Ronaldo and United, De Jong and Barcelona: three transfer lessons

Let’s try something different in this week’s newsletter: a journey through modern football in three (vaguely related) stories.

The story, as already told, was the one people wanted to hear, the version they needed to believe. So it was: Cristiano Ronaldo, the most beloved graduate of Manchester United, tried to move to Manchester City, the bitter rival of his alma mater, because the atomic weight of ambition is greater than love, and only finally agreed. The moment of his return to Old Trafford.

However, beyond this basic outline, there were several facts that embellished the story. These things rarely happen in public. They are stealthy and stealthy, carried on by sniffing and whispering. No one shows their hand, does not declare their motives, does not refrain from a convincing denial. They don’t need it. Theory and conjecture flow into a vacuum.

So after Ronaldo returned home, the scant facts at hand were analyzed and evaluated and adapted. Now, the flirtation was nothing more than a ruse, City seduced only to be struck by United. Rio Ferdinand, Ronaldo’s former team-mate, and Alex Ferguson, his long-time mentor, stepped in not to prove him wrong but to put United out of their misery. City may have bowed his head, but only United could win his heart.

For much of the past year there has been what can be generously described as a ‘debate’ over the merits of bringing Ronaldo back to Manchester United. It has never been like this, of course. Instead, it was two groups of people observing two completely separate conversations, neither of which are very interesting, in vague directions.

One of the conversations is whether Ronaldo, 37, is still a good player – certainly a complete retard, but still a goalscorer with great efficiency – and the answer is yes, obviously: still one of the best players of all time He is a great player.

The second is whether Ronaldo, who is 37, makes Manchester United a better team – not perfect, of course, but stronger than they could be without him – and the answer to that is clearly no: he doesn’t, mainly because the presence He orders the team to play in a way that doesn’t particularly suit him, and even if it does, it won’t be very effective.

Although they involve the same people, these conversations are unrelated. These two ideas are not contradictory: Ronaldo is a good player, but he makes Manchester United a less convincing unit. These ideas are actually surprisingly simple and can exist simultaneously.

However, neither side was in any doubt that Ronaldo returned to Old Trafford with some indelible connection. The version of history that people wanted to hear was accepted as fact. Even his salary, somewhere north of half a million dollars a week, was less relevant than the story, the nostalgia, the romance.

Until this week, when it was revealed that Ronaldo had informed United of his desire to leave. Not in public, of course; Persuasive denial remains paramount. Instead, as ever, a few skeleton facts are allowed to surface.

He was unimpressed by United’s activity in the transfer market. He is unhappy with the news that he will not be paid as much as he would have been if the club, one of the most expensive ever assembled, were one of the Premier League’s top four sides. He wants more than anything to play in the Champions League for the rest of his career.

The last one is perhaps not only the most convincing, but also the most illustrative. There is no reason not to believe the idea that Ronaldo loved all the clubs he represented: Sporting Lisbon and 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 he who forged his legend. As the best player in the Champions League, he tried to surpass his great rival, Lionel Messi. It is the competition by which he is judged and by which he judges himself. A club, any club, is useful to him only if it allows him to maintain this relationship, to strengthen this connection. Once it can’t, as United discovers, it quickly cuts ties.

He is not alone in this. His former Juventus counterpart, Matthijs de Ligt, is tipped to move to Bayern Munich over Chelsea, not because of money or the lure of the Bundesliga, but because Bayern are guaranteed a Champions League spot.

That’s where the best players want to be. This is what most influences their decisions. It determines the teams they sign and play for and try to leave. The badge itself, the story and the romance, are third-rate at best. But that’s not the story people want to hear.

Of all the problems Manchester United faced last season, Luke Shaw’s form was way down the list. (For example, it was nowhere near the one titled “How to play some version of modern football with a legendary striker who just won’t – can’t but won’t press) in the league and said: Yes, it’s about the shape of the left-back.”

Nevertheless, manager Erik Ten Hag’s first signing at Old Trafford was a left-back: Tyrell Malasia, to be exact, from Dutch club Feyenoord. He is likely to be joined soon by Lisandro Martinez, the Argentine defender, and Christian Eriksen, the Danish midfielder, and Frankie de Jong, currently at Barcelona, ​​and possibly Brazilian forward Antoni.

The link, of course, is that they all gave their names to the same place. Martinez and Anton currently play for Ajax, the team from which United have secured ten Hags. De Jong was a key figure for Ajax, scoring ten goals within 30 seconds of the Champions League final. Eriksen appeared there more than ten years ago. Ten Heggy was considering signing Malaysia when he was still at Ajax.

There is no reason to believe that any of these players will succeed. Martinez is an Argentine international of some repute. De Jong is one of the best midfielders in the world. Eriksen has the ability to improve every team he is in and has been doing so for over a decade. They must all, instinctively, understand what ten hags want.

On one level, then, this is Manchester United doing exactly what needs to be done: signing players who are fit, velvety and smooth, the way their manager does his job. On the other hand, this is a club that repeats old mistakes.

Ten Hag was appointed only after a long and careful search in Europe for a potential successor to Ralf Rangnick. He arrived at a time when United wanted to present themselves as the initiators of a cultural reset. These days the club has a lead data scientist. He has several dozen football directors. It wants to be seen as a very modern place.

And yet, despite all that, it is abundantly clear that United are set to sign a dozen players who have been specifically requested by their new manager. There is no long-term thinking here. There is no underlying identity search.

Had Hagi refused the job, United – led by Mauricio Pochettino, Diego Simeone or anyone else – would not have been targeting players exclusively from the Eredivisie. Apparently, not all technical directors recommended any players. Either that, or they saw their power diminished once the manager arrived.

Sure, it can work: the quality of player and coach may still be worth some progress for a big club in endless drift, but there’s no evidence of a more thoughtful, more balanced approach. Manchester United is trying to do the same again. He only tells himself the story he wants to hear.

Barcelona have made it very clear that they do not want to sell Frankie de Jong. He must also be telling the truth because he keeps saying it over and over again. “We know there are clubs who want him,” club president Joan Laporta said last week. “We’re not going to sell.”

Just in case that wasn’t clear enough, LaPorta repeated it a few days later. Kind of, anyway. “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 a given moment we are interested in selling it, we will think about it.”

All of which makes it slightly odd that Barcelona and Manchester United are currently negotiating a business transaction that – at some basic, fundamental level – involves selling Barcelona’s Frankie de Jong. According to published reports, a fee has even been agreed which would recoup the bulk of the money Barcelona paid Ajax to sign De Jong three years ago. Maybe LaPorta is just telling a story he thinks his fans want to hear.

It’s certainly a more attractive prospect than the other story that could be told about Barcelona, ​​where De Jong’s transfer is on hold because the club owes him money – he’s withheld part of his salary to make it easier. Barcelona’s financial woes and presumably want to know how they will pay off that debt before he leaves – and in which Laporta mildly cryptically suggested that the only way the player could stay is if he agreed to take a pay cut. (LaPorta called it a “correction”).

Over the past year, this has become a fairly standard Barcelona game. Members of his team are being asked to renegotiate payment terms to help stabilize the team’s finances. Most, to their great credit, agreed. Few seemed to object when the club immediately spent money to add even more players to the roster and wage bill.

So it is this summer. Frank Kess and Andreas Christensen have already arrived. Cesar Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso may yet follow. The club is trying to convince Bayern Munich to part with Robert Lewandowski. His salary, it seems reasonable to assume, will not be small.

In “Barcelona”, a few things, it seems, have not occurred to anyone. In no particular order, they are: that this is what caused the problem in the first place; that the traditional means of budget shortfalls would be to sell players and replace them with cheaper models, if they were to be replaced at all; That the club is not forced to sign players every year.

Most of all, however, Barcelona seem to have misunderstood the idea of ​​the contract. That some of his players are overpaid is certainly true. But this is not the fault of the players. The club ordered these contracts. The club signed them. The club legally owes the players this money.

It’s a complete rewrite of the game if, after a few years, he has to come to them and ask them to drop a few hundred thousand because he can no longer carry the burden, simply because his executives have failed to control their spending addiction for immediate success.

At some point, players will get smart about it, of course. It’s still unclear why anyone would sign for a club that has made a habit of reneging on contractual obligations, asking current staff for penury, and risking his long-term future by asking for new ones because he refuses. , point blank, to hear the story he needs rather than wants to hear.

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