are endless agendas to navigate, and it must all be done under a microscope. Tuchel arguably wasn’t made for this sort of job, and never seemed to really figure out a way to deal with all of it.

Even the dressing room and the key players were not all that disappointed he was dismissed. There was a time when he had the full support of his squad, but he fell out with Mbappe last year and some of his very questionable tactical decisions lost him a lot of credit.

Two weeks ago, Leonardo and Al-Khelaifi contacted Mauricio Pochettino, and that was the end for Tuchel.

With Pochettino, PSG are getting a very different animal. To start with — and this could well be his biggest asset — the Argentine knows the club well. He played for PSG, he was the club’s captain and he built a strong relationship with the city, the club and the fans. He is very much loved there, even if he was only there for two seasons (2001 to 2003). His ambition was always to come back as manager.

Furthermore, he won’t have a (re)building job to do like he did at Tottenham Hotspur. He will probably have less money available in Paris than his predecessors because of the economic climate, but he will have a great squad at his disposal, two world-class superstars, some great youngsters and experienced players like Di Maria.

He also has the players to fit his 4-2-3-1 formation. The 14-month break he’s had since he was ousted from Spurs has revitalised him. He was tired after five years of Sisyphean work in North London, culminating with the Champions League final loss to Liverpool.

In short, Pochettino ticks all the boxes for what PSG need right now. He is a hard-working manager with a clear identity in terms of intensity and style, emphasising counterpressing and verticality with his teams. He speaks the three languages needed to communicate with his dressing room (French, English and Spanish), and he also has a political side to him, capable of handling such scrutiny. He is more than just a coach and boasts a very different mindset than Tuchel’s.

Now, though, only the results will matter. Winning the league and doing well in the Champions League are the two main objectives. Pochettino, as a former Espanyol player and manager, will very much look forward to facing Barcelona in Europe in February. And as the club is negotiating with Neymar and Mbappe to extend their contracts, they are hoping that it will be an advantage to have brought in Pochettino so early and not have any uncertainty about life after Tuchel.

The last time PSG replaced their manager at Christmas was December 2011, when Antoine Kombouare was replaced by Carlo Ancelotti. Les Parisiens were top of the league but ended up losing the title to Montpellier. Pochettino will arrive with the team in third, just a point behind Lille and Lyon. Will things work out straight away this time?

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