Three key decisions Mauricio Pochettino has to make to lead PSG over Marseilles and lift his first trophy
Mauricio Pochettino will oversee just his third match as Paris Saint-Germain head coach on Wednesday when the French champions face rivals Olympique de Marseille at Stade Bollaert in Lens for the Trophee des Champions.
It gives the Argentine an immediate opportunity to silence regular criticism over his inability — so far — to land silverware as a coach and also to win the first instalment of Le Classique on his watch, French football’s leading domestic fixture of major importance to the Parisien fanbase.
Coming into the clash, the French season’s normal curtain-raiser, which was delayed because of the COVID-19 impact on the transition between the shortened 2019-20 campaign and the start of the 2020-21 term, has greater importance than usual and poses a number of questions.
Brazilian superstar Neymar is available for the match after returning to training while Kylian Mbappe has had a relatively quiet start to life under Pochettino and the South American’s use of both could hold the key to the outcome.
Friendly or ferocious?
As is often the case with its European equivalents, the Trophee des Champions’ importance is often questioned with many viewing it as a glorified friendly fixture rather than a competitive game and silverware opportunity.
However, a French domestic clean sweep is considered to include the title, and the clash between the winners of Ligue 1 and the Coupe de France is absolutely a fixture that usually counts on the calendar and should be taken seriously by participants.
Pochettino’s answers in the pre-match press conference suggest that he is taking the meeting with Marseille very seriously and considering that it is likely to be the most intense encounter before UEFA Champions League action resumes, he is justified.
“It is a special game,” he said on Tuesday. “We are already up against our rivals — OM. We know what that means, and it is a source of pride to represent Paris in these fixtures. Title aside, we know that we have to win and that is the most important thing. We want to keep the fans happy.
“We know that these matches are not like the others. There is a special importance for the fans and players. Football is all about emotions and today we are realizing through the COVID-19 situation that we really miss supporters in the stadiums.”
Should Neymar start?
Pochettino’s next major question is how he handles Neymar’s availability with the Brazil international finally at his disposal after missing the Saint-Etienne and Stade Brestois matches as he continued his recovery from an ankle injury.
Now fit and finally available to his new boss, the temptation will be to play him for as long as possible to get a good look at him in action, possibly from the start, to begin to ascertain his best role.
Based on his early 4-2-3-1 system, any potential involvement for Neymar will come at the expense of Moise Kean, Angel Di Maria, Marco Verratti or Kylian Mbappe with Mauro Icardi and Pablo Sarabia also pushing for involvement.
Verratti can easily drop back into one of the two central midfield roles, although Leandro Paredes and Danilo Pereira are also back, while Kean can be brought off the bench towards the end of the match.
Only just back from injury, Neymar himself could start on the bench and potentially come on at some point during the second half but it depends how much of the €222 million Pochettino wants to see as he returns to action.
Prioritize stars or strategy?
Obviously, another option for Pochettino is to use all of his star power at once and put them all on the pitch at the same time with more emphasis on their presence than their purpose.
While that is quite often enough to win PSG most, if not all, of their domestic matches, the Argentine favors a more methodical approach and is trying to succeed where others failed in getting the best out of a star-studded squad rich in individual talent.
“Neymar is available and we will decide tomorrow whether he plays or not,” he said. “Kylian is fine. We are still evaluating alternatives for tomorrow but he will be in the group anyway. Kylian is in perfect condition. As for Ney, we are thinking about various options to be as competitive as possible.”
Perhaps the best tactic for Pochettino is to avoid using all of his star power at once and opt to leave one key man on the bench to bring on in the second half, which is something that has worked out on more than one occasion with Mbappe.
As he gets to grips with his new group of players, the new boss would be well advised to save his experimentation for a fixture of lesser importance and go for the setup that he feels is most likely to get the result and worry about his strongest XI closer to resumption of UCL action.