Let’s try something different in this week’s newsletter: a journey through modern football in three (vaguely related) stories.
1. Romance is a one-way street
The story, as it turned out, was the one people wanted to hear, the version they needed to believe. It was like this: Cristiano Ronaldo, everyone’s favorite Manchester United graduate, was trying to arrange a move to Manchester City, his alma mater’s fierce rival, because the atomic weight of ambition is greater than affection, and agreed only at the last moment. moment back to Old Trafford instead of.
However, apart from this basic plan, there were several facts that could be used to embellish the story. These things are rarely played out in public. They are covert and covert, conducted remotely and in whispers. No one shows their cards, declares their motives, deprives themselves of plausible deniability. They don’t need it. Theory and conjecture flow into the vacuum.
So one day Ronaldo had his homecomingThe meager facts at hand were analyzed and evaluated and bent to match. Now the flirting was presented as little more than a ruse, City seduced so United could strike. Rio Ferdinand, Ronaldo’s former teammate, and Alex Ferguson, his longtime mentor, intervened not to show him the fallacy of his path, but to bring United out of their daze. City could turn his head, but only United could win his heart.
For much of the past year, there has been what can be safely described as a “debate” on the merits of Ronaldo’s reinstatement at Manchester United. There has never been anything like it, of course. Instead, it was two groups of people having two completely different conversations, neither of which was very interesting, in an indeterminate direction to each other.
One of those conversations is whether Ronaldo, at 37, is still a great player – a cut down from his heyday, of course, but an amazingly effective goalscorer nonetheless – and the answer to that is: yes, obviously: one of the the greatest players of all time are still a great player.
The other concerns whether Ronaldo, at 37 years old, will make Manchester United a better team – not a perfect team, of course, but stronger than it could be without him – and the answer to that question is obviously no: it doesn’t, mostly because his presence indicates that the team is playing in a manner for which it is not particularly suited, and which would not be extremely effective even if it were.
Although the same people are involved, these conversations are unrelated. The two ideas don’t contradict each other: Ronaldo is a good player, but he makes Manchester United a less compelling unit. These ideas are actually amazingly simple and can exist simultaneously.
However, neither side doubted that Ronaldo had returned to Old Trafford some sort of unbreakable bond. The version of the story that people wanted to hear was accepted as fact. Even his salary, somewhere north of half a million dollars a week, was considered less significant than the history, the nostalgia, the romance of it all.
Until this week, when it was revealed that Ronaldo had informed United of his desire to leave. Not publicly, of course; plausible deniability remains paramount. Instead, as always, a few skeletal facts were allowed to surface.
He was unimpressed by United’s activity in the transfer market. He was dissatisfied with the news that he would not be paid as much as he could have if the club, with one of the most expensive squads ever put together, became one of the top four teams in the Premier League. More than anything, he wants to play in the Champions League for the rest of his career.
The latter is perhaps not only the most convincing, but also the most revealing. There is no reason not to believe that Ronaldo loved all the clubs he represented: Sporting Lisbon, Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus. But his biggest connection is not with the team, but with the tournament.
Ronaldo is a creature of the Champions League. It was there that he created his legend. It was as the best player in the Champions League that he sought to surpass his great rival Lionel Messi. It is the competition by which he is judged and by which he judges himself. The club, any club, is useful to him only if it allows him to maintain these relations, to strengthen this connection. As soon as he can’t, as United find out, he quickly cuts his ties.
He is not alone in this. His former Juventus teammate Matthijs de Ligt is tempted to move to Bayern Munich over Chelsea, not for money or Bundesliga temptation, but because Bayern have a guaranteed place in the Champions League.
That’s where the best players want to be. This is what has the greatest impact on their decisions. It defines the teams they sign for, play for and want to leave. The icon itself, the story, and the romance are tertiary at best. But that’s not the kind of story people want to hear.
2. Lessons are not learned.
Of all the problems that Manchester United faced last season, Luke Shaw’s form was way down the list. (He wasn’t even close, for example, under the headline: “How to play some version of modern football with a legendary striker who simply won’t – can’t, but won’t – press.”) No one watched Manchester United is spinning in the Premier League and said: Yes, the problem here is in the form of the left back.
However, manager Erik ten Hag’s first signing at Old Trafford was from a left-back: Tyrell MalasiaOr rather, he moved from the Dutch club Feyenoord. He will soon be joined by Lisandro Martínez, the Argentine defender, and Christian Eriksen, the Danish midfielder, and Frenkie de Jong, currently at Barcelona, and possibly even the Brazilian striker Anthony.
The connection, of course, is that they all made their names in the same place. Martínez and Anthony currently play for Ajax, the side that United took ten Hag from. De Jong was the centerpiece of the Ajax team, which ten Hag mistook for within 30 seconds or so Champions League final. Eriksen appeared there more than ten years ago. Ten Hag considered signing with Malasia while still at Ajax.
There is no reason to believe that any of these players will achieve anything less than success. Martinez is an Argentine footballer with a good reputation. De Jong is one of the best midfielders in the world. Eriksen knows how to improve every team he is on and has been doing so for over a decade. All of them must instinctively understand what ten Hag wants.
So, on the one hand, Manchester United are doing exactly what they should be doing: recruiting the right players, velvety and smooth, with the manner of doing business of their manager. On the other hand, this is a club repeating the same old mistakes.
Ten Hag was appointed only after a long and careful search in Europe for a potential successor to Ralph Rangnick. He arrived at a time when United were keen to pose as organizing some kind of cultural reset. The club now has a lead data scientist. It has several dozen football directors. He wants to be perceived as a very modern place.
And yet, despite all this, it is clear that United intended to sign half a dozen players specifically requested by his new manager. There is no long term thinking here. No core identity pursued.
If ten Hag had turned down the job, United – under Mauricio Pochettino, Diego Simeone or anyone else – would not have targeted Eredivisie players exclusively. It seems that all these technical directors did not recommend a single player. Either that, or they saw that their power was limited as soon as the manager arrived.
Of course, it can work: the quality of the player and the manager can still match to give some momentum for a great club. caught in an endless drift, but there is no more balanced, balanced approach. Manchester United are trying to do the same again. He just tells himself the story he wants to hear.
3. Truth adjusted for current circumstances.
Barcelona have made it clear they don’t want to sell Frenkie de Jong. He must be telling the truth too, because he repeats it over and over again. “We know there are clubs that need him,” club president Joan Laporta said last week. “We’re not going to sell.”
Just in case it wasn’t clear enough, Laporta repeated it a few days later. In any case, like. “Frankie de Jong is not for sale,” he said. He also said: “He is a Barcelona player and if we don’t feel the need or interest to sell him, we won’t do it.” And: “If at the moment we were interested in selling it, then we would think about it.”
All of which makes it a bit odd that Barcelona and Manchester United are currently negotiating a business deal that – on some basic, fundamental level – involves selling Frenkie de Jong to Barcelona. According to released reports, a fee has even been agreed that will return most of the money Barcelona paid Ajax to sign De Jong three years ago. Perhaps Laporta is simply telling the story he thinks his fans want to hear.
It’s certainly a more attractive prospect than another story that could be told about Barcelona, in which De Jong’s transfer is delayed because the club owes him money – he set aside part of his salary to alleviate Barcelona’s financial problems. , and would probably like to know how that debt would be paid off before he left, in which Laporta rather cryptically suggested that the only way for the player to stay was to accept a pay cut. (Laporta called this “adjustment”.)
Over the past year or so, this has become a pretty standard Barcelona game. Team members are being asked to review payment terms to help stabilize the team’s financial situation. Most, to their great credit, agreed. Few seemed to mind when the club immediately spent the money, adding even more players to the squad and to their payroll.
The same is true this summer. Frank Kessy and Andreas Christensen have already arrived. Cesar Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso could follow him. The club is trying to convince Bayern Munich to part ways with Robert Lewandowski. His salary, it seems reasonable to assume, will not be small.
A few things didn’t seem to cross anyone’s mind at Barcelona. In no particular order, they are: this is what caused the problem in the first place; that the traditional remedy for a budget shortfall would be to sell players and replace them with cheaper models, if they are replaced at all; that the club is not required to sign players every year.
More than anything, however, Barcelona seem to have misunderstood the idea of a contract. The fact that some players are overpaid is, of course, true. But it’s not the fault of the players. The club ordered these contracts. The club signed them. By law, the club owes the players this money.
It means completely rewriting the rules of the game if, in a couple of years, he has to turn to them and ask them to knock out a few hundred thousand, because he can no longer bear this burden, simply because his leaders were unable to control their propensity to spend in the pursuit. for immediate success.
At some point, the players will certainly understand this. Even now, it’s not clear why anyone would sign at a club that has a habit of not meeting their contractual obligations or pleading poverty to their current employees by asking for new ones, or risking their long-term future by refusing. , at point-blank range, to listen to the story that he needs, and does not want to hear.