Thursday 22 August 2019

Pochettino puts Mourinho struggles into sharp focus

'Pochettino still looks a brighter light than Mourinho.' Photo: Getty
'Pochettino still looks a brighter light than Mourinho.' Photo: Getty

Ian Herbert

If you believe what the participants say, then the story of Alex Ferguson, Mauricio Pochettino, a £114 bottle of Brunello di Montalcino (2011) and the Scott's establishment in Mayfair was nothing more than two men making good on a resolution to meet.

It was May 10 this year when the two men took up chairs there, with the Tottenham manager's assistant Jesús Pérez in tow - "myself and Sir Alex spoke, and Jesús drank," Pochettino later related with a smile - and the Argentinian characterised it as an opportunity for accelerated learning.

He claimed he hadn't slept the night before, as a verbal agreement to have lunch, made at a League Managers' Association dinner in March, firmed up into two coveted hours.

But the choreography has always seemed a little more complex where the Godfather of Manchester United and Pochettino are concerned.

Ferguson described him last season as the best manager in the league and although Pochettino signed a new five-year contract at Spurs within a few days of the meeting, he has clearly been on Ferguson's radar - and thus United's.

This is the backdrop to the game of this weekend -Mourinho's United v Pochettino's Tottenham - which, after Mourinho v Wenger and Guardiola v Conte provides yet another absorbing managerial match-up in a season which is becoming stuffed with them.

Though Ferguson has been glowing in his tributes for Mourinho too, you sense that Pochettino - who at 44 is nine years the Portuguese's junior - fits more essentially into his notion of what successful football management is all about, not least developing a youthful, home-grown core.

As the two sides prepare to collide at Old Trafford, Mourinho faces an almighty fight to prove that he's not been turned into yesterday's man by a coming man.

Pochettino really was making Mourinho seem ancient history two months or so ago, when Manchester City were overwhelmed by Spurs just 22 days after submitting United to a first-half evisceration in the Old Trafford derby. Since then the picture has been scrambled by Tottenham's stuttering progress.

It will take more than a win over whipping boys Swansea City and CSKA Moscow to suggest that Pochettino is back at the top of the hill.

Pochettino still looks a brighter light than Mourinho, though. This was the week we discovered that those at the top of Old Trafford are "encouraged" by what is seen as a more progressive style of play than Louis van Gaal instigated.

But the very fact that such expressions of support are necessary speak for the club's poorest start to a season for 26 years, with two win in the past 11 league matches.

Mourinho's task is greater than Pochettino's, however much money the former has at his disposal. The older man is handling a super-tanker, his adversary a pleasure craft. "It is not so easy to change in three months," Mourinho observed recently.

Changed

But it certainly feels like the world has changed in the nine years since Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy rang Mourinho five times after he had been sacked by Chelsea, offering to match his £5.2m Stamford Bridge salary - only for the move to be blocked by the strictures of the severance agreed with Roman Abramovich.

Mourinho heads into the match without Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw, yet with Eric Bailly available and also extolling the virtues of Henrikh Mkitarayan, after his fine recent form.

Tottenham's Jan Vertonghen reflected on the Spurs players' concerns last summer that Pochettino might leave for United and his svengali, Ferguson.

"When the rumours were growing you were always worried, especially with this manager,' he said. "If I were Manchester United, I would have tried to take him from us. Everyone can see what he is able to do with a team."

Mourinho would beg to differ with that assessment but the sentiment gives him something very substantial to prove this weekend.

Manchester United v Tottenham, Live, Sky Sports 1, tomorrow, 2.15

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