In a week when love, affection and adoration is being showered extensively there is one man who is not feeling quite as cherished as he had hoped, writes Gail Davies.
Mauricio Pochettino’s wife of 30-plus years, he says with a smile, has “abandoned” him on Valentine’s Day for a trip to Spain to see their son.
The Chelsea head coach joked that before she made her decision to go “she said to me if you have some nice presents I’ll stay, and I said no it’s ok you can go and see your son.”
He laughs, taking his apparent rejection well, ahead of Crystal Palace’s visit to Chelsea on Monday Night Football.
We continue on the February 14 theme and I talk about the love of the Chelsea fans and the fondness they have shown to the recent managers. They revered Jose Mourinho, treasured Thomas Tuchel and it might have been a shorter fling, but Antonio Conte got their hearts fluttering.
Are you beginning to feel that love yet I ask? The jovial mood shifts quickly as Pochettino replies: “No, no, I need to be honest with you, no because I understand they were winning the Champions League, they won cups, the Premier League. Why are the fans going to love me after six, seven months?
“We are in a final but we are not in a good position in the table in the Premier League. I think at the moment I feel the respect from the fans, I see them on the street and they all nice to me, but I cannot lie.”
Maybe it is still to come I say. “we’ll see” adds the Chelsea head coach. Those two words give you a sense of the enormity of the job Pochettino and his coaching staff know they have ahead of them.
You can only imagine the extreme emotions they have all experienced over the last few days. The crushing defeat at home to Wolves in the league and the heavy criticism and pressure that followed the result, before a performance Pochettino describes as “one of the best of the season” against Aston Villa in the FA Cup to see them into the fifth round.
Did you think over the last few days why did I do this I ask. Pochettino has no doubts.
“I think when I decided to be a coach I thought this situation would happen so we are prepared to deal with it,” he says. “You build in your mind the idea but the reality is always different.
“I always try to keep a balance knowing football is like this, the pressure of high to down to high again. We need to provide the players with an environment that is calm. We cannot go with the reference of the fans and the people and the media. We need to stay away from that. We need to perform and play and feel fresh.”
He admits the days after that Wolves loss were hard. Pochettino says he doesn’t feel the pressure and stress himself but it is absorbed by those friends and family around him, especially in the modern world where social media can be so brutal.
“My mood does not change,” he says. “I am in control, my life doesn’t change, I’m not going to change the way I think or how I perceive things. The most important thing to remember is that if you don’t win games, it’s normal to hear some noise and three days later you get another chance.
“The Aston Villa game showed the team is alive, we are alive, we played together and we care about each other. The players had good concepts and managed them well in different areas and we have talent. In three days what did we do, what did we change, sometimes it’s more mental. The situation we are in is because we are a young team, we have young players, the balance is good but we have young players and they have to realise how we need to prepare for every single game in every competition.”
They aren’t just young players, but they are young players worth millions of pounds on very long contracts that have been assembled from across the globe. It’s a different formula than Pochettino is used to and at times the frustration is visible in games as he tries to mould his vision.
Has he had to change his approach, particularly with the criticism that he and Chelsea have become a bit too nice?
“I always think it is about reading the situation and listening to other coaches and you need to evolve. The kids are not the same as 20 years ago. It’s easy to come here and be very tough and shout and talk and say things that maybe make me feel good because I can shout and scream, but I think it has zero impact on the player.
“I think you need to touch, unlock, talk. I put them in front of a mirror and say look what do you want to see, in which way do I see you, I need you to show me that you can improve and learn and do this thing in a different way. It’s so important today being a coach you have to have knowledge about football, tactics and everything and we are also fathers, friends, and professional psychologist.
“It’s so important how you approach a group and players. It’s quite a unique project here, when you change the project and try and create something you always try and find a way to tackle problems. I think young players need to adapt and deal with the pressure and perception that the fans have when you pay that much money and the amount you earn. Sometimes you need a few months, sometimes you need a year. There are a lot of situations here like that. It’s a massive job you can’t put them all in a dressing room and the magic just happens. We need to work and we’re working really hard, and maybe people find it difficult to appreciate it. It feels that for sure in the future we are going to benefit.”
Pochettino says Nicholas Jackson is one of those players who have benefitted from a little time and patience. He marked his return from AFCON with a goal against Villa, and another who shone was Enzo Fernandez one of those big-money players Chelsea bought in last year’s January shopping spree. The free kick he scored was special and the celebration was pretty eye catching too. Fernandez held up his shirt in celebration as if to hit back at reports he was seeking a way out of the club.
Do you have to make him angry to get that level of performance from him, I ask the Chelsea head coach. He replies: “Enzo after one year and a few months has started to understand what it means to play for Chelsea. What it means to live here in London and be in the Premier League. The quality is there, he’s amazing and yes maybe he needs to play with this feeling but that is how you find your balance as a player. When you are young you need to improve to try to do things, but it’s not a magic touch, it’s about talking, understanding, training and repeating.”
Repeating being the key message, along with finding consistency to match the level they displayed at Villa. Perhaps the biggest compliment came from Roy Keane on TV duty who said they looked like the “Chelsea of old” in the way they dominated the game, showed hunger and character and had a real edge.
It is what Pochettino needs to see from his side when they travel to Selhurst Park. The Villa result was even more surprising given their away record this season. In the league, they have managed just four wins away from Stamford Bridge.
What Pochettino can be guaranteed of at Selhurst Park is a warm welcome from Roy Hodgson. In the absence of too much appreciation and love elsewhere it seems this week there will be plenty on display after the game. The two managers are good friends having met a decade or so ago when Hodgson was in charge of England and Pochettino was at Southampton. They often speak and text real life stuff not just football and Pochettino’s admiration of the Palace manager is clear when I ask what he likes about him.
“Everything, it is difficult to say I love this or that,” Pochettino says. “I love everything about him he’s a great man, good values, as a coach just stop he is amazing. I think it’s unbelievable to have him involved in the Premier League.”
Pochettino isn’t aware of the pressure that Hodgson is under, the banners from the fans that have lost patience with the regime. And he goes on to wish him every success, clarifying with a smile that it’s after Monday only.
Chelsea vs Crystal Palace in the Premier League is live on Monday Night Football; kick-off 8pm.