The oft-attributed concept is how we are at our most vulnerable after success. It could be due to some combination of the pressures of living up to new expectations, adulation distracting us from lagging indicators, or some form of personal identity wrapped in a past era. Last August, Thomas Tuchel led Paris Saint-Germain to the Champions League Final before losing 1-0 to Bayern Munich. He was fired by the club four months later, replaced by another manager with first-hand experience of that sequence: Mauricio Pochettino was fired by Tottenham just six months after also losing in the Champions League Final. Surely, both managers felt at the time of their losses that this was just the beginning, that they would obviously return to the final with the same team.
But Tuchel has himself to blame. His interview with German sports broadcaster SPORT1 before a Strasbourg match in late December was the inciting incident for the fracture. He complained about how PSG has influences “beyond that of the interests of the team” and that the discourse surrounding the team is “not always about football.” Tuchel then tried to backtrack on his comments, saying his words were a joke while also blaming the translation. It was too late. His last match was a 4-0 win over Strasbourg; managing PSG was always more than getting three points on the field.
Considering how careful Tuchel had been to forge an emotional connection with his players, his carelessness could also be interpreted as him tapping out of the PSG ecosystem. How else would you describe Tuchel speaking out against the club’s off-field interests when they are an innovator in the “soccer club as global lifestyle brand” movement? Maybe it was a realization of the inevitable: that regardless of his tactical acumen, he was at the mercy of the club’s star-focused, branding structure. By leaving, he freed himself.
“Some days, I think it could be so simple,” day-dreamed Tuchel.
While Tuchel lasted just over two seasons at PSG, the global spotlight in Paris recalls the idea of how one season at Barcelona is equal to multiple seasons in less intensive environments. Consider Tuchel’s standing among European managers when he was hired in 2018. His two seasons at Borussia Dortmund from 2015-17 overlapped Pep Guardiola’s time at Bayern during the Bundesliga’s possession-based era. Tuchel benefitted from Guardiola’s halo effect in pushing his own ideas of a quick-passing 4-3-3 system (we also have our refrain here of how much the game changed from possession to pressing in the last two seasons).
It was this entertaining attacking style that PSG hired in Tuchel to fully unlock Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. On the surface, the combination of the club’s endless resources with Tuchel’s front-foot ideas seemed a perfect match. Sure, Tuchel could be strong-headed about his beliefs, but beautiful football would override any quibbles behind the scenes, right? Yet this also represents the differences between soccer theory and real-life boundaries. Instead of double-digit passing sequences and constantly rotating triangles, Tuchel had to balance the play of Neymar, Mbappe, Edinson Cavani, Angel Di Maria, Dani Alves, and Marco Veratti while maintaining some defensive structures.
It was a constant compromise for a style that demands an entire group moving, defending, and attacking as one. There was always one piece that was off, usually someone in midfield having to make up for the freedom of the front three when playing without the ball. There are great players, and then there are also good players who make a great team function. PSG have an abundance of the former. The latter falls upon the manager to bend, mold, and shape.
So while Tuchel leaves with the highest win percentage in Ligue 1 history, he never could impart a definitive style. We saw the difference in the Champions League Final, with Hansi Flick’s side playing a high-risk pressing style involving all eleven players understanding their roles. PSG, as usual, relied upon the individual brilliance of Neymar and Mbappe.The paradox of a possession-based system is how it restricts the free, intuitive movements of players for clearly defined positioning and space. Attackers especially must sacrifice their instinct to hold a side’s shape. But Neymar isn’t there to uphold a system; him floating freely is the system.
You could also debate whether an overarching style even fits PSG. Every club has their own personality: the mechanical movements of pressing fits with Bayern’s club-first ethos. Tuchel’s adventurous style played well with the exciting, youthful nature at Dortmund. We want artistry and greatness from PSG, a sprezzatura as they dominate the world. And we want Neymar, Mbappe, and whatever superstar they sign in the future, to provide the signature skills.
Rather than revert to the team-building mean, PSG are rumored to go even further into the individual extreme with links to Sergio Ramos and Lionel Messi. Even soccer figures as far as Cafu got caught up in the fantasy, saying that a frontline of Neymar, Mbappe, and Messi would be practically unbeatable. But didn’t we just learn that putting the best players on the field does not necessarily make for a dominant team, especially with pressing raising the ceiling of lesser skilled sides? And at some point, what does a manager even do with Neymar, Mbappe, and Messi?
Tuchel’s reputation remains intact despite the sacking, evidenced by the rumor mill linking him as Frank Lampard’s replacement at Chelsea. His name still inspires. He is only 47 years old. There is an implicit understanding that PSG’s rules are unique to PSG. At the very least, Tuchel admittedly knows what he wants now in the future: to go back to just managing on the field, to reconnect with the traits that made him such a compelling managerial figure in the first place. His time at PSG was a blip of fantasy, now it’s time to go back to simplicity.
It’s Pochettino’s turn at the impossible balance between superstars and lineup, trophies, and global branding success. From the outside, there remains questions of how much influence PSG managers actually have. And we’re still firmly in the honeymoon phase with Pochettino described as “far more of a leader, soft at times and hard at times” than Tuchel.
But Pochettino has something that no other modern PSG manager - not Unai Emery, Carlo Ancelotti, or Tuchel - has: a history with the club before the branding era. He played at the club from 2001-03, alongside the likes of Ronaldinho, Nicolas Anelka, and Mikel Arteta, back when they were finishing third on the table. And if clubs represent stories, Pochettino’s return is a symbolic gesture of the connection between the rugged past with the extravagant present. PSG can now have it both ways, with their global ambitions backed by the weight and depth of history.
And it’s already worked. Pochettino won his first trophy of his managerial career, the Trophee des Champions, just eleven days into his time at PSG and third match in charge. Maybe we had it wrong when we wondered how Pochettino would impart his high-pressing, high-energy style into the club when Tuchel failed at his attempts for cohesion. That question was framed from the perspective of what Pochettino could do for PSG. But PSG has already made Pochettino a winner. It’s that allure, that potential, that always gets us.