The ex-Spurs boss has masterminded wins over Barcelona and Bayern Munich after adapting his game plan since arriving at Parc des Princes.
It feels particularly cruel that Tottenham supporters must watch achingly dull and directionless football under Jose Mourinho while their old flame, Mauricio Pochettino, masterminds Paris Saint-Germain through a Champions League campaign. The difference between the two managers could not be greater; the disappointment with Mourinho and the grief at losing Pochettino each accentuated by the other.
It is a crushing time to support Spurs made worse, of course, by the backdrop of the pandemic. And yet, in a strange twist, Tottenham fans looking across the Channel will not actually see the Pochettino they know and love, but rather one doing a good impression of Mourinho.
In Champions League ties against Barcelona and Bayern Munich, Pochettino has gone for a cautious midblock, looking to squeeze the space and block the passing lines rather than press high. Mourinho failing to live up
to Pochettino’s attacking standards in north London was expected. But to fail on his own terms, all the while being out-Mourinho-ed by his predecessor? Nobody saw that coming. After PSG’s 3-2 victory at the Allianz Arena
on Wednesday, Kylian Mbappe told reporters about Pochettino’s specific tactical instructions. “The coach wanted me to close the passing lines on [Joshua] Kimmich with Neymar,” Mbappe said. “That’s where the space was in recovery, so he wanted me to go deep to stretch Bayern’s block and have them make runs, because that’s not what they prefer.
“That was the plan for me, I was up for the challenge and it worked well today.”
It is only a minor detail, but an important one. Mbappe, along with Neymar, worked hard defensively in Munich,
listening to the manager’s meticulous instruction and carrying it out to the letter.
That is not something that seems to happen at Tottenham these days – if indeed there is any tactical instruction
coming from the dugout at all. But Mbappe was only half right when he said it “worked well”. PSG were sloppy at times, taking good advantage of the decompression between the Bayern lines with their quick and vertical counterattacks, but looking haphazard when defending. The expected goals (xG) battle, which ended 3.79 to 1.35 in Bayern’s favour, told its own story. Pochettino may have succeeded in setting PSG up like a Mourinho team of old, but the match did not really reflect the scoreline. Mbappe and Neymar both worked hard to track Kimmich in the first half, and yet neither seemed interested in performing that task throughout the second 45, leading to a slew of Bayern chances as the PSG midfield struggled to cope without help. Nevertheless, PSG’s conservative defensive shape is interesting to watch develop. Pochettino did the same thing in both legs of the last-16 tie against Barcelona,
dropping his team into a cautious shape – not dissimilar to the French national team – when Barca had the ball.
Clearly, like Thomas Tuchel before him, Pochettino has realised that furious high pressing cannot work when
Mbappe and Neymar are in the team. If only Mourinho would be so adaptable, or even half as adaptable as he promised to be on his arrival at Tottenham. Back in November 2019, he suggested it would not be possible, or desirable, to alter the club’s playing style, only to revert to type in the months that followed, instigating a vague battle plan of a deep block and improvised counterattacks that looks hopelessly out-dated in the modern game. And herein lies the real difference between the two managers. One is flexible, adapting to new challenges and to the players at his disposal. The other is stuck in his ways, still preaching the same tactical philosophy that was in vogue a decade ago, but has long been supplanted. Or, put another way, one manager is humble enough to grow, the other too arrogant to do so. Tottenham fans will watch PSG against Bayern on Tuesday with envious, nostalgic eyes. And yet for all the obvious Pochettino traits when in possession – dual number 10s finding space between the lines, ultra-high full-backs stretching the opposition and waiting for diagonal switches – what they will mostly notice is just
how Mourinho-esque the Ligue 1 champions look without the ball. Pochettino’s success against Barcelona and Bayern (so far) has proven a point to Daniel Levy and the world, just not the point any of us expected: tactical strategy does not define the mood, and playing attacking football is not a prerequisite for a happy fan base. Pochettino’s grin and Mourinho’s frown are what set the tone, both inside the dressing room and out.
The mess at Spurs is yet to reach its nadir. Even a relatively harmless 3-1 defeat to Manchester United – a result that
should not really be seen as disastrous – became another absurd and egotistical moment for Mourinho as he
launched into a tirade regarding Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s post-match comments on Son Heung-min. But Son’s own post-match interview should have been the headline news. Here was Tottenham’s most effervescent player left utterly distraught. That is not because Spurs are playing defensive football where previously they were expansive under Pochettino, who has since adapted to the unique challenges of PSG. No, Son was close to tears because of an issue that goes much deeper than tactics, playing style, or even recent performances. Once again Mourinho has become toxic. Once again he has dragged a club into the gutter. Worst of all, Spurs fans still mourning the loss of Pochettino must watch their old manager excel at the richest club in the world with an aesthetic that, cruelly enough, is most often associated with Mourinho.