Let’s try something different on this week’s newsletter: A journey through modern soccer in three (vaguely related) stories.
1. Romance Is a One-Way Street
The story, because it got here to be told, was the one that individuals desired to hear, the version they needed to imagine. It went like this: Cristiano Ronaldo, beloved alumnus of Manchester United, had attempted to engineer a move to Manchester City, his alma mater’s fierce rival, since the atomic weight of ambition is larger than that of affection, and had only agreed on the last moment to return to Old Trafford as an alternative.
Beyond that basic outline, though, there have been few facts with which to garnish the story. This stuff are rarely played out in public. They’re furtive and clandestine, conducted by remove and by whisper. No person shows their hand, declares their motivations, deprives themselves of plausible deniability. They don’t must. Theory and conjecture pour in to the vacuum.
And so, once Ronaldo had his homecoming, the scant facts at hand were parsed and assessed and bent to suit. Now, the flirtation was solid as nothing but a ploy, City seduced in order that United might strike. Rio Ferdinand, Ronaldo’s former teammate, and Alex Ferguson, his longtime mentor, had intervened not to point out him the error of his ways, but to snap United from its torpor. City might need turned his head, but only United could win his heart.
There has, for much of the last yr, been what might generously be described as a “debate” in regards to the merits of Ronaldo’s restoration at Manchester United. It has never been anything of the kind, after all. It has, as an alternative, been two groups of individuals bellowing two entirely separate conversations, neither of which could be very interesting, in one another’s vague direction.
Considered one of those conversations is about whether Ronaldo, at 37, remains to be a nice player — pared down from his prime, after all, but nevertheless a goal-scorer of remarkable efficacy — and the reply to it’s that yes, obviously: Considered one of the best players of all time remains to be an important player.
The opposite is about whether Ronaldo, at 37, makes Manchester United a greater team — not perfect, after all, but stronger than it is perhaps without him — and the reply to that one is not any, obviously: He doesn’t, largely because his presence commands that the team play in a way to which it just isn’t especially suited, and which might not be hugely effective even when it was.
Though they involve the identical people, these conversations usually are not related. The 2 ideas don’t contradict each other: Ronaldo is a nice player but he makes Manchester United a less cogent unit. Those ideas are, in reality, strikingly easy, and may exist concurrently.
What neither side doubted, though, was that Ronaldo had been drawn back to Old Trafford by some indelible bond. The version of the story people desired to hear had been accepted as fact. Even his salary, somewhere north of half 1,000,000 dollars every week, was deemed less relevant than the history, the nostalgia, the romance of all of it.
Until this week, when it turned out that Ronaldo had informed United of his desire to go away. Not publicly, after all; plausible deniability stays paramount. As an alternative, as ever, a couple of skeletal facts have been allowed to surface.
He has been unimpressed by United’s activity within the transfer market. He has been disgruntled by the news that he won’t be paid as much as he would have been, had the club with one of the vital expensive squads ever assembled finished as the most effective 4 teams within the Premier League. He wants, greater than anything, to play within the Champions League for the rest of his profession.
The last one, perhaps, just isn’t only essentially the most convincing but essentially the most illustrative. There is no such thing as a reason to disbelieve the concept that Ronaldo has loved the entire clubs he has represented: Sporting Lisbon and Manchester United and Real Madrid and Juventus. But his biggest bond just isn’t with a team but with a tournament.
Ronaldo is a creature of the Champions League. That’s where he has forged his legend. It was as the final word Champions League player that he sought to outdo his great rival, Lionel Messi. It’s the competition by which he’s judged, and by which he judges himself. A club, any club, is simply useful to him if it allows him to keep up that relationship, to further that connection. As soon because it cannot, as United is finding, he’s quick to sever his ties.
He just isn’t alone in that. His former colleague at Juventus, Matthijs de Ligt, is inclined to maneuver to Bayern Munich over Chelsea not due to money or the temptation of the Bundesliga, but because Bayern has an effectively guaranteed place within the Champions League.
That’s where the very best players need to be. It’s what exerts the best influence on their decisions. It defines the teams they sign for and play for and seek to go away. The badge itself, the history and the romance, is tertiary, at best. But that just isn’t the story that individuals need to hear.
2. Lessons Do Not Get Learned.
Of all the issues Manchester United faced last season, the shape of Luke Shaw was some considerable way down the list. (It was nowhere near, for instance, the one entitled: “Methods to play some version of contemporary soccer with a legendary striker who simply won’t — not cannot, but won’t — press.”) No person watched Manchester United flailing within the Premier League and said: Yes, the difficulty here is the in-form left back.
Nonetheless, the primary signing of Manager Erik ten Hag’s tenure at Old Trafford was a left-back: Tyrell Malacia, to be exact, drafted in from the Dutch club Feyenoord. He’ll soon be joined, it seems, by Lisandro Martínez, an Argentine defender, and Christian Eriksen, a Danish midfielder, and Frenkie de Jong, currently with Barcelona, and possibly even the Brazilian forward Antony.
The link, after all, is that all of them made their names in the identical place. Martínez and Antony each currently play for Ajax, the team from which United plucked ten Hag. De Jong was the centerpiece of the Ajax side ten Hag took to inside 30 seconds or so of the Champions League final. Eriksen emerged there, greater than a decade ago. Ten Hag had considered signing Malacia when he still worked at Ajax.
There is no such thing as a reason to imagine that any of those players might be anything lower than successful. Martínez is an Argentine international of some repute. De Jong is considered one of the best midfielders on the planet. Eriksen has a knack for improving every team that features him, and has done so for greater than a decade. They need to all, instinctively, understand what ten Hag wants.
On one level, then, that is Manchester United doing exactly what must be done: recruiting players that fit, velvet and smooth, with its manager’s way of doing things. On one other, it’s a club repeating the standard mistakes.
Ten Hag was only appointed after a protracted and careful search of Europe for a possible successor to Ralf Rangnick. He arrived at a time when United was keen to portray itself as instituting a cultural reset of sorts. The club has a lead data scientist nowadays. It has several dozen directors of football. It wishes to be seen as a really modern form of a spot.
And yet, despite all that, it’s abundantly clear that United has got down to sign half a dozen players specifically requested by its recent manager. There is no such thing as a long-term considering here. There is no such thing as a core identity being pursued.
Had ten Hag turned down the job, United — under Mauricio Pochettino or Diego Simeone or whoever — wouldn’t have targeted players exclusively from the Eredivisie. All of those technical directors don’t appear to have really useful a single player. Either that or they’ve seen their power curtailed as soon as a manager has arrived.
It may fit, after all: The standard of player and coach may yet dovetail to provide some form of forward momentum for an important club caught in interminable drift, but there is no such thing as a evidence of a more considered, a more balanced approach. Manchester United is trying the identical thing again. It’s just telling itself the story that it wants to listen to.
3. Truth, Adjusted for Current Circumstances.
Barcelona has been very clear that it doesn’t need to sell Frenkie de Jong. It have to be telling the reality, too, since it keeps saying it, over and once again. “We all know there are clubs who want him,” the club’s president, Joan Laporta, said last week. “We’ve got no intention of selling.”
Just in case that wasn’t clear enough, Laporta reiterated it a couple of days later. Kind of, anyway. “Frenkie de Jong just isn’t on the market,” he said. He also said: “He’s a Barcelona player, and unless we feel the necessity or the interest to sell him, we won’t do it.” And: “If, at a given moment we’re excited about selling him, then we’d give it some thought.”
All of which makes it barely strange, then, that Barcelona and Manchester United are currently negotiating a business transaction that will — on some basic, fundamental level — involve Barcelona, well, selling Frenkie de Jong. A fee has even been agreed, in keeping with published reports, one that will earn back a lot of the money Barcelona paid Ajax to sign de Jong three years ago. Perhaps Laporta is solely telling a story that he thinks his fans need to hear.
That, definitely, is a more appealing prospect than the opposite story that is perhaps told about Barcelona, the one by which de Jong’s transfer is being held up since the club owes him money — he had deferred a portion of his salary so as to ease Barcelona’s financial troubles, and would presumably prefer to know the way that debt might be settled before he leaves — and by which Laporta has suggested, moderately cryptically, that the one way for the player to remain is that if he agrees to a salary reduction. (Laporta has called it an “adjustment.”)
This has, over the past yr or so, develop into a reasonably standard Barcelona play. Its squad members are asked to renegotiate the terms of their payment in order to assist stabilize the team’s funds. Most have, to their great credit, agreed. Few appear to have objected when the club has then immediately spent money adding much more players to the roster, and to its wage bill.
It is identical this summer. Franck Kessie and Andreas Christensen have already arrived. César Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso may yet follow. The club is trying to influence Bayern Munich to part company with Robert Lewandowski. His salary, it seems reasonable to assume, wouldn’t be small.
Several things don’t appear to have occurred to anyone at Barcelona. In no particular order, they’re: that that is precisely what caused the issue in the primary place; that the normal treatment to a budget shortfall could be to sell players and replace them with cheaper models, in the event that they are replaced in any respect; that the club just isn’t compelled to sign players every yr.
Most of all, though, Barcelona seems to have misunderstood the concept of a contract. That a few of its players are overpaid is, after all, true. But that just isn’t the players’ fault. The club commissioned those contracts. The club signed off on them. The club legally owes the players that cash.
It’s to rewrite the principles of the sport entirely if, a few years down the road, it has to go to them and ask them to knock a couple of hundred thousand off because it might now not sustain the burden, just because its executives have been unable to regulate their addiction to spending within the pursuit of immediate success.
In some unspecified time in the future, the players will get sensible to this, after all. It just isn’t clear, even now, why anyone would sign for a club that has made a habit of failing to fulfill its contractual obligations, of pleading poverty to its current employees while soliciting recent ones, of risking its long-term future since it refuses, point blank, to hearken to the story it needs, reasonably than wants, to listen to.