Ronaldo and United, de Jong and Barcelona: Three Transfer Lessons

Cristiano Ronaldo’s loyalty, Manchester United’s vision and Barcelona’s complete inability to stop spending explain a lot about the business of modern soccer.

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

The story, as it came to be told, was the one that people wanted to hear, the version they needed to believe. 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, because the atomic weight of ambition is greater than that of affection, and had only agreed at the last moment to return to Old Trafford instead.

Beyond that basic outline, though, there were few facts with which to garnish the story. These things are rarely played out in public. They are furtive and clandestine, conducted by remove and by whisper. Nobody shows their hand, declares their motivations, deprives themselves of plausible deniability. They do not need to. 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 fit. Now, the flirtation was cast as nothing but a ploy, City seduced so that United might strike. Rio Ferdinand, Ronaldo’s former teammate, and Alex Ferguson, his longtime mentor, had intervened not to show him the error of his ways, but to snap United from its torpor. City might have turned his head, but only United could win his heart.

There has, for much of the last year, been what might generously be described as a “debate” about the merits of Ronaldo’s restoration at Manchester United. It has never been anything of the sort, of course. It has, instead, been two groups of people bellowing two entirely separate conversations, neither of which is very interesting, in each other’s vague direction.

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One of those conversations is about whether Ronaldo, at 37, is still a fine player — pared down from his prime, of course, but nevertheless a goal-scorer of remarkable efficacy — and the answer to it is that yes, obviously: One of the greatest players of all time is still a great player.

The other is about whether Ronaldo, at 37, makes Manchester United a better team — not perfect, of course, but stronger than it might be without him — and the answer to that one is no, obviously: He does not, largely because his presence commands that the team play in a manner to which it is not especially suited, and which would not be hugely effective even if it was.

Though they involve the same people, these conversations are not related. The two ideas do not contradict one another: Ronaldo is a fine player but he makes Manchester United a less cogent unit. Those ideas are, in fact, strikingly simple, and can exist simultaneously.

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 wanted to hear had been accepted as fact. Even his salary, somewhere north of half a million dollars a week, was deemed less relevant than the history, the nostalgia, the romance of it all.

Until this week, when it turned out that Ronaldo had informed United of his desire to leave. Not publicly, of course; plausible deniability remains paramount. Instead, as ever, a few skeletal facts have been allowed to surface.

He has been unimpressed by United’s activity in the transfer market. He has been disgruntled by the news that he will not be paid as much as he would have been, had the club with one of the most expensive squads ever assembled finished as one of the best four teams in the Premier League. He wants, more than anything, to play in the Champions League for the remainder of his career.

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The last one, perhaps, is not only the most convincing but the most illustrative. There is no reason to disbelieve the idea that Ronaldo has loved all of the clubs he has represented: Sporting Lisbon and Manchester United and Real Madrid and Juventus. But his greatest bond is not with a team but with a tournament.

Ronaldo is a creature of the Champions League. That is where he has forged his legend. It was as the ultimate Champions League player that he sought to outdo 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 only useful to him if it allows him to maintain that relationship, to further that connection. As soon as it cannot, as United is finding, he is quick to sever his ties.

He is not alone in that. His former colleague at Juventus, Matthijs de Ligt, is inclined to move to Bayern Munich over Chelsea not because of money or the temptation of the Bundesliga, but because Bayern has an effectively guaranteed place in the Champions League.

That is where the best players want to be. It is what exerts the greatest influence on their decisions. It defines the teams they sign for and play for and seek to leave. The badge itself, the history and the romance, is tertiary, at best. But that is not the story that people want to hear.

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Of all the problems Manchester United faced last season, the form of Luke Shaw was some considerable way down the list. (It was nowhere near, for example, the one entitled: “How to play some version of modern soccer with a legendary striker who simply will not — not cannot, but will not — press.”) Nobody watched Manchester United flailing in the Premier League and said: Yes, the issue here is the in-form left back.

Nonetheless, the first 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 will 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, of course, is that they all made their names in the same place. Martínez and Antony both 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 within 30 seconds or so of the Champions League final. Eriksen emerged there, more than a decade ago. Ten Hag had considered signing Malacia when he still worked at Ajax.

There is no reason to believe that any of these players will be anything less than a success. Martínez is an Argentine international of some repute. De Jong is one of the finest midfielders in the world. Eriksen has a knack for improving every team that includes him, and has done so for more than a decade. They should all, instinctively, understand what ten Hag wants.

On one level, then, this is Manchester United doing exactly what should be done: recruiting players that fit, velvet and smooth, with its manager’s way of doing things. On another, it is a club repeating the same old mistakes.

Ten Hag was only appointed after a long and careful search of Europe for a potential 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 these days. It has several dozen directors of football. It wishes to be seen as a very modern sort of a place.

And yet, despite all that, it is abundantly clear that United has set out to sign half a dozen players specifically requested by its new manager. There is no long-term thinking here. There is no core identity being pursued.

Had ten Hag turned down the job, United — under Mauricio Pochettino or Diego Simeone or whoever — would not have targeted players exclusively from the Eredivisie. All of those technical directors do not seem to have recommended a single player. Either that or they have seen their power curtailed as soon as a manager has arrived.

It may work, of course: The quality of player and coach may yet dovetail to produce some sort of forward momentum for a great club caught in interminable drift, but there is no evidence of a more considered, a more balanced approach. Manchester United is trying the same thing again. It is just telling itself the story that it wants to hear.

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Barcelona has been very clear that it does not want to sell Frenkie de Jong. It must be telling the truth, too, because it keeps saying it, over and over again. “We know there are clubs who want him,” the club’s president, Joan Laporta, said last week. “We have no intention of selling.”

Just in case that wasn’t clear enough, Laporta reiterated it a few days later. Sort of, anyway. “Frenkie de Jong is not for sale,” he said. He also said: “He is a Barcelona player, and unless we feel the need or the interest to sell him, we won’t do it.” And: “If, at a given moment we are interested in selling him, then we would think about it.”

All of which makes it slightly strange, then, that Barcelona and Manchester United are currently negotiating a business transaction that would — on some basic, fundamental level — involve Barcelona, well, selling Frenkie de Jong. A fee has even been agreed, according to published reports, one that would earn back most of the money Barcelona paid Ajax to sign de Jong three years ago. Perhaps Laporta is simply telling a story that he thinks his fans want to hear.

That, certainly, is a more appealing prospect than the other story that might be told about Barcelona, the one in which de Jong’s transfer is being held up because the club owes him money — he had deferred a portion of his salary in order to ease Barcelona’s financial troubles, and would presumably like to know how that debt will be settled before he leaves — and in which Laporta has suggested, moderately cryptically, that the only way for the player to stay is if he agrees to a salary reduction. (Laporta has called it an “adjustment.”)

This has, over the last year or so, become a fairly standard Barcelona play. Its squad members are asked to renegotiate the terms of their payment so as to help stabilize the team’s finances. Most have, to their great credit, agreed. Few seem to have objected when the club has then immediately spent money adding even more players to the roster, and to its wage bill.

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It is the same this summer. Franck Kessie and Andreas Christensen have already arrived. César Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso may yet follow. The club is trying to persuade Bayern Munich to part company with Robert Lewandowski. His salary, it seems reasonable to assume, would not be small.

Several things do not seem to have occurred to anyone at Barcelona. In no particular order, they are: that this is precisely what caused the problem in the first place; that the traditional remedy to 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 compelled to sign players every year.

Most of all, though, Barcelona seems to have misunderstood the idea of a contract. That some of its players are overpaid is, of course, true. But that is not the players’ fault. The club commissioned those contracts. The club signed off on them. The club legally owes the players that money.

It is to rewrite the rules of the game entirely if, a couple of years down the line, it has to go to them and ask them to knock a few hundred thousand off because it can no longer sustain the burden, simply because its executives have been unable to control their addiction to spending in the pursuit of immediate success.

At some point, the players will get wise to this, of course. It is not clear, even now, why anyone would sign for a club that has made a habit of failing to meet its contractual obligations, of pleading poverty to its current employees while soliciting new ones, of risking its long-term future because it refuses, point blank, to listen to the story it needs, rather than wants, to hear.

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