“Am I still a manager or am I a politician in sport, a minister for sports?” Thomas Tuchel asked on the eve of his sacking by Paris Saint-Germain on Thursday. “At its heart, I love the game and I can get this satisfaction in many ways as a manager … I only love football. And in a club like this, it is not always just football.”
Reconciling Thomas the politician and Thomas the coach has never been easy for Tuchel. One always seems to obstruct the other. After an acrimonious exit from Borussia Dortmund in 2017, the German manager departed PSG as the politician got the better of the coach once more.
As Unai Emery and Laurent Blanc discovered, a mid-season sacking is unusual in Paris. Owners Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) usually like to wait for the summer after trophies have been allocated. But this season, all is still to play for. PSG won a tough Champions League group despite losing their opening fixture at home to Manchester United and, with the competition wide open once more, carry a strong challenge after losing last season’s final in August.
Although a relatively lowly third in Ligue 1 at Christmas is below par, Emery was not replaced when in the same situation during his first season, while Blanc kept his job when Marcelo Bielsa’s Marseille finished the calendar year of 2014 on top. On this occasion, considering the lack of major summer signings, the condensed European schedule, swathes of injuries and how impressive Lyon and Lille have been, a single point deficit after 17 games is not a concern. QSI have only sacked a manager mid-season once and it didn’t go well. Journeyman French coach Antoine Kombouaré’s side were top in 2011-12 but with Carlo Ancelotti a far more attractive option, Kombouaré was replaced. PSG wilted, losing the title to Montpellier.
This is, however, a very different situation. Now trophies and European successes are all that matter, making the likely appointment of Mauricio Pochettino a little surprising at first glance, given his absence of winners’ medals. However, Pochettino’s abilities to overtly improve his players, breed harmony within a group and play an intelligent, modern style will all fit nicely with Parisian ambitions in the current climate.
The former Tottenham manager spent two and half seasons at the Parc des Princes as a player, captaining PSG before joining Bordeaux in 2003. He has spoken of his love for the city and will surely relish the opportunity to compete with Europe’s big spenders having reached the Champions League final on a limited budget with Spurs.
But, as Tuchel can testify, that is no guarantee of success. He has made PSG more streetwise and versatile, resulting in the most nuanced and effective football of the QSI era. So the RMC radio station’s report that a “lack of influence on the team and how he communicates” as well as other sporting criteria were the rationale behind Tuchel’s dismissal makes for strange reasoning.
In truth it seems other forces lead to Tuchel’s departure. His relationship with sporting director Leonardo had become increasingly problematic. Initially the Brazilian’s leadership and forceful persona proved useful as he played the bad cop in trying to instil discipline within the squad while protecting the relationship between Tuchel and his team. Leonardo notably played hardball over Neymar’s proposed move back to Barcelona, allowing Tuchel to remain positive over the player’s future. It worked. Neymar remains and, by his own admission, is now happy in Paris, with negotiations continuing over a new contract for him and Kylian Mbappé. Instead it was the disagreements on recruitment and internal fury over Tuchel’s public dismay that drove the German and Leonardo apart.
In a classic piece of PSG boardroom disorder, RMC reported that it is club president Nasser al-Khelaifi who has identified Pochettino as Tuchel’s successor. This is a surprise, as for some time the French press have reported Leonardo’s keenness on former Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri. Fears over the Italian’s potentially limited time in the wilderness had contributed to talk of Tuchel’s possible exit.
Tuchel’s contract was up at the end of the season and it always seemed unlikely he would be offered a new one. But with PSG still favourites to win Ligue 1 and having already shown he was capable of taking them further than ever before in the Champions League, it remains to be seen whether they have acted too soon.
Given the circumstances, delaying this decision until the usual end of season would have allowed Tuchel’s team to continue their obvious progression in the Champions League. Instead, Leonardo and Khelaifi have disrupted a fragile and injury-ridden group of players and forced a period of transition under a new coach that could diminish PSG’s very real chances of European success.
Pochettino brings a different perspective but ultimately Tuchel is right – if the owners wants to achieve their ambition they will need a coach, not a politician. It now falls to Leonardo and the PSG hierarchy to change their attitudes before Pochettino’s arrival.