As the danger bubbled to the surface, there was an audible intake of breath among Manchester City’s substitutes. Once it had passed, a few seconds later, as they exchanged glances — of admiration, of relief — came a little murmur of appreciation. In the silence of the stadium, you could hear the sounds of game recognizing game.
The chance had come out of nothing, really. Mahmoud Dahoud, the Borussia Dortmund midfielder, had worked himself a scintilla of space in the middle of the field and slipped a ball into the path of Erling Haaland.
It had led to nothing, too. Haaland’s shot was saved by Éderson, the Manchester City goalkeeper. Dortmund would lose the game, thanks to a late goal from Phil Foden. A week later, after another defeat, it was out of the Champions League altogether. City would have its place in the semifinals.
In that moment, though, it was not the outcome that mattered, but the process. Haaland is too tall to be that quick, and yet here was visible proof to the contrary, his sudden, brutal acceleration a storm gathering out of a clear blue sky. City defender Ruben Días has, for most of the season, been imperious and intimidating, and yet as he ran, Haaland shrugged him aside like a rag doll. It all left the impression that the Norwegian is less a promising young striker and more the physical manifestation of some ancient prophecy.
The previous day, Pep Guardiola, Manchester City’s manager, had poured cold water on rumbling speculation that Haaland’s appearance at the Etihad Stadium was something of an audition. Manchester City, Guardiola said, did not have the money to meet Dortmund’s $180 million asking price for its crown jewel.
Though it required at least some willing suspension of disbelief, it would have suited City’s rivals to believe Guardiola. His record of incorporating archetypal strikers into his teams is, it is fair to say, mixed: Robert Lewandowski fit his Bayern Munich side perfectly, but neither Samuel Eto’o nor Zlatan Ibrahimovic quite suited the masterpiece he built at Barcelona.
His attitude to Sergio Agüero, arguably City’s finest-ever player, has been a little uncertain over the last five years, too. It is perhaps relevant that Agüero, who turns 33 in June, will leave the Etihad when his contract expires this summer, after a decade of prolific service, despite initially expressing an interest in extending his stay as recently as the start of this season. Guardiola would have to tweak his approach, at least a little, to suit Haaland.
But still: It would be entirely understandable for those teams tasked with keeping pace with City to prefer not to have to find out if he could make it work. In theory, at least, the combination of a team as good as City — currently on course for an unprecedented domestic and European quadruple — and a striker as devastating as Haaland would make the club close to unstoppable for years to come.
It is not, though, quite that simple. There are countless reasons for City’s rivals and peers to hope the club does not sign Haaland, but there is one counterargument sufficiently compelling to render all of them moot. Manchester City might need to sign Erling Haaland to save soccer from financial calamity.
As the season reaches its climax — down to the final four in the Champions League and Europa League, Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Inter Milan, Ajax and Sporting Lisbon all brushing their fingertips against championship trophies — it is possible to believe that soccer has successfully played through the pandemic. The ball, the show, the money from broadcast deals: It has all kept on rolling, stanching the losses and limiting the damage.
In reality, it has only cleared the first hurdle; the economic impact of the pandemic has yet to bare its teeth. Clubs’ accounts across Europe are already littered with multimillion dollar losses. More than a year of empty stadiums has left teams large and small with a shortfall in revenues that they cannot simply, or quickly, make up.
Even for those lucky few cosseted by wealthy benefactors or cushioned by European prize money or covered by the Premier League’s gargantuan television deals, money is scarce; scarcer than it used to be, anyway. That much was evident in January, as transfer spending dropped precipitously. Teams are tightening their belts and hoping to get through.
As much as it is easy to rail against soccer’s transfer market — the obscenity of the sums involved, the conspicuous consumption, the pervasive dogma that problems are solved by acquisition, rather than improvement, the unease at the idea of players reduced to assets to be traded by institutions — that is a problem, and potentially an existential one.
Not for those, perhaps, at the top of the tree, the ones who might have to make do with the squads stuffed full of internationals already at their disposal for a year or two, but for everyone beneath them.
The transfer market is, for all but a handful of teams, a crucial conduit for wealth: a “solidarity mechanism,” as Vincent Mannaert, the chief executive of Club Bruges, the Belgian champion, put it last year. It is how the money at the top flows down, from the Premier League and the super-clubs on through Europe’s minor leagues and out into the world.
The fear stalking executives and owners is that the fallout from the pandemic will disrupt that mechanism. In France, where the losses from soccer’s hiatus a year ago have been compounded by the league’s decision to abandon last season and the collapse of a television deal, clubs would ordinarily sell players to balance their books.
The problem, this time around, is that they are not sure who they will sell them to: Their usual buyers in Spain, Germany and Italy are all suffering, too. England, perhaps, remains a viable market, but greater supply than demand will serve to depress prices; so, too, the fact that French clubs are now perceived as distressed sellers.
To some, that is just the start of it. Norman Capuozzo, one of the leading agents in South America, believes clubs at all levels will prioritize shedding wages. “Below the elite, there will be a lot of players released, a lot of free transfers, a lot of loans,” he said. The market, in other words, will be flooded to the point of saturation by castoffs and bargains.
The only thing that can change all of that is an injection of cash: enough to crank the market mechanism back into gear, enough to enable teams not to cut players from their squads, enough to help teams spend a little, enough to keep the wheels turning and the money flowing, from the top on down.
It is here that Manchester City comes in: a club that felt confident enough in the middle of a pandemic to establish the biggest salary bill in English soccer history. There are alternatives, of course: Paris St.-Germain, maybe, which set out to inflate the transfer market beyond everyone else’s reach when it signed Neymar in 2017; or Chelsea, the modern game’s defining Gatsby, happy to spend $250 million last summer, only a few months after soccer had been on the brink of implosion; and Manchester United, a commercial juggernaut so powerful it emptied its stadium and posted a profit.
None of that should be read as a criticism. It is merely as an assertion that these teams have been happy to shape the transfer market to further their own success, as is their inalienable right, overpaying on both fees and wages when it suited them, with the side effect/added benefit of driving up prices for everyone else.
For once, though, there is cause even for those teams who believe themselves to have suffered from the rise of the superclubs to be thankful for their presence. The money that City — or P.S.G. or Chelsea or Manchester United — might give Dortmund for Haaland would, after all, travel a long way.
Much of it would not rest at Dortmund. Perhaps some of it would trickle down through the Bundesliga: to Augsburg for Felix Uduokhai and Wolfsburg for Maxence Lacroix and Borussia Monchengladbach for Florian Neuhaus.
From there, on it would go: from Wolfsburg and Mönchengladbach to teams in France, and from those French sides to Belgium, and from Belgium out to Scandinavia and Africa and Colombia, the transfer market suddenly liquid after a year of heavy, unmoving solidity, teams willing to pay fees and able to pay wages.
It should not be especially controversial to suggest that the owners of Manchester City, P.S.G. and Chelsea are not involved with soccer exclusively because of their love of the game. They did not necessarily buy into the sport because of their desire to compete, either, or even just to make money (as is the case at Liverpool and Manchester United, for example).
They all bought into soccer because of what soccer can do for them. Perhaps, then, this summer is a chance for payback, for them to do something for soccer. It should not, really, be too much to ask. All they have to do is what has come so easily to them in years past: spend money and sign players.
The Final Four
It should not, perhaps, be much of a surprise that three of the teams with the capacity to buy Erling Haaland are also in the Champions League semifinals: City, Chelsea and P.S.G. were, after all, in an unusually strong position to ride out the financial impact of the pandemic, and to mitigate the sporting consequences.
There will be time, in a couple of weeks, to assess the geopolitical consequences of the two semifinals — and whether, as the memes have had it, we are in the unusual position of seeing Real Madrid as the good guys — but, for now, let us focus on how they might play out on the field.
The immediate reaction is to assume that one semifinal will be cautious and dour, and the other crackling with light. Chelsea has been miserly since Thomas Tuchel took over, after all; Real Madrid held off Liverpool at Anfield on Wednesday night with a performance of obdurate discipline. All of the brio and the verve will, presumably, come from the meeting of P.S.G. and Manchester City.
That interpretation feels a little off, though. Real defended astutely against Liverpool — it had a commanding lead to protect — but it still gave up four or five gilt-edged, clear-cut chances; even with Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane restored to the defense, relying on Chelsea’s finishing being as bad as Liverpool’s is a recipe for disaster. (Nobody’s finishing, at this point, is worse than Liverpool’s.)
P.S.G., meanwhile, thrilled in attack against Bayern Munich, but might easily have conceded seven in the first leg alone. It remains a team of neon moments, less coherent and complete than Manchester City, but it will take encouragement from the fact that City’s form has dipped just a little in the last few weeks: not by much, but enough to give Neymar and Kylian Mbappé reason to believe.
The Steph Curry Moment
At last, long-awaited vindication. I wrote in this column earlier this year that it felt as though the idea of shooting from range was dying out in soccer, dismissed by the sport’s data-dominated thinking as an outdated inefficiency. This week, a paper presented by researchers at the Belgian university KU Leuven to the M.I.T. Sloan Sports Analytics Conference has borne that out.
Long shots have, they found, decreased over the last six years (the first season considered, 2013-14, dovetails with the rise of data in soccer pretty neatly). There are now 2.2 fewer shots from range in any given game; the number of shots from inside the penalty area, by contrast, has increased.
That is only part of the vindication, though. The academics did not conclude that this was a great leap forward, proof of the triumph of science over hope, but wondered if perhaps the trend had gone too far. “The potential payoff of not shooting is that an even better shot may arise down the line,” the paper said. Using artificial intelligence, though, they concluded that “there is no guarantee of this happening.”
Instead, the lead researcher, Maaike van Roy, said that there were “specific zones” where teams should be shooting rather than recycling possession; having a go, to use the technical term, may be no more or less of a gamble than working the ball out wide and flinging (again, apologies for the jargon) a cross in.
Fans have known this for generations. After all, it does not take Rinus Michels to work out that there is a value in shooting that extends beyond the likelihood of scoring from the effort itself: There may be a rebound, or you may win a corner, or the shot might hit a beach ball. You do not need to be Arrigo Sacchi to understand that the mere possibility that you might shoot forces defenders to break their lines to close you down.
But this is not a defeat for analytics; it is not proof that the reliance on data has gone too far. The relationship between science and tradition does not need to be inherently antagonistic. Instead, it is best understood as a case of the advancements in analytics helping to refine the traditional reading of the game.
Yes, sometimes it is worth shooting from range, but only from certain areas, in certain situations and at certain times. You and I might have ideas about when those circumstances might arise, but it is only through the use of data that we can be sure that they are right. Analytics is there to deepen our understanding of the game, not to counteract it.
As was to be expected, the book recommendations have flooded in over the last few days. “The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro,” “The Glory Game,” “How Football Explains the World” and “Soccernomics” all received multiple recommendations, all of which I endorse.
Several of you nominated Fever Pitch, too, which I’m sure is very good; its influence, certainly, makes it worth your time. I can’t personally vouch for it, though: I have, appallingly, never read it. Or seen the film. Generally, I try to avoid reliving unpleasant childhood memories, and the one that centers on Michael Thomas’s most noteworthy contribution to English soccer history is at the very top of that particular list.
Roland Mascarenhas, meanwhile, asked if the reader who started this conversation — Alexander Da Silva — would be willing to consider expanding the book group beyond whichever circle of friends he was presumably thinking about inviting. If others wish to join, I’m happy to put it to Alexander and see if you meet his no doubt exacting criteria.
(This is risky, isn’t it? It’s the sort of thing that ends with me, Alexander and Roland in front of a special committee of the Senate, answering questions about how we’re using people’s data and whether we have accidentally become a vector for the collapse of democracy. And all because Roland didn’t just buy my book like he should have done.)
Rachel Block asked if last week’s column dispensed too easily with the idea that Chelsea might beat Real Madrid in a Champions League semifinal. Possibly, though not intentionally: it was merely an attempt to say that it’s hardly a stretch to believe that Real could knock Chelsea out. Either way, hopefully that has been addressed this week.