Mauricio Pochettino has been under a similar kind of pressure before facing Aston Villa, when in November 2014 as the new Tottenham manager, he turned to his assistants when his team fell behind at Villa Park and joked that they may all have to pack their bags the next day.
That was the game he has long cited as the turning point in his Spurs career and when his struggling Chelsea team face Villa in the FA Cup fourth round replay on Wednesday night he might well pray for the same. It is a mark of just how far short Chelsea have fallen of expectations that it would take more than a surprise Cup win at Villa Park to change the mood around a club now more than 18 months into their slump.
The 10th anniversary of that 2-1 win over Villa comes this year, the second goal a free-kick from the 22-year-old Harry Kane. Spurs finished the season fifth and Pochettino, who had just 11 points from his first nine games before Villa Park, had momentum. The remark to his staff after Villa scored was, he said, a way of coping with the stress of the moment.
“It’s a smile [and] ‘Come on, we should believe’. It’s always like this in football. A player that is sad for different reasons cannot perform. When you arrive at a new club and with the pressure it’s always about a player needs to find a place. [He needs to] feel good and feel happy. It’s not [just] about the quality.”
After two debilitating Chelsea defeats to Liverpool and Wolverhampton Wanderers, and a mutinous mood among supporters, this was an appeal from Pochettino for patience from the fans. He laid out in detail how the form, fitness and confidence of this young squad has recovered and dipped and that he is yet to have 15 of his squad in optimum condition at any one time.
“It’s about creating a team,” he said. “Building a team is really important. It’s like building a house. You need to be sure of all the steps you take. If you make a mistake, the house starts to move and ‘Oh’ [it falls down]. After bringing in a nice sofa and furniture … we always need time and we are building from zero.
“Sometimes it looks like you move forward but sometimes you need to go back because some problems appear. You should think it is going to be good but after it is maybe better to go for [something else]. It always takes time. Look at the project of Manchester City or Liverpool. It’s always about time, and about a very clear leadership like Pep [Guardiola] or Jurgen [Klopp]. It’s so clear from there you build all these projects.”
The noises off-stage have been significant since Sunday. Thiago Silva’s wife Belle posting on social media that the club needed change. Mykhailo Mudryk offering a critical fan £10,000 to play football against him, one against one – as if to prove a point. Pochettino had no knowledge of the second of those when asked at Cobham on Tuesday although he has had a meeting with Thiago. Malo Gusto and Ben Chilwell had both got cramps in the later stages of the Wolves game, he said, as a consequence of too little game time.
“During these seven months we have players [who] drop [in level] and another they push. At the moment we don’t have the luck to have 14-15 players at the same level. That is what affects the performance and we cannot be consistent - I trust you to translate this idea to the fans to be a little more patient and that is the reality.”
He said that above all he trusted his squad and denied that there was any risk in doing so. “Why is it a risk? We understand, the players understand and the club understands. If the club does what you are telling me [sack him], it is not in my hands. I trust in the players. I trust in the squad. I don’t know why it is a risk to trust in them.”
Pochettino said that he remained unaffected by those factors beyond his control, like “the stock market in New York or Tokyo, or the weather”. His point was that the team was still developing and that problems were inevitable. “If there is no rain at my farm, I cannot grow the crops,” he said, citing his own family’s business back in the Santa Fe region of Argentina. “You kill the business of my family on the farm and they need money. That is stress. With that you can lose your hair. But I cannot lose my hair because the opponent was better than us.”
Villa have come back to form with that 5-0 win away at Sheffield United and the pressure is on Chelsea to stay in the other competition they still have a chance to win this season. The club have made no moves yet to consider dismissing Pochettino, although there is pressure on him to improve. He said he had received “a very good text” from the owners although he did not specify whether that was from Behdad Egbali, who is the controlling power at the club, and the major decision-maker. Or whether it was from Todd Boehly, the other key figure in the consortium.