One January morning, those passing by the Power Of Health cafe at Heddon Court Parade paused to do a double take. It was not unusual to catch a glimpse of high-profile Premier League faces at the vegan-friendly spot – Granit Xhaka and Jack Wilshere are regulars – but this was eye-rubbing viewing.
Former Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino and his assistant Jesus Perez were having an animated conversation over coffee with… former Arsenal manager Unai Emery.
Only 10 days had separated their sackings from those respective clubs last November, but these men were still meant to be more concretely divided along North London’s tribal lines.
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“We met to talk and to share our experiences,” Pochettino recalls of a breakfast that attracted puzzled looks during a wide-ranging interview from his home in Barnet, conducted over Zoom.
“We were working in different clubs. We were at the enemy. People were walking past and saying, ‘Unai and Pochettino and Jesus are now sharing a coffee!’
“It was in Cockfosters, close to Arsenal and Tottenham’s training grounds. It was very funny.”
Bar a brief return to Argentina to spend time with family and switch off following chairman Daniel Levy’s decision to end his five-and-half year tenure at Spurs, Pochettino has remained in London to deconstruct his time in England and design a path forward.
His tank is “completely full” with energy and enthusiasm to return to football, despite coronavirus disrupting the landscape. “This is unbelievable the situation that we are living,” Pochettino says.
“There is not a manual that can tell you how you need to behave in this situation. At the same time as the suffering, I have tried with my coaching staff to review everything that we did in the last seven years, because we never had a break until now.
“It’s been amazing to share our ideas, to watch a lot of training sessions, games, to review our methodology, our models of training, to design specific and collective works with the team in all the different aspects.
“And of course to try again to design and to adapt for the new normality. To see how things are going to be in the future and to be ready for any eventuality. Because the demands are going to be completely different.”
Prior to lockdown, the Power Of Health cafe was an office of sorts for Pochettino and Perez, while their strategy sessions are now held over Zoom.
Emery is not the only colleague many will be surprised the Argentine has touched base with while being out of work. He has spoken to Jose Mourinho, his successor at Tottenham, owing to a relationship that stretches back a decade.
“Yes, yes, yes,” Pochettino says when asked if contact has continued between the pair, insisting there is no change to their dynamic despite the 57-year-old replacing him.
“Look, with Jose, we know each other for a long time,” he explains.
“When I was the coach of Espanyol, and he was at Real Madrid, we had a very good relationship. He’s a top coach. And in life, look what happens. I always thought I’d replace him. He was at Real Madrid. I say, ‘Oh, maybe one day I can take your place at Real Madrid’ and look at how life works out! He has taken my place at Tottenham. Unbelievable, eh?”
Pochettino’s association with Mourinho materialised out of humour. There had been constant talk that the hierarchy at the Bernabeu viewed him as their main candidate if the Portuguese departed.
“We were going to play Real Madrid and in the press conference before the game, the media asked me about that,” Pochettino remembers.
“I said, ‘I am never going to use these type of rumours to sell myself. I am not thinking about that and, by the way, my kids are sleeping in Espanyol pyjamas every night. So it’s very difficult for me to think about changing. I am more than committed to Espanyol.’”
Mourinho produced a typically witty response. “When I arrived at the stadium, Jose was waiting for me with a bag with a very nice bottle of French red wine and two Real Madrid kits, shirts and shorts.
“He’s says, ‘Ok, these are for your kids to wear from now on!’
“We were joking from there and we have kept a very good relationship. I am so happy that he is at Tottenham, replacing me.
“And of course I am happy as well to leave the club in the way that we left it, with all the facilities that are the best in the world. For sure, he is very grateful for the way that we helped to build the club, which is now his club.”
Without Pochettino’s reconstruction of Spurs, transforming them from “spineless, soft, flaky, rubbish” as per Gary Neville’s assessment, to title contenders, Champions League regulars and 2019 finalists, it is hard to envision Mourinho as their manager.
Now that he has had six months to process his spell at Spurs, what is the 47-year-old’s verdict of that metamorphosis?
“I think there are many things that we are happy with, how everything went. Difficult to think about changing things because you cannot regret decisions.
“We took them all with responsibility, professionalism, always sharing the situations that were more complicated. The most important was the aim was always to provide the club with what they wanted.
“We were a coaching staff that always put the interests of the club before our personal interests. We feel very proud with all we achieved.
“Of course, we could not finish the way we wanted.
“After a five-year project, working very hard, and spending less money than other opponents, being focused in building the best stadium in the world, was a very difficult task.
“We worked very hard to try to finish that dream – which was to build the stadium. But, at the same time, in all of these type of projects, there is a lot of work and disappointments, things that are not always easy to translate during the time and to keep the same freshness and the same relationships because it’s normal that there’s a lot of friction in a project like this. One season we played in three different stadiums!”
Pochettino has referenced Manchester United and a Michael Jordan-infused Chicago Bulls needing seven years to win their first title more than once recently and there is discernable sadness that Tottenham came so close to silverware under him, before he ran out of time.
He struggled to stem the flow of tears in the dressing room at the Wanda Metropolitano last May when Liverpool triumphed 2-0 against Spurs to be crowned champions of Europe.
“I was so disappointed. It was difficult to stop crying, to stop feeling bad,” Pochettino admits. “It was a massive achievement to get there.
“And you can use the example of Liverpool after they lost to Real Madrid the season before, that was a massive motivation and inspiration to be back in the future.
“I knew that after five years and with the way we were working, and all the things that happened, it was going to be difficult for us.
“It change a little bit in our minds the possibility to stay open to design another plan, or a strategy to build again, a different chapter.”
That discontent, however, is offset by the knowledge that he superseded the objectives Levy and Spurs owner, Joe Lewis, laid out for him when he met them on the latter’s super yacht in Nice before accepting the job.
During a chat with the chairman last week as the end of his gardening leave approached, Pochettino underscored how thankful he was for the opportunity to shape Tottenham into “one of the best clubs in the world” after spending a year and a half at Southampton.
“What I was talking about with Daniel was to say thank-you for trusting in us,” he revealed. “I also joked with him, ‘Oh, you signed me because the manager you liked at that time, [Louis] van Gaal, chose to go to Manchester United!’
“Daniel told me that at the time, he was very clear about that, it was very public. I was a very young coach, with my experience in Spain and my one-and-a-half years in Southampton. The football vision at Tottenham was completely different then to what it is now.
“That’s why it was amazing for us as a coaching staff to go very quickly [to a higher level]. To be involved and help the club to be the club that it is today is fantastic. Tottenham is one of the best clubs in the world. We feel very proud of that.”
Pochettino’s ability to defy financial constraints, develop players, build a resilient squad and exceed expectations has unsurprisingly led to a swathe of offers.
There were enquiries from Arsenal and Bayern Munich, while he is Manchester City’s premier target to succeed Pep Guardiola and has long been of interest to both United and Real.
Newcastle, in the midst of a £300million takeover by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, want him to be face of a new era at St James’ Park.
With clubs no longer needing to pay Tottenham compensation for Pochettino or enter negotiations with Levy, what are his sketches for the next challenge?
“It’s difficult to discover until the project is on the table,” he says, noting that the impact coronavirus will have on football adds a further complication to planning.
“From outside, it’s difficult to measure the capacity of the clubs, the capacity of the players, the squad. You need to share ideas in the moment that some club approaches you and start to talk. To try to find if the project is a good fit or not.
“Today we are going to live a completely different era in football that we need to discover.
“There are many things, at the moment, that we have in our minds about how things are going to be after this virus hopefully disappears … but how are these clubs or companies, because that’s what they are, going to be? It’s a big question mark. That’s why it’s so difficult.
“We are a coaching staff that are open to listen to all the projects, all the people. We are learning and sharing ideas.
“You never know when it’s going to be the motivation or the inspiration to say, ‘Oh, they are the right people’, and you want to be with them or their club. “We are very receptive to listen to all the people because every single conversation we can learn from and maybe we can see a motivation to go with them.”
Will the selection of his next job be influenced by the likelihood of lifting silverware?
“When I was at Espanyol, I wanted to win trophies and when I moved to Southampton I wanted to win trophies. The same at Tottenham,” Pochettino says.
“The difference is the reality. People can measure success in different ways. It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, this guy won a lot of titles and this guy didn’t win.’ But the problem is that we are not a coaching staff that started at Bayern Munich.
“If you start your career at Bayern Munich, it’s completely different to if you start your career at Nuremberg, with all respect to Nuremberg.
“Coaches are not thinking only about winning titles. It’s many things that are around. You find the motivation and the capacity to chose the right project.”
While Pochettino loves England and it would be easier not to uproot his wife and two sons, Maurizio and Sebastiano, he is “open to wait for the seduction of the project rather than the country. It’s about the club, and of course, the people, the human dimension.
“I still think the Premier League is the best league in the world. We enjoy it a lot.
“Of course, it’s one of the options. Of course, it can be my priority, but I am not closed to move to a different country.
“We are professional and we are going to find a way to create again and to feel good.
“If we do change the country, always we are going to miss England. We spend more than seven years in two amazing places in Southampton and London. We are very lucky people.”