With Mauricio Pochettino about to leave Paris Saint-Germain, The Athletics Writers made various arguments to debate where to go next. Then we decided to take it a step further with Football Manager 2022.
The six teams selected were Arsenal, Chelsea, Leicester, Borussia Dortmund, Napoli and Athletic Bilbao. With that in mind, it was time to see which of these clubs would be the best fit.
To reflect the current state of affairs and to keep things as realistic as possible in our series of experiments, adjustments have been made in-game to account for promotions, relegations, recent transfers, and the spending of the above listed teams this summer at this time of writing.
Sol Campbell once left Tottenham for Arsenal in 2001. The defender was unpopular with Spurs fans after that, but the six trophies he won under Arsene Wenger’s helm somewhat offset that. If Pochettino one day joins his former club’s biggest rivals, winning silverware is the only thing worth shattering his relationship with Tottenham supporters.
Although we’ve given Arsenal an increased transfer budget to reflect the money they could potentially spend on a new striker, Pochettino opted to sign Takumi Minamino from Liverpool, relying heavily on Eddie Nketiah. His frugal use of the transfer market proved fatal. After seven games, the Gunners were in 17th place and already in serious danger of missing out on the top four. A few months later he was released.
That would be excellent news for Tottenham fans under normal circumstances, but Antonio Conte was sacked the same day Pochettino received his marching orders. December 18 went down as one of the most ridiculous days in the history of the two north London clubs. Both wanted to outdo each other and both failed miserably.
Arsenal were 10th when Pochettino was sacked while Spurs were 12th. Pochettino’s failure to recruit properly in the transfer window contributed to one of the worst bridge breakers in Premier League history. Shortly after his sacking, the Oxford Dictionary showed a picture of Pochettino holding up an Arsenal shirt when someone looked up the word ‘disaster’.
With Romelu Lukaku returning to Inter, there was a void that needed to be filled in Chelsea’s front line. Raheem Sterling is a transfer target in real life but that deal hasn’t been finalized yet. In our FM22 experiment, Pochettino chose not to sign anyone even after we sweetened the pot to increase the club’s initial transfer budget to replicate the level of spending we might see under new owners Todd Boehly and Clearlake.
It turns out he had a plan up his sleeve the whole time. The Argentine managed to realize Kai Havertz’s full potential and the Germany international finished the season as the Premier League’s top scorer with 26 goals in 38 games. Pochettino’s side finished ‘just’ 11 points behind leaders Manchester City as they secured a top-three finish, but the real story of Chelsea’s season was Havertz’s development.
If this were real life, Havertz’s 26 goals in the Premier League and 29 in all competitions would mark the best return by a Chelsea player since Didier Drogba scored 33 in 2006/07. That aside, Pochettino’s debut season in west London was trophy-less and largely unforgettable.
The former Tottenham manager insisted on employing a 4-2-3-1 formation, a tactic that has become his trademark and dates back to his spell at Espanyol in 2009, which produced results that put the club in shape at the top -Tier Mediocrity: Too good to drop out of the top 4, but still far from being real title contenders.
At least he wasn’t fired a week before Christmas.
This was my personal pick for Pochettino. Leicester’s mix of promising young talent and established Premier League players combined with an environment that isn’t as demanding as PSG provided him with an ideal retaliatory job. It sounded like reasonable logic, at least on paper.
With FM22 it was a completely different story. Pochettino lasted until mid-January before receiving his second sacking in three Test runs. Leicester was 11th when he left and was not going anywhere fast. So where did it go wrong?
James Maddison broke his ankle in early December and after that Leicester won just three of their next eight league games. Jamie Vardy was massively out of shape, Wesley Fofana was struggling to adjust to Pochettino’s new system and Harvey Barnes had netted just once all season.
In my defense, the selling point of this role was the opportunity to have at least a few seasons to revamp the roster while operating on the cusp of not having sky-high expectations but still having a team that is expected that it is pushing for the Europa League at least.
I still stand by that decision but it seems the algorithms on FM22 had plans to remove the element of time that made Leicester such an exciting choice in the first place.
Erling Haaland goes out, Karim Adeyemi, Niklas Sule, Nico Schlotterbeck and Salih Ozcan come in. Whether Dortmund’s summer spells end there or not remains to be seen, but at the time of this experiment, these were the new players Pochettino had to work with as he began his German football adventure.
The month of December seems particularly troubling for Pochettino. In our fourth experiment, he was fired for the third time that month. He left the club with Dortmund in eighth place after 14 games. They were already 19 points behind Bayern Munich but just a point away from moving up to fourth place.
Was it a bit tough to release him to Haaland just a few months after a rebuild? Maybe. Some individual players performed well, but as a team, Pochettino’s Dortmund were easy to beat and didn’t score very many goals.
Jude Bellingham and Giovanni Reyna held their own, but great things were expected of Adeyemi and eventually fans grew tired of not seeing him in a more central role.
Pochettino’s stock falls quickly on these experiments. Can he salvage his reputation in our last two Tests?
We’re now through five Tests and Pochettino has an 80 per cent layoff rate. At least this time he managed to shake off the December curse and lasted until February before being relieved of his duties. Napoli found themselves in sixth place and seven points off a top-four finish with eleven games to play.
Given that Napoli finished third in real life in the 2021/22 season and had no clear favorite to win the Scudetto like Juventus have in years past, the board’s expectations were high – and Pochettino’s results were anything but that.
The only job he managed to last the full season was at Chelsea, which is ironic given the club’s willingness to sack managers under previous owner Roman Abramovich.
With only one experiment left, all attention turned to Athletic Bilbao. In theory, his chances of getting fired from that role were much slimmer because less was expected of him.
But given his performance at Leicester, a team in a similar position to Bilbao, nothing is guaranteed.
In real life, Bilbao finished eighth in La Liga last season. In FM22, the club is expected to finish seventh. Pochettino’s task here is simple: make sure the team is in the mix to qualify for a Europa League spot.
To his credit, he achieved what was asked of him as he led the club to eighth place. But final league position doesn’t tell the whole story. Third in early March, Bilbao were struggling to qualify for the Champions League. Eleven games later, they fell down the table and didn’t even secure a place in the Europa Conference League.
Bilbao have only qualified for the group stage of the Champions League twice in the club’s history. Pochettino had a chance to make himself a modern legend but all his hard work drastically collapsed as the campaign drew to a close.
He’s managed to make it through the entire season, well that, at least, but slipping into insignificance after being on the cusp of a great feat only helped to further diminish Pochettino’s shares.
Pochettino led Tottenham to new heights but was never able to win a trophy in his five years at the club. However, when he left Spurs in 2019, he left them in a better place than when he joined in 2014.
But therein lies the problem. At FM22 he didn’t have the luxury of being able to take half a decade to implement his ideas. Instant success was expected of him and he sacked six jobs four times apart from a mediocre stint at Bilbao and bringing out the best in Havertz at Chelsea.
“I’ve been in the world of football for many years and I understand that a coach has an expiration date.” These were the words of Pochettino upon his exit from Espanyol in 2012.
The only surprise in our experiments on FM 2022 was how quickly its expiration date came. He came with promises of long-term durability, but ultimately destroyed his relationships with most of the teams he managed.
(Top Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images)