All these years on, it is hard to identify the exact straw that broke the camel’s back. Perhaps it was the night when Carlos Tévez, in the thick of a Champions League game against Bayern Munich, seemed to refuse to come on as a substitute. Maybe it was the evening Mario Balotelli spent setting off fireworks in, and setting fire to, his own bathroom.
Ideally, really, as a way of illustrating the mounting absurdity of it all, it would be what became known as the Birthday Cake Incident: the time that Manchester City either did or did not buy Yaya Touré a birthday cake, but most definitely did not buy him a Bugatti, a decision that prompted Touré’s agent at the time to declare that one of the club’s greatest ever players wanted to leave.
Most likely, of course, the last straw was all of them and none of them. It was their weight, taken together, the apparently endless stream of minor problems blown out of proportion, that persuaded City — at some indistinct point, six or seven years ago — that buying the biggest and the brightest stars was more trouble than it was worth. That the club would, instead, take a different tack.
Where that led was cast, most clearly, when Pep Guardiola’s team encountered, and overcame, Paris St.-Germain in last season’s Champions League semifinals. City and P.S.G. are often presented as two sides of the same coin, the twin vanguard of soccer’s new order: both soaringly ambitious, both unimaginably wealthy, both bankrolled by private individuals who are definitely not acting with the backing of Gulf states.
For all that they have in common, though, their approaches have been starkly different. Their squads for those two games in the spring made that abundantly clear. In the second leg, as P.S.G. searched in vain for a way back, Mauricio Pochettino had to throw on the on-loan Moise Kean, the unheralded Mitchel Bakker and the unremarkable Colin Dagba.
As Guardiola looked to see the game out, he could introduce Raheem Sterling, Sergio Agüero and Gabriel Jésus. That left Aymeric Laporte, Rodri, Ferran Torres and João Cancelo all waiting on the bench. P.S.G. might have had the greater star power — even before its signing of Lionel Messi this week — in Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, but its resources seemed much shallower than City’s.
Where P.S.G. had concentrated its wealth on acquiring a handful of superstars, City had spent the previous few years gathering a squad of unrivaled and unprecedented depth.
City was not shy of big names, of course — including Kevin De Bruyne, Agüero and Riyad Mahrez — but only a handful, like Raheem Sterling, might have been considered major stars before they arrived at the club. There was no sense of a divide between the headline acts and the supporting cast. Instead, City’s team seemed to have two $70 million players for every outfield position.
The policy that built Guardiola’s squad had been instituted painstakingly, deliberately, with the club investing substantially more time and energy than before on making sure it was recruiting players who were humble, hard-working and unlikely to cause any reputational damage on or off the field. There had been quite enough drama in the years of Tévez, Balotelli and Emmanuel Adebayor.
City took great pride in its approach, regularly defending itself against accusations that it had spent its way to success by pointing out that most of its rivals had more expensive acquisitions within their ranks: Manchester United had spent more on Paul Pogba, Liverpool more on Virgil Van Dijk and Chelsea more on Kepa Arrizabalaga than City had on its (then) record signing, the defender Rúben Dias. In some cases, quite a lot more.
Besides, the approach worked. The Champions League title might continue to elude City — like P.S.G., it has played, and lost, one final in the competition it desires to win above all others since its reinvention — but City now stands as the pre-eminent Premier League team of its era; champion in three of the last four seasons, five times in the last decade, and a favorite to add to that tally this year.
Last season, as City marched to the domestic league title, Guardiola regularly rotated as many as half a dozen players in and out of his team every few days. His side retained a freshness, an energy, that nobody else — not even in the money-soaked, recession-resistant heights in which City operates — could match. City’s success is rooted not in the brilliance of its strongest player, but in the competence of its weakest.
And yet, this summer, all that has changed. City has already broken the British transfer record to sign Jack Grealish from Aston Villa. It remains quietly confident of having the chance to do so again: It would cost, most likely, $200 million or so to pry Harry Kane, the England captain, from Tottenham, but City appears prepared to do it. It will, alas, no longer be possible for the club to claim that its spending power is no greater than anyone else’s.
Quite what has prompted this significant, and costly, sea change in approach appears — on the surface — to be obvious. City is desperate to win the Champions League. It came closer than ever last season, strangely acquiescent in defeat in the final against Chelsea, and its executives and its manager are united in their desire to take that one last step.
City has been richer than Croesus for 13 years; its patience is wearing thin. Guardiola has not won the trophy that means the most to him since 2011, when he was at Barcelona; so is his. Grealish was, by some measures, the most dangerous player in the Premier League last season, and second in Europe only to Messi. Kane is among the world’s finest strikers, a position where City, following Agüero’s departure, is noticeably light. There is no mystery here: This is a club pursuing the exact two players it thinks it needs to achieve its mission.
And yet a couple of questions linger. Grealish is a brilliant player, imaginative and courageous and tirelessly inventive, but he has never played in the Champions League. He cannot, then, be a surefire guarantee of success in it. Kane has made a final, of course, but he is both more expensive and substantially more difficult to extract from his current club than, say, Romelu Lukaku proved to be.
Grealish and Kane would, doubtless, make Manchester City even better than it already was. Whether they make it $300 million better, though, is a more taxing question. Whether City had to spend quite that much for a similar effect is a more compelling one. That both questions can be posed suggests that it is not inconceivable that there are other, off-field considerations at play.
It may be, for example, that City feels it needs just a little more star power, not only to help it over the line both in England — where Guardiola has said it will take a haul of 90 points or more to win the title once more — and in Europe, but also to increase its commercial reach. Kane is the captain of England. Grealish, this summer during Euro 2020, became his country’s darling. City has learned to its cost, previously, that headline names can mean headline trouble; perhaps, as soccer continues its gradual lurch from competitive sport to content farm, that is not quite so unappealing.
A squad devoid of fixed reference points — big names who demand inclusion in specific positions — is ideal, of course, for Guardiola; his Platonic ideal of a team is 10 midfielders, interchanging positions at will. Both Grealish and Kane are more versatile than is perhaps realized, but their cost — if the latter joins the former — dictates that Guardiola must build around their strengths, at least to some extent, rather than deploying them as transferable cogs in his machine.
That, too, offers a glimpse of another possible rationale for their arrival. Guardiola has regularly complained that his players do not win all of the individual awards for which they might be considered contenders. That they do not is rather less to do with some insidious campaign against his club among the news media and more centered on the fact that no star, at City, shines quite so brightly as the manager.
No matter how many games De Bruyne dominates, no matter how many positions Sterling masters, no matter how many goals Ilkay Gundogan suddenly and inexplicably scores, their success is always subsumed by Guardiola’s; their brilliance always sits downstream from his. (Guardiola, and his entourage, are not displeased with this.)
City’s squad had been built in Guardiola’s image. In many ways, the club has been shaping itself to suit his needs ever since its first title victory. That has proved devastatingly effective, but it also carries with it a distant cost: At some point, when he goes, a squad of players acquired by him, crafted by him and loyal to him will have to adapt to life without him.
Not so, of course, Grealish or Kane. Both would, doubtless, thrive under Guardiola. More important, both — ready-made, plug and play stars — would continue to thrive after he is gone. That may not be next summer, or even the summer after that, but it will come at some point in the span of their contracts.
They are both, first and foremost, signings for today: proof that this is a club desperate, urgent in its intent to thrive in the immediate. But their cost, their age and their profile suggest that they are something else, too: evidence that City is thinking not only about how to win even more under Guardiola, but how to keep winning once the brightest star it has ever known has gone.
Strictly speaking, this is not the weekend when soccer is back, since soccer never really went away. The early rounds of the Champions League were being played during the European Championship. The Gold Cup carried on until late July. And it is only a week since the French season started, right as the Brazilian men and the Canadian women won gold medals at the Olympics.
But this is the weekend when the major European (men’s) leagues kick off, and thus this is officially The Weekend When Soccer Is Back. With fans, too: full stadiums in England, increasingly full ones in Spain and Italy, half-full ones (mostly, for now) in Germany. Soccer’s ghost era, with any luck, is nearing its end.
The prospect of noise, color and life is not the only reason to greet the new season. The Bundesliga has a suite of managers in new roles, led by Julian Nagelsmann at Bayern Munich and Marco Rose at Borussia Dortmund. In Spain, the demise of Real Madrid and Barcelona may yet open the door for Sevilla to join the title chase. Juventus has a crown to regain in Italy.
It is England, though, where all of the ingredients are in place for a vintage campaign (after what was, if we are all completely honest, a fairly dull one last time around). Manchester City will start as the title favorite as it seeks to retain its championship, but Chelsea — bolstered by Romelu Lukaku, and buoyed by its status as European champion — carries considerable menace, too. So does Manchester United, newly embroidered by Raphaël Varane and Jadon Sancho.
Better still, there is a pack of clubs gearing up to try to close the gap on the league’s great powers, a group containing not just the obvious names — the likes of Tottenham and Arsenal — but a smartly improved Leicester, a revamped Aston Villa, an engaging Leeds United and, possibly, Rafael Benítez’s Everton, a team that will, whatever happens, be one of the most compelling stories of the year. For those back in the stands, for those still afar, there is plenty to savor.
P.S.G. Has Already Won
There were thousands of fans outside the Parc des Princes, clutching flags and burning flares and waiting for a glimpse, however fleeting, of the man who had made their dreams come true. There were hundreds more outside Paris St.-Germain’s shop in the center of the French capital, patiently waiting for their chance to get a jersey emblazoned with a name they never thought they would see.
In a sense, of course, the story of Lionel Messi and P.S.G. is only just beginning: The club, as its president, Nasser al-Khelaifi rather oddly said at the news conference held to unveil the greatest player of all time, has “won nothing yet.” Still, nice to know that he doesn’t think that stream of French titles mean a vast amount, either.
But in a way, too, it is over. The point of signing Messi, for P.S.G., is not what comes after: It is not the games he plays or the trophies he wins. It was the theater of the day itself: the crowd at the airport, the congregation at the stadium, the countless news crews, the endless content.
No victory — perhaps with the one exception of the Champions League, but not necessarily — will attract quite so much attention, will compel as many eyeballs, will engender in fans the same feelings of excitement and awe as the piece of performance theater that captivated the planet over the course of last weekend. A transfer is not a means to an end, any more. It is the end in itself.
It would appear that Brendan O’Connor has been gifted with just a touch of clairvoyance. “Why did Harry Kane sign a six-year contract? There is obviously huge benefit for Spurs in tying down their star player for six years in his prime,” he wrote. “But what’s in it for the player? He has no bargaining power or leverage in trying to engineer a move away.”
I can’t give a definitive answer, sadly, but my reasonably educated guess would be that his reasoning was a blend of security — as a rule, players assume that longer contracts are safer and therefore better — and belief, three years ago, that he could fulfill his ambitions at Tottenham. The club, then, was coming off the back of two seasons of genuinely contending for the Premier League title, remember; a year later, it would make the Champions League final.
As a rule, though, contracts of that length are likely to become less and less common, particularly for the game’s best and brightest: partly because the financial commitment for the clubs is too onerous, and partly because players (and their agents) know that the way to maximize earning potential is to keep transfer fees comparatively low. Players need leverage. Kane may yet come to stand as a warning of what happens when they do not have it.
And, from Gavin MacPhee, an excellent theory on what it is that makes Lionel Messi so special. “Messi just about passes the test as coming from the Latin American street soccer development school. Yet he just happened to move [to Barcelona] at the point where the industrialization of player development by Western European countries was really starting to kick into gear. Messi is unique as a combination of the two great development environments.”
That just about holds water to me, Gavin. So I suppose the question, now, is whether that blueprint can be repeated? Not to the same level as Messi, of course — his talent is what truly differentiates him — but can European teams use South America as a forge of very young talent, or (and better) can South American teams become as adept at polishing players as their counterparts across the Atlantic?
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