Interview

Hungry like a wolf

After a year out of the game, Mauricio Pochettino is back and raring to go. Here the Paris Saint-Germain coach tells Graham Hunter why his players need to retain their ‘animal instincts’ in a sport that tries to tame the beast within

PHOTOGRAPHY Gareth Cattermole & Christian Gavelle (via Paris Saint-Germain)

Ladies and gentlemen, may we present the Canis Lupus.

In French, Mauricio Pochettino’s working language at Paris Saint-Germain these days, it would be Le Loup. In his native Spanish, El Lobo. Back in England, where in his last post he took Tottenham Hotspur to the final of the Champions League, we would know the Latin Canis Lupus as Wolf.

You may fear the legend or admire the smart tenacity of this voracious, carnivorous beast. Or you may never have given much thought to them beyond the legend of Romulus and Remus being raised by a she-wolf and founding ancient Rome. Or Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli being cast into the jungle on the orders of wolf pack leader Akela to avoid the menace of Shere Khan, the tiger. Wolverhampton Wanderers fans, you get a special pass here for thinking about Wolves most of your waking hours.

The fact is that Europe’s wolf population is currently on the rise and Canis Lupus’s place in our cultural ideas is variously represented by Red Riding Hood, An American Werewolf in London, Harry Potter’s Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher Remus Lupin, Dances with Wolves or Peter and the Wolf. Come to think of it, they’re everywhere – an ultra-powerful image, omnipresent across both modern and ancient civilisations.

All of which is relevant because Canis Lupus – with all its legend, natural menace and ability to hunt successfully in packs – helps cut right to the core of Pochettino’s philosophy when it comes to how his footballers should act, think and unite towards their ultimate survival and dominance. We’ll let Mauricio explain.

“From birth, instinctively, football players are wolves. I mean those instincts that originate from talent, that are present in your DNA, in your perceptions. I will always think of footballers as wolves, as long as I don’t see something that makes me lose this image of them. In my mind I always see a wolf’s face, not a dog’s face.

“But as they develop and transform within football, which nowadays is often a banal business world – because of people who think football is simply an ordinary, unimportant business – that can make footballers lose, let’s say, those animal instincts.

“In society, the current way of life around the world, everybody tries to tame us. They want us to follow what they say. It can lead to a wolf becoming tame and then it becomes a dog, right? That’s more my metaphor. I use it because I think football players mustn’t fall into that trap of following the herd. Of being tamed.”

Colourful images but… persuasive. The footballer who can sniff out opportunities in adversity, who is equally effective in a pack as when isolated, who bristles with the aggression needed to dominate – but only when required. The footballer who cows, and renders supine, lesser opponents, and who others are happy to follow with blind allegiance – well, the market demands a pretty penny for just such talents.

Beyond a love of the lupine, Pochettino believes that any coach trying to maximise the mercurial gifts that he or she is (ironically enough) paid handsomely to ‘bring to heel’ must avoid taking their efforts too far. It’s imperative that the coach instils rules, insists on order and puts different units of their team in harness. But they mustn’t tighten the leash too remorselessly.

“Sometimes I have long chats with my group of players – in the original case of ‘the wolf and the dog’, it was at Spurs. It was a really nice conversation to have. A bit like your school teacher or your professors at university. In this case, when a coach asks a question to a group of players, there’s always a point when they’re afraid of answering. However, it’s precisely in that open-dialogue environment that mutual understanding can arise between the coaching staff and the players, where discussions and ideas come up and persist over time so that you always keep them in mind to use.

“Particularly in helping players develop their skills and have a much brighter future than they could have had otherwise. It’s imperative they hold onto a high percentage of what was central to them when they began playing football. They play because they’re wolves, they play instinctively, they play because of their talent, their perception. And often it’s our duty, the coaches’ duty, not to tame that wolf and transform it into a domesticated dog.

“Our responsibility is to bring out those basic instincts which every footballer possesses. Those core, natural instincts can be forgotten because – as I often joke – it often seems that in this world football isn’t our priority. Football should be our priority. But many times we forget to appreciate having a ball.”

Of course, with Mauricio Pochettino – unquestionably wolf-like when he first emerged as a belligerent centre-half under Marcelo Bielsa at Newell’s Old Boys (yes, the club Lionel Messi loves), but now part poet, part philosopher, part brilliant football coach – next comes an illustrative anecdote. The day this man turns his hand to cinema, theatre or literature, Oscars, Tonys, Pulitzers and Golden Globes will follow.

So, talking of alluring spherical objects: “Once when Jorge Valdano came to visit me at Spurs’ training ground, he asked me why I had a football on the desk in my office,” says Pochettino, recalling a chat with the 1986 World Cup winner and former Real Madrid striker. “I told Jorge, ‘The ball connects us with footballers, with life, with values.’ I always say that football is full of emotions. A football triggers emotions so you must always keep it near. And a footballer should always be connected with that – be in touch with his true nature.

“The ball connects us with footballers, with life, with values. A football triggers emotions, so you must always keep it near”
By

“He may become a huge advertising icon and develop other aspects of his life. This might be business-related or anything they like, but his essence must always be connected with a football, a leather ball. The ball’s smell and material. So, seeing a football when you’re working in your office, in the dressing room, at home… it connects you to your essence. And what could make you happier
than being connected with your inner essence and the energy you were born with? Because you were born for that – to play football.”

Without overextending the Argentinian’s wolfish analogies, it’s a fact that he practised what he now preaches the first time he walked into Paris’s Camp des Loges training ground in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. That was in January 2001.

Although he’d roomed with Diego Maradona, won two trophies with Newell’s, lost a Copa Libertadores final on penalties, played a fistful of times for Argentina, marked the great Ronaldo Nazário out of a Barcelona derby during a 2-0 Espanyol win and lifted Spain’s Copa del Rey, it’s a fact that one of his new Paris team-mates at the time, Édouard Cissé, recently admitted he had no idea who Pochettino was or how he played.

Time for the new guy to show his pack some snarl, some bite. Cissé ended up assessing that, armband or no armband, another captain had arrived at the Parc des Princes.

Pochettino: “Nowadays, the internet means you know about every player anywhere around the world. Back then there wasn’t any such social media boom. Plus, I joined from Espanyol. There were players here with different reputations to mine, like Jay-Jay Okocha, Nicolas Anelka and Ronaldinho, when the club signed him. Mine wasn’t a glamorous name in the day-to-day life at PSG. But thanks to how we Argentinians are, the way we compete, our personality, I really quickly established a good relationship with the whole PSG family and, of course, with my team-mates.

“I was a quite aggressive player who competed well. I wasn’t too technically gifted but I was very strong mentally. So from day one I tried to convey that; although they didn’t know me very well, I was going to leave my mark in terms of my characteristics – as a person and as a player.”

Pochettino’s arrival marked an improvement in Paris’s fortunes and only their second European trophy win (albeit the Intertoto Cup against Roberto Baggio’s Brescia). But it pains him to admit that Luis Fernandez’s players underachieved. “We had a great squad, plenty of talent. Nevertheless the club was going through some uncertainty – quite a bit of instability. It was a shame, actually, not to build up a solid project in order to achieve big things. That’s a feeling all the players at the club back then will have. We didn’t achieve what the team was capable of.”

Nevertheless, he’ll always have Paris. So to speak. The French capital, Les Parisiens, taking a risk: all irrevocably changed Pochettino. That’s helped to make him a returning favourite, leading the club formally rather than by deed and attitude as he did 20 years ago.

“Joining PSG as a player was a huge development process for me. To learn a new language, to go out of my comfort zone – because that’s what life in Barcelona had been up until that point. Being exposed to a new environment, in a different club, really enriched my maturing process as a man and as the head of household, at a family level. It was an experience that I appreciated a lot as time passed, because I was able to become integrated into a different culture.”

From the day he replaced Thomas Tuchel in January, Pochettino’s task became creating a cultural impact at Paris Saint-Germain, rather than adapting to one. The man from Murphy in Argentina fully accepts that he’s running a club where trophy success is the baseline demand, not a romantic dream. Handily enough, he used those rare months out of work, where thinking and planning are sheer bliss, to hone his training-ground ideas. To improve.

“My coaches really prepared for how to optimise the decreasing time you get to spend teaching your players. You have to optimise those hours you have for training, which aren’t a lot due to all of the competitions. There are many responsibilities around a football team: tactics, physical conditioning and performance. I think that we coaches now specialise in certain aspects, like the technical, tactical, physical and communication aspects. So we went from being teachers, educators in football – many years ago – to becoming specialists.

“Plus, it’s not the same taking over a team with a specific set of circumstances, as we did in January, compared to starting a season from the beginning, putting a team together. So we prepared a method to optimise the key aspects in a team, using the characteristics of the players you think will most help to achieve your goals.

“We needed to quickly establish the key pillars of our structure, how we work, but especially to improve the team’s performance while maintaining our identity. We’re trying to create an identity players will believe in and adhere to.”

If his work succeeds, expect to see Pochettino’s Paris charges adding voracity, ferocity of spirit, independence of mind and intuition to their play. And expect to be made to think of the word ‘wolf’ when you watch them hunting down opponents.

Interview
“We should be grateful every day”

Mauricio Pochettino explains how recovering from Covid has given him a new lease of life

Just a couple of days after winning his first trophy as Paris coach, the French Super Cup against Marseille, Pochettino was diagnosed with Covid-19. Happily, he endured his obligatory confinement and came out the other side healthy and ready to recommence work. But he didn’t come through the experience unchanged.

“The main thing is that I’ve been lucky,” he says. “I think I felt the psychological, more than the physical, impact. It’s a sensation which is difficult to explain to others in words. The truth is that during the week that I was cooped up in my room, I spent a lot of time thinking, obviously, because you have so much time for reflection.

“I’m an optimistic person. I try to enjoy the present but I’m always looking at the future. I think perhaps we need to give life another go, to try to enjoy things a bit more, maybe more intensely. We should be grateful for every day we get to live, because when this virus gets you it makes you think of our tragedies and all the bad stuff out there.

“That’s our human condition – we are always thinking in extremes! And during your first days with Covid you do think, ‘What if the disease worsens to a point where there’s no turning back?’ That thought is always on your mind.”

Dark moments but clarity – almost epiphany – followed. “Even though I didn’t have a good time, I think Covid helped me become a better person: think more about other people, those around me, and how to be more responsible while enjoying what we do. Responsibility and thinking about the future, because we also need to leave a better world to our children and grandchildren.

“I don’t believe in that cheap philosophy where a lot of people argue, ‘It’s about today, not tomorrow.’ No! It’s about today, of course, but also tomorrow. We need to show responsibility for our neighbours, our children, our grandchildren. We hope there’ll be a better world. I think it’s like, ‘Live today thinking there’ll be tomorrow and thinking our children will be there to savour it.’”

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Interview

Hungry like a wolf

After a year out of the game, Mauricio Pochettino is back and raring to go. Here the Paris Saint-Germain coach tells Graham Hunter why his players need to retain their ‘animal instincts’ in a sport that tries to tame the beast within

PHOTOGRAPHY Gareth Cattermole & Christian Gavelle (via Paris Saint-Germain)

Ladies and gentlemen, may we present the Canis Lupus.

In French, Mauricio Pochettino’s working language at Paris Saint-Germain these days, it would be Le Loup. In his native Spanish, El Lobo. Back in England, where in his last post he took Tottenham Hotspur to the final of the Champions League, we would know the Latin Canis Lupus as Wolf.

You may fear the legend or admire the smart tenacity of this voracious, carnivorous beast. Or you may never have given much thought to them beyond the legend of Romulus and Remus being raised by a she-wolf and founding ancient Rome. Or Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli being cast into the jungle on the orders of wolf pack leader Akela to avoid the menace of Shere Khan, the tiger. Wolverhampton Wanderers fans, you get a special pass here for thinking about Wolves most of your waking hours.

The fact is that Europe’s wolf population is currently on the rise and Canis Lupus’s place in our cultural ideas is variously represented by Red Riding Hood, An American Werewolf in London, Harry Potter’s Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher Remus Lupin, Dances with Wolves or Peter and the Wolf. Come to think of it, they’re everywhere – an ultra-powerful image, omnipresent across both modern and ancient civilisations.

All of which is relevant because Canis Lupus – with all its legend, natural menace and ability to hunt successfully in packs – helps cut right to the core of Pochettino’s philosophy when it comes to how his footballers should act, think and unite towards their ultimate survival and dominance. We’ll let Mauricio explain.

“From birth, instinctively, football players are wolves. I mean those instincts that originate from talent, that are present in your DNA, in your perceptions. I will always think of footballers as wolves, as long as I don’t see something that makes me lose this image of them. In my mind I always see a wolf’s face, not a dog’s face.

“But as they develop and transform within football, which nowadays is often a banal business world – because of people who think football is simply an ordinary, unimportant business – that can make footballers lose, let’s say, those animal instincts.

“In society, the current way of life around the world, everybody tries to tame us. They want us to follow what they say. It can lead to a wolf becoming tame and then it becomes a dog, right? That’s more my metaphor. I use it because I think football players mustn’t fall into that trap of following the herd. Of being tamed.”

Colourful images but… persuasive. The footballer who can sniff out opportunities in adversity, who is equally effective in a pack as when isolated, who bristles with the aggression needed to dominate – but only when required. The footballer who cows, and renders supine, lesser opponents, and who others are happy to follow with blind allegiance – well, the market demands a pretty penny for just such talents.

Beyond a love of the lupine, Pochettino believes that any coach trying to maximise the mercurial gifts that he or she is (ironically enough) paid handsomely to ‘bring to heel’ must avoid taking their efforts too far. It’s imperative that the coach instils rules, insists on order and puts different units of their team in harness. But they mustn’t tighten the leash too remorselessly.

“Sometimes I have long chats with my group of players – in the original case of ‘the wolf and the dog’, it was at Spurs. It was a really nice conversation to have. A bit like your school teacher or your professors at university. In this case, when a coach asks a question to a group of players, there’s always a point when they’re afraid of answering. However, it’s precisely in that open-dialogue environment that mutual understanding can arise between the coaching staff and the players, where discussions and ideas come up and persist over time so that you always keep them in mind to use.

“Particularly in helping players develop their skills and have a much brighter future than they could have had otherwise. It’s imperative they hold onto a high percentage of what was central to them when they began playing football. They play because they’re wolves, they play instinctively, they play because of their talent, their perception. And often it’s our duty, the coaches’ duty, not to tame that wolf and transform it into a domesticated dog.

“Our responsibility is to bring out those basic instincts which every footballer possesses. Those core, natural instincts can be forgotten because – as I often joke – it often seems that in this world football isn’t our priority. Football should be our priority. But many times we forget to appreciate having a ball.”

Of course, with Mauricio Pochettino – unquestionably wolf-like when he first emerged as a belligerent centre-half under Marcelo Bielsa at Newell’s Old Boys (yes, the club Lionel Messi loves), but now part poet, part philosopher, part brilliant football coach – next comes an illustrative anecdote. The day this man turns his hand to cinema, theatre or literature, Oscars, Tonys, Pulitzers and Golden Globes will follow.

So, talking of alluring spherical objects: “Once when Jorge Valdano came to visit me at Spurs’ training ground, he asked me why I had a football on the desk in my office,” says Pochettino, recalling a chat with the 1986 World Cup winner and former Real Madrid striker. “I told Jorge, ‘The ball connects us with footballers, with life, with values.’ I always say that football is full of emotions. A football triggers emotions so you must always keep it near. And a footballer should always be connected with that – be in touch with his true nature.

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“The ball connects us with footballers, with life, with values. A football triggers emotions, so you must always keep it near”
By

“He may become a huge advertising icon and develop other aspects of his life. This might be business-related or anything they like, but his essence must always be connected with a football, a leather ball. The ball’s smell and material. So, seeing a football when you’re working in your office, in the dressing room, at home… it connects you to your essence. And what could make you happier
than being connected with your inner essence and the energy you were born with? Because you were born for that – to play football.”

Without overextending the Argentinian’s wolfish analogies, it’s a fact that he practised what he now preaches the first time he walked into Paris’s Camp des Loges training ground in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. That was in January 2001.

Although he’d roomed with Diego Maradona, won two trophies with Newell’s, lost a Copa Libertadores final on penalties, played a fistful of times for Argentina, marked the great Ronaldo Nazário out of a Barcelona derby during a 2-0 Espanyol win and lifted Spain’s Copa del Rey, it’s a fact that one of his new Paris team-mates at the time, Édouard Cissé, recently admitted he had no idea who Pochettino was or how he played.

Time for the new guy to show his pack some snarl, some bite. Cissé ended up assessing that, armband or no armband, another captain had arrived at the Parc des Princes.

Pochettino: “Nowadays, the internet means you know about every player anywhere around the world. Back then there wasn’t any such social media boom. Plus, I joined from Espanyol. There were players here with different reputations to mine, like Jay-Jay Okocha, Nicolas Anelka and Ronaldinho, when the club signed him. Mine wasn’t a glamorous name in the day-to-day life at PSG. But thanks to how we Argentinians are, the way we compete, our personality, I really quickly established a good relationship with the whole PSG family and, of course, with my team-mates.

“I was a quite aggressive player who competed well. I wasn’t too technically gifted but I was very strong mentally. So from day one I tried to convey that; although they didn’t know me very well, I was going to leave my mark in terms of my characteristics – as a person and as a player.”

Pochettino’s arrival marked an improvement in Paris’s fortunes and only their second European trophy win (albeit the Intertoto Cup against Roberto Baggio’s Brescia). But it pains him to admit that Luis Fernandez’s players underachieved. “We had a great squad, plenty of talent. Nevertheless the club was going through some uncertainty – quite a bit of instability. It was a shame, actually, not to build up a solid project in order to achieve big things. That’s a feeling all the players at the club back then will have. We didn’t achieve what the team was capable of.”

Nevertheless, he’ll always have Paris. So to speak. The French capital, Les Parisiens, taking a risk: all irrevocably changed Pochettino. That’s helped to make him a returning favourite, leading the club formally rather than by deed and attitude as he did 20 years ago.

“Joining PSG as a player was a huge development process for me. To learn a new language, to go out of my comfort zone – because that’s what life in Barcelona had been up until that point. Being exposed to a new environment, in a different club, really enriched my maturing process as a man and as the head of household, at a family level. It was an experience that I appreciated a lot as time passed, because I was able to become integrated into a different culture.”

From the day he replaced Thomas Tuchel in January, Pochettino’s task became creating a cultural impact at Paris Saint-Germain, rather than adapting to one. The man from Murphy in Argentina fully accepts that he’s running a club where trophy success is the baseline demand, not a romantic dream. Handily enough, he used those rare months out of work, where thinking and planning are sheer bliss, to hone his training-ground ideas. To improve.

“My coaches really prepared for how to optimise the decreasing time you get to spend teaching your players. You have to optimise those hours you have for training, which aren’t a lot due to all of the competitions. There are many responsibilities around a football team: tactics, physical conditioning and performance. I think that we coaches now specialise in certain aspects, like the technical, tactical, physical and communication aspects. So we went from being teachers, educators in football – many years ago – to becoming specialists.

“Plus, it’s not the same taking over a team with a specific set of circumstances, as we did in January, compared to starting a season from the beginning, putting a team together. So we prepared a method to optimise the key aspects in a team, using the characteristics of the players you think will most help to achieve your goals.

“We needed to quickly establish the key pillars of our structure, how we work, but especially to improve the team’s performance while maintaining our identity. We’re trying to create an identity players will believe in and adhere to.”

If his work succeeds, expect to see Pochettino’s Paris charges adding voracity, ferocity of spirit, independence of mind and intuition to their play. And expect to be made to think of the word ‘wolf’ when you watch them hunting down opponents.

Interview
“We should be grateful every day”

Mauricio Pochettino explains how recovering from Covid has given him a new lease of life

Just a couple of days after winning his first trophy as Paris coach, the French Super Cup against Marseille, Pochettino was diagnosed with Covid-19. Happily, he endured his obligatory confinement and came out the other side healthy and ready to recommence work. But he didn’t come through the experience unchanged.

“The main thing is that I’ve been lucky,” he says. “I think I felt the psychological, more than the physical, impact. It’s a sensation which is difficult to explain to others in words. The truth is that during the week that I was cooped up in my room, I spent a lot of time thinking, obviously, because you have so much time for reflection.

“I’m an optimistic person. I try to enjoy the present but I’m always looking at the future. I think perhaps we need to give life another go, to try to enjoy things a bit more, maybe more intensely. We should be grateful for every day we get to live, because when this virus gets you it makes you think of our tragedies and all the bad stuff out there.

“That’s our human condition – we are always thinking in extremes! And during your first days with Covid you do think, ‘What if the disease worsens to a point where there’s no turning back?’ That thought is always on your mind.”

Dark moments but clarity – almost epiphany – followed. “Even though I didn’t have a good time, I think Covid helped me become a better person: think more about other people, those around me, and how to be more responsible while enjoying what we do. Responsibility and thinking about the future, because we also need to leave a better world to our children and grandchildren.

“I don’t believe in that cheap philosophy where a lot of people argue, ‘It’s about today, not tomorrow.’ No! It’s about today, of course, but also tomorrow. We need to show responsibility for our neighbours, our children, our grandchildren. We hope there’ll be a better world. I think it’s like, ‘Live today thinking there’ll be tomorrow and thinking our children will be there to savour it.’”

Interview

Hungry like a wolf

After a year out of the game, Mauricio Pochettino is back and raring to go. Here the Paris Saint-Germain coach tells Graham Hunter why his players need to retain their ‘animal instincts’ in a sport that tries to tame the beast within

PHOTOGRAPHY Gareth Cattermole & Christian Gavelle (via Paris Saint-Germain)

Ladies and gentlemen, may we present the Canis Lupus.

In French, Mauricio Pochettino’s working language at Paris Saint-Germain these days, it would be Le Loup. In his native Spanish, El Lobo. Back in England, where in his last post he took Tottenham Hotspur to the final of the Champions League, we would know the Latin Canis Lupus as Wolf.

You may fear the legend or admire the smart tenacity of this voracious, carnivorous beast. Or you may never have given much thought to them beyond the legend of Romulus and Remus being raised by a she-wolf and founding ancient Rome. Or Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli being cast into the jungle on the orders of wolf pack leader Akela to avoid the menace of Shere Khan, the tiger. Wolverhampton Wanderers fans, you get a special pass here for thinking about Wolves most of your waking hours.

The fact is that Europe’s wolf population is currently on the rise and Canis Lupus’s place in our cultural ideas is variously represented by Red Riding Hood, An American Werewolf in London, Harry Potter’s Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher Remus Lupin, Dances with Wolves or Peter and the Wolf. Come to think of it, they’re everywhere – an ultra-powerful image, omnipresent across both modern and ancient civilisations.

All of which is relevant because Canis Lupus – with all its legend, natural menace and ability to hunt successfully in packs – helps cut right to the core of Pochettino’s philosophy when it comes to how his footballers should act, think and unite towards their ultimate survival and dominance. We’ll let Mauricio explain.

“From birth, instinctively, football players are wolves. I mean those instincts that originate from talent, that are present in your DNA, in your perceptions. I will always think of footballers as wolves, as long as I don’t see something that makes me lose this image of them. In my mind I always see a wolf’s face, not a dog’s face.

“But as they develop and transform within football, which nowadays is often a banal business world – because of people who think football is simply an ordinary, unimportant business – that can make footballers lose, let’s say, those animal instincts.

“In society, the current way of life around the world, everybody tries to tame us. They want us to follow what they say. It can lead to a wolf becoming tame and then it becomes a dog, right? That’s more my metaphor. I use it because I think football players mustn’t fall into that trap of following the herd. Of being tamed.”

Colourful images but… persuasive. The footballer who can sniff out opportunities in adversity, who is equally effective in a pack as when isolated, who bristles with the aggression needed to dominate – but only when required. The footballer who cows, and renders supine, lesser opponents, and who others are happy to follow with blind allegiance – well, the market demands a pretty penny for just such talents.

Beyond a love of the lupine, Pochettino believes that any coach trying to maximise the mercurial gifts that he or she is (ironically enough) paid handsomely to ‘bring to heel’ must avoid taking their efforts too far. It’s imperative that the coach instils rules, insists on order and puts different units of their team in harness. But they mustn’t tighten the leash too remorselessly.

“Sometimes I have long chats with my group of players – in the original case of ‘the wolf and the dog’, it was at Spurs. It was a really nice conversation to have. A bit like your school teacher or your professors at university. In this case, when a coach asks a question to a group of players, there’s always a point when they’re afraid of answering. However, it’s precisely in that open-dialogue environment that mutual understanding can arise between the coaching staff and the players, where discussions and ideas come up and persist over time so that you always keep them in mind to use.

“Particularly in helping players develop their skills and have a much brighter future than they could have had otherwise. It’s imperative they hold onto a high percentage of what was central to them when they began playing football. They play because they’re wolves, they play instinctively, they play because of their talent, their perception. And often it’s our duty, the coaches’ duty, not to tame that wolf and transform it into a domesticated dog.

“Our responsibility is to bring out those basic instincts which every footballer possesses. Those core, natural instincts can be forgotten because – as I often joke – it often seems that in this world football isn’t our priority. Football should be our priority. But many times we forget to appreciate having a ball.”

Of course, with Mauricio Pochettino – unquestionably wolf-like when he first emerged as a belligerent centre-half under Marcelo Bielsa at Newell’s Old Boys (yes, the club Lionel Messi loves), but now part poet, part philosopher, part brilliant football coach – next comes an illustrative anecdote. The day this man turns his hand to cinema, theatre or literature, Oscars, Tonys, Pulitzers and Golden Globes will follow.

So, talking of alluring spherical objects: “Once when Jorge Valdano came to visit me at Spurs’ training ground, he asked me why I had a football on the desk in my office,” says Pochettino, recalling a chat with the 1986 World Cup winner and former Real Madrid striker. “I told Jorge, ‘The ball connects us with footballers, with life, with values.’ I always say that football is full of emotions. A football triggers emotions so you must always keep it near. And a footballer should always be connected with that – be in touch with his true nature.

“The ball connects us with footballers, with life, with values. A football triggers emotions, so you must always keep it near”
By

“He may become a huge advertising icon and develop other aspects of his life. This might be business-related or anything they like, but his essence must always be connected with a football, a leather ball. The ball’s smell and material. So, seeing a football when you’re working in your office, in the dressing room, at home… it connects you to your essence. And what could make you happier
than being connected with your inner essence and the energy you were born with? Because you were born for that – to play football.”

Without overextending the Argentinian’s wolfish analogies, it’s a fact that he practised what he now preaches the first time he walked into Paris’s Camp des Loges training ground in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. That was in January 2001.

Although he’d roomed with Diego Maradona, won two trophies with Newell’s, lost a Copa Libertadores final on penalties, played a fistful of times for Argentina, marked the great Ronaldo Nazário out of a Barcelona derby during a 2-0 Espanyol win and lifted Spain’s Copa del Rey, it’s a fact that one of his new Paris team-mates at the time, Édouard Cissé, recently admitted he had no idea who Pochettino was or how he played.

Time for the new guy to show his pack some snarl, some bite. Cissé ended up assessing that, armband or no armband, another captain had arrived at the Parc des Princes.

Pochettino: “Nowadays, the internet means you know about every player anywhere around the world. Back then there wasn’t any such social media boom. Plus, I joined from Espanyol. There were players here with different reputations to mine, like Jay-Jay Okocha, Nicolas Anelka and Ronaldinho, when the club signed him. Mine wasn’t a glamorous name in the day-to-day life at PSG. But thanks to how we Argentinians are, the way we compete, our personality, I really quickly established a good relationship with the whole PSG family and, of course, with my team-mates.

“I was a quite aggressive player who competed well. I wasn’t too technically gifted but I was very strong mentally. So from day one I tried to convey that; although they didn’t know me very well, I was going to leave my mark in terms of my characteristics – as a person and as a player.”

Pochettino’s arrival marked an improvement in Paris’s fortunes and only their second European trophy win (albeit the Intertoto Cup against Roberto Baggio’s Brescia). But it pains him to admit that Luis Fernandez’s players underachieved. “We had a great squad, plenty of talent. Nevertheless the club was going through some uncertainty – quite a bit of instability. It was a shame, actually, not to build up a solid project in order to achieve big things. That’s a feeling all the players at the club back then will have. We didn’t achieve what the team was capable of.”

Nevertheless, he’ll always have Paris. So to speak. The French capital, Les Parisiens, taking a risk: all irrevocably changed Pochettino. That’s helped to make him a returning favourite, leading the club formally rather than by deed and attitude as he did 20 years ago.

“Joining PSG as a player was a huge development process for me. To learn a new language, to go out of my comfort zone – because that’s what life in Barcelona had been up until that point. Being exposed to a new environment, in a different club, really enriched my maturing process as a man and as the head of household, at a family level. It was an experience that I appreciated a lot as time passed, because I was able to become integrated into a different culture.”

From the day he replaced Thomas Tuchel in January, Pochettino’s task became creating a cultural impact at Paris Saint-Germain, rather than adapting to one. The man from Murphy in Argentina fully accepts that he’s running a club where trophy success is the baseline demand, not a romantic dream. Handily enough, he used those rare months out of work, where thinking and planning are sheer bliss, to hone his training-ground ideas. To improve.

“My coaches really prepared for how to optimise the decreasing time you get to spend teaching your players. You have to optimise those hours you have for training, which aren’t a lot due to all of the competitions. There are many responsibilities around a football team: tactics, physical conditioning and performance. I think that we coaches now specialise in certain aspects, like the technical, tactical, physical and communication aspects. So we went from being teachers, educators in football – many years ago – to becoming specialists.

“Plus, it’s not the same taking over a team with a specific set of circumstances, as we did in January, compared to starting a season from the beginning, putting a team together. So we prepared a method to optimise the key aspects in a team, using the characteristics of the players you think will most help to achieve your goals.

“We needed to quickly establish the key pillars of our structure, how we work, but especially to improve the team’s performance while maintaining our identity. We’re trying to create an identity players will believe in and adhere to.”

If his work succeeds, expect to see Pochettino’s Paris charges adding voracity, ferocity of spirit, independence of mind and intuition to their play. And expect to be made to think of the word ‘wolf’ when you watch them hunting down opponents.

Interview
“We should be grateful every day”

Mauricio Pochettino explains how recovering from Covid has given him a new lease of life

Just a couple of days after winning his first trophy as Paris coach, the French Super Cup against Marseille, Pochettino was diagnosed with Covid-19. Happily, he endured his obligatory confinement and came out the other side healthy and ready to recommence work. But he didn’t come through the experience unchanged.

“The main thing is that I’ve been lucky,” he says. “I think I felt the psychological, more than the physical, impact. It’s a sensation which is difficult to explain to others in words. The truth is that during the week that I was cooped up in my room, I spent a lot of time thinking, obviously, because you have so much time for reflection.

“I’m an optimistic person. I try to enjoy the present but I’m always looking at the future. I think perhaps we need to give life another go, to try to enjoy things a bit more, maybe more intensely. We should be grateful for every day we get to live, because when this virus gets you it makes you think of our tragedies and all the bad stuff out there.

“That’s our human condition – we are always thinking in extremes! And during your first days with Covid you do think, ‘What if the disease worsens to a point where there’s no turning back?’ That thought is always on your mind.”

Dark moments but clarity – almost epiphany – followed. “Even though I didn’t have a good time, I think Covid helped me become a better person: think more about other people, those around me, and how to be more responsible while enjoying what we do. Responsibility and thinking about the future, because we also need to leave a better world to our children and grandchildren.

“I don’t believe in that cheap philosophy where a lot of people argue, ‘It’s about today, not tomorrow.’ No! It’s about today, of course, but also tomorrow. We need to show responsibility for our neighbours, our children, our grandchildren. We hope there’ll be a better world. I think it’s like, ‘Live today thinking there’ll be tomorrow and thinking our children will be there to savour it.’”

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