Mauricio Pochettino should be suspicious of the glitter of Manchester United’s gold

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
December 18, 2018

Mauricio Pochettino’s press-conferences are likely to be littered with questions about Manchester United for some time. Following Jose Mourinho’s dismissal, Tottenham’s head-coach has been installed as a heavy favourite to succeed the Portuguese at Old Trafford.

When asked about United on Tuesday, Pochettino offered a straight bat. As you would expect him to, as he will for the foreseeable future. Events at another club were not his concern, he insisted, and he was focused only on matters in North London. Spurs supporters would presumably like to hear something more definitive. An outright rejection, perhaps, or a stated determination to remain at White Hart Lane for the duration of his contract. But that’s not really Pochettino’s style, as was shown when Real Madrid came calling six months ago.

Being coy is also in his interests. What his reaction is likely to be to a direct approach is hard to know, but – like anyone in his position – he will likely spy an opportunity to create leverage. Any time a major club has a vacancy, Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy has reason to be nervous. In this instance, that anxiety can be used by Pochettino to dictate discussions about the club’s future direction. He and Levy are close, they enjoy an extremely productive working relationship, but football is business and Pochettino will understand that, quite unlike last summer, Spurs will need to capitalise on recent progress with further strengthening of their squad.

Levy should understand that, too. He will also appreciate the extent to which his club’s current standing depends on the Argentine and what the effects of his departure are likely to be. With the positive symbolism of the new stadium and the momentum it promises to generate, if Levy were to allow Pochettino to slip away now, his own position at the club would become extremely difficult. Rightly so, too, because it would be easy enough to trace that departure back to June and July of 2018, and the frustration felt over the failure to achieve anything of note in pre-season.

So don’t expect any denials or clarifications soon. At the same time, the lack thereof shouldn’t necessarily be treated as a warning light. Part of a head-coach’s job, particularly in the absence of a sporting director, is to exert this sort of pressure on his employer and make the very best of a strong negotiating position. If he wants transfer funds to spend, he must secure them himself. Today’s executives are business orientated and they generally only loosen their club’s purse strings after losing a PR war. That needn’t become acrimonious, but that slightly antagonistic relationship is becoming a staple of elite club life.

If Pochettino is to stay in London, Levy must give him a reason to.

Whether Pochettino does decide to move to Manchester United is, of course, a different issue from whether he actually should. The appeal, as always, is financial – both in the sense of the basic wage on offer and the transfer budget available. Given the position’s recent history, though, one can only assume that he’d have limited authority at Old Trafford and would be prevented from constructing the team’s identity around his own image.

That would be a key difference. While he has done wonderful things at Tottenham, much of that success had depended on the autonomy he’s been afforded by Levy. His has been one of the critical voices in transfer negotiations and, with plenty of examples, he has also been encouraged to be the dominant voice in the dressing-room as well; those players who have crossed him or posed a threat to his authority have, almost without exception, been quickly jettisoned with the club’s full support.

Manchester United doesn’t work like that. Without some major restructuring, Pochettino would likely be left to bend himself around the club’s commercial imperatives. It’s possible that events this season will instruct significant change but, if not, it’s hard to foresee him replicating his success with a squad which, generally, is constructed with something other than sporting success in mind. Imagine, for instance, the difficulties he might have encountered with Alexis Sanchez or Paul Pogba. Talent from the game’s stratosphere they might be, but their rigid, non-pliable natures and sizeable egos are anathema to Pochettino’s team-building dynamic. It’s one thing to exclude Younes Kaboul or Andros Townsend, it’s quite another to take on a member of the game’s indulged glitterati.

He won’t need to be told that. Nor, actually, will any manager who has worked within any proximity of Manchester United. There was a time, perhaps ten years ago, when anything they desired was within reach. The club’s financial clout, their superiority over their rivals and their place in the game’s overall hierarchy ensured that theirs was not an offer to turn down. Now, that isn’t really true. Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho have both had their reputations tarnished by the club, partly owing also to their own failings, and Old Trafford can no longer really be described as a favourable destination.

In fact, it’s quite the reverse. Football is game of trends, tastes and fashions, meaning that today’s hottest managerial property is tomorrow’s hapless scapegoat. Nowhere in England is the criticism more fierce than at United, no job occurs in such unforgiving light, and Pochettino could rationally conclude that jeopardising his coaching momentum for a job within a nebulous organisation is a risk he needn’t take. The question he must consider, really, is what the true likelihood is of his success and how failure, whether it’s his fault or not, would make him look in the eyes of the sport. It’s a different case involving a different personality, but he might also dwell on the fact that, justly or otherwise, there isn’t a team in the Premier League that would now welcome Jose Mourinho into their club.

There are also better candidates for the job. Not necessarily superior managers, but personalities better suited to the kind of conditions found at Old Trafford. Men with less to prove and medals already on their mantle. Most likely, if Pochettino is seduced by the illusory appeal of United’s yesterdays, it would be a catastrophe for him, them and, of course, Tottenham.

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