Evening Standard

Managers the length and breadth of the country insist they are only thinking about the next game but Gus Poyet’s mind is already on challenging and, possibly, managing Brighton’s FA Cup fourth-round opponents, Arsenal.

The Uruguayan has the small matter of a 600-mile round trip to Blackburn in atrocious conditions for tonight’s Championship clash while Arsenal entertain West Ham in the Premier League tomorrow night.

But the former Chelsea and Tottenham midfielder does not hide his ambitions as he prepares for Saturday’s glamour tie at the club’s £93million Amex Stadium.

He says: “I want to manage at the highest level and would love to manage Chelsea or Arsenal. Why not?

“Does my Chelsea or Tottenham past mean I cannot be Arsenal manager? Look, I’ve been at Leeds [as assistant to Dennis Wise] and the relationship between Leeds and Chelsea was not the best. If you ask any Leeds fan, my relationship with them was absolutely exceptional.

“I would love to go back to Leeds because they know how much I care for the club and how much I will give the club. Same with Arsenal. The only thing is I need to be ready.”

Victory for the 1983 FA Cup finalists this weekend would heap more pressure on his opposite number, Arsene Wenger, who is already facing the prospect of missing out on Champions League qualification for the first time in 16 seasons.

Wenger’s side also crashed out of the Capital One Cup to lower league oppostion — Bradford won on penalties at the quarter-final stage — but the Frenchman will take some solace from the news that Poyet has no intention of ‘parking the bus’ in order to earn a replay or sneak a victory.

“I’m not going to stop Arsenal playing just so we can go to the Emirates 10 days later,” Poyet says. “It’s not my way.”

This declaration could not be bolder given how much Poyet admires Wenger’s brand of football. We are sitting in his office in the bowels of the stadium where more than 27,000 fans are expected to watch the game. And the former Uruguay international, who won the FA Cup with Chelsea in 2000, is drooling about Wenger’s attacking options.

“If you leave Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere on the ball with too much time and space for Theo Walcott to go into, we’re going to lose for sure. Theo can kill you. I don’t know if it is because of his contract situation but, this year, he has gone to another level, especially in finishing. He is so quick, it’s scary.”

But, aware of Arsenal’s defensive problems, there are lots of reasons for Poyet to be optimistic. “They’ve got plenty of weaknesses,” he says. “So, can we defend against their strength and take advantage of their weaknesses? Against a top team, if you have a good day and they don’t have a very good day, maybe you win like we did against Newcastle [in the third round].”

Poyet’s philosophy came horribly unstuck at Anfield in the fifth round last season, Newcastle having again been dispatched in the previous round.

He recalls: “I know that plenty of people will say, ‘Ah, you lost 6-1 against Liverpool,’ but, for 40 minutes, we were outstanding.

“For 40 minutes, there was no difference [with Brighton having equalised an early Liverpool goal]. After that, everything we did was wrong.

“We scored three own goals. Is that a coincidence? No. We couldn’t cope with 90 minutes at that level because, when we talk about quality, it’s not only technical. For sure, Premier League players can sprint for longer, they are quicker, they’re stronger. But quality in a player also means mental quality. Premier League players are mentally stronger. They make more right decisions more times than Championship players.”

Poyet will attempt to put into practice the lessons learned at Anfield. “We need to use the game as an experience, to see if we can perform against top teams playing our normal game, judge how good we are,” he says. “What I don’t want is to change my principles and, because we are playing Arsenal, try to be a totally different team and lose anyway.”

Poyet does not have far to look for an example of an inferior team lifting silverware by stopping superior opposition from playing — his former Chelsea team-mate Roberto di Matteo having masterminded the Blues victory over Bayern Munich in the Champions League Final last May.

“Yes,” he says. “Roberto did it somehow, even against his own principles, but Chelsea’s aim was to win. The aim of this team is not to win the FA Cup. If somebody said to you that we are playing to win the FA Cup, it’s a lie. Our aim is to be in the top six.”

The remark could not be a more revealing of the 45-year-old’s long-term plans for Brighton. And it also shows how far he has come since that dreadful day in October 2008 when he lost his job as assistant manager at Tottenham, along with boss Juande Ramos.

Poyet accepts that Tottenham, with only two points from eight games, had to do something. “It was the right decision, especially seeing what happened under Harry [Redknapp]. It hurt. I went home that night and I was devastated.”

The pain was all the greater because he could not figure out why Spurs were performing so badly. This, after all, was the team Ramos had led to League Cup success the previous season — the club’s only trophy in the last 12 years.

“The club spent heavily on transfers [nearly £100m in the previous 18 months], we had one of the best squads in England but it didn’t work. I remember seeing the quality in training and thinking this team is going to win. Then you go on the pitch and you don’t.

“You think you’re going to win next week and you don’t. How is it possible? Something needs to click for a team to play and that is not always mathematics. Sometimes it’s the way they train, sometimes the manager’s character.”

Poyet refuses to speculate on whether the very different character of Redknapp meant that virtually the same set of players went on to play in the Champions League within two seasons. What matters to him is how the sacking changed his life.

“A few days later, I decided I didn’t want to be assistant any more, except if it is to [Jose] Mourinho or [Sir Alex] Ferguson. You know then you will learn a lot. In a normal situation, I wanted to be the one in charge. This is because of my character. I’m always making decisions and I was not able to do that as an assistant.” Poyet had to wait for more than a year before he got the chance and admits: “I started worrying when the summer [of 2009] went past and I didn’t have a team. I thought, ‘I’m going to need to take a risk here and accept a challenge.’”

The challenge could not have been greater when Brighton came calling in November. Lying 20th in League One, the next five games were against teams in the top six. “I told the chairman, ‘The next five games are going to be very difficult but I’m going to prove myself’.”

Brighton not only stayed up but, having aimed for a top-six finish in 2010-11, won the League One title with four games to play. Poyet, voted League One Manager of the Year in his first full season, says with pride: “That made a big impact. Then we finished 10th in the first year in the Championship. Now we are there [just outside the play-off places] and trying to get better.”

Poyet’s team are not quite complete. The club are looking for a centre-half but the acquisition of Argentine striker Jose Leonardo Ulloa, from Almeria, makes Poyet declare: “We have all the ingredients. Leonardo is not another Michu but I wanted him because he can hold the ball up front, win balls in the air. That way, when you are in control and attack, you’re going to be able to produce a goal. My job is to make sure he understands the English game.”

Poyet hopes that, in time, he will reach the same understanding with Ulloa as he has with Liam Bridcutt, described as the best holding midfielder outside the Premier League. Poyet has such a rapport with this former Chelsea player that he says: “If I tell Liam something during the game, he gets it straightaway. With a lot of players, you tell them and they look at you and say, ‘What are you talking about?’”

There were many who asked the same question about Poyet when, last year, he backed Luis Suarez after the Liverpool forward was found guilty of racially abusing Patrice Evra by calling him “negrito” several times.

“I didn’t, at any time, defend Suarez against Evra,” counters Poyet. “I will never do that because I am always the first one against racism and discrimination. I said that Suarez was using a word we use in Uruguay which is natural. He was not offensive at any time because I know how he used the word.

“What I asked for was comprehension to understand that Suarez was here only for three or four months. Even if you have to punish him, understand and give him a chance.”

Since then, the Liverpool player has hardly given himself a chance by admitting that he cheated by diving against Stoke, invoking the wrath of his own manager. But Poyet still feels his compatriot is being picked on by the media. “Too much,” he argues. “Suarez is the best player you can have in your team. I would like somebody to say that he doesn’t want that player.”

The same could be said for Poyet, of course, who would love to have his compatriot’s services on Saturday but the Brighton manager will ensure his starting XI play the game the right way.

Poyet’s record against Arsenal . . .

Player (Real Zaragoza, Chelsea, Tottenham)

Played 12; Won 3; Drawn 5, Lost 4

Goals scored 5

Coach (Tottenham)

Played 3; Won 1; Drawn 1; Lost 1


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