PSG collapse means Pochettino, Man United timing could finally line up this summer

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Mauricio Pochettino should only be thinking about winning against Bordeaux this weekend, but it’s difficult to imagine that the Paris Saint-Germain coach won’t be distracted by Manchester United’s Premier League clash with Tottenham on Saturday. It’s a game between the club that has never quite been able to get the timing right to hire him, and the one that has limped along in a state of perpetual turmoil since firing him in November 2019.

It would certainly be fascinating to know where Pochettino would rather be: where he is now, where he was or where many expect him to be when next season begins.

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With PSG suffering their latest Champions League humiliation Wednesday, surrendering a 2-0 aggregate lead against Real Madrid by conceding three times in 29 minutes to crash out at the Round of 16 stage, Pochettino might not even survive in his role long enough to take charge of Sunday’s Ligue 1 encounter with Bordeaux at Parc des Princes. The Argentine is now under intense pressure following the Real defeat because, despite his team holding a 13-point lead at the top of the league, the only metric by which PSG coaches are judged is Champions League performances. Failure to succeed in the Europe’s elite competition led to the dismissals of his three immediate predecessors: Thomas Tuchel, Unai Emery and Laurent Blanc.

Sources have told ESPN that Pochettino has been United’s top target to replace Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as the club’s permanent manager ever since the Norwegian was fired last November, but the 50-year-old’s contract in Paris, which runs until the summer of 2023, and the prospect of an expensive compensation bill to acquire his services had cast doubt on whether United would be able to lure him to Old Trafford.

In turn, while sources have said that PSG have been disappointed by Pochettino’s progress with a star-studded squad including Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, the club’s Qatari owners were reluctant to act too quickly on dismissing the former Spurs boss after being stung by Tuchel’s Champions League success with Chelsea last season, six months after sacking the German coach. Despite United’s financial caution and PSG’s determination to avoid another former coach embarrassing them with another team, the defeat in Madrid is now likely to bring Pochettino’s situation to a head.

The manager isn’t working out for PSG: In defeats at both Manchester City in the group stage and in Madrid, Pochettino couldn’t motivate his players to perform as a functioning unit, with his front three of Messi, Mbappe and Neymar happy to watch from afar as their teammates defended without them. The club’s owners wouldn’t have to look far to find a coach who could command the respect of a dressing room with more superstar egos than any other in world football: Former Real coach Zinedine Zidane is out of work and has a proven track record in the Champions League.

But is Pochettino the right man for United?

Ajax coach Erik ten Hag and Spain’s Luis Enrique, who guided Barcelona to the Treble in 2015, are also being considered by the Old Trafford hierarchy, and each has their own qualities that they would bring to the job. Like Pochettino, Ten Hag and Enrique are both under contract beyond this summer. The bigger question for United is whether they believe the credentials that prompted them to consider Pochettino for the job in 2016 (they hired Jose Mourinho instead) and 2018-19, when Solskjaer’s interim spell in charge was made permanent, have been untarnished by his subsequent dismissal from Tottenham and turbulent reign in Paris.

Sources have told ESPN that United’s previous interest in Pochettino was rooted in an admiration for his reputation for building young, energetic teams (at Espanyol, Southampton and Spurs), his readiness to work within a modern structure (first-team coach, director of football and chief executive) and his track record of producing entertaining football.

At PSG, the freedom he’d enjoyed at previous clubs to dictate everything that happened on the pitch has undoubtedly been diminished by the determination of the club’s owners to build a team of stars who may not actually fit together in a functioning unit. Pochettino could motivate Harry Kane, Heung-min Son and Dele Alli to press high and with conviction at Spurs, but demanding the same of Messi, Neymar and Mbappe has proven to be a different matter entirely.

Pochettino built a successful team at Spurs, though, almost winning the Champions League in 2019. Had Pochettino been able to persuade chairman Daniel Levy to make a greater investment in the squad after that defeat to Liverpool, the Spurs story may have continued on an upward curve to the point that the team realised its potential rather than break apart under the stewardship of subsequent coaches.

These are ifs and buts, however, and Pochettino has built a few of those up during his coaching career. If United had appointed him, in either 2016 or 2018-19, would they be in the mess they are in now? If Spurs had stuck with him in 2019, would they have avoided the 2½ years of drift they have experienced since?

It now seems inevitable that United will soon have another decision to make on Pochettino, but if his star no longer shines so brightly because of the PSG experience, so be it. Both United and Pochettino have a reputation to rebuild, so maybe the time has finally come for them to do it together.