Dickheads and Lost Boys, Old Dogs and Egotists, Smart Buys and Starmen
Plus, buy signed special edition copies of This Red Planet and other books
Edited, excerpted chapter from This Red Planet: How Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool FC Enthralled and Conquered The World
Note: of all the ‘dickheads’ and ‘lost boys’ discussed in this chapter, arguably only one has managed to turn the situation around in the interim (Marcus Rashford, who knuckled down super-hard in a special training camp in the summer, to stop his career drifting away; hard work is almost always the solution).
Obviously Cristiano Ronaldo has only further cemented my argument as to why he was a disastrous buy for Man United, and Dele Alli sank without trace at Everton.
And Liverpool continue to avoid buying players who will disrupt the ‘egosystem’, as I call it.
The chapter ends with a special focus on Luis Díaz, as an anti-dickhead and starman, who has battled hard to make it to the top.
(Note: due to the length of this chapter, some people reading this via email may receive a truncated version in their inbox, but the full version is on the website.)
Beforehand, links to buy the book/s
I have a small number of the signed special editions of 'Mentality Monsters' (2019), 'Perched' (2020) and 'This Red Planet' (2022) – an unofficial trilogy that covers the Jürgen Klopp era, and how he, the owners, the transfer gurus and the analysts made the Reds an elite team – that I'll sign and post ASAP, ahead of the Christmas rush.
The three books cover the Reds winning the Champions League, the Premier League, The European Super Cup, the World Club Cup, the Community Shield, the League Cup and the FA Cup, with my analysis of the methods, the tactics, the players and the performances that also included various record-breaking runs, near-misses in major finals, and one of the most exciting periods in any club's history.
'This Red Planet' also includes 40 extra pages compared to the general release version, whilst part of the package are the two My Day At The Match mini books (2019 and 2020). I’ll provide more details in the comments for any subscribers who want to order this book box.
However, if you just want to buy the standard edition of This Red Planet from Amazon, the links are below
Finally, before moving onto the chapter, to follow the themes from the book that we will continue to develop and explore, see TTT’s separate This Red Planet Substack:
Dickheads and Lost Boys, Old Dogs and Egotists, Smart Buys and Starmen
One theme I keep addressing when assessing the ongoing success of Jürgen Klopp is his strict rule on ‘no dickheads’; none will be signed, no matter how talented – a personal maxim for him and his coaches beginning in his Mainz days, as he continues to seek unity as a way of a team exceeding the sum of its parts, and which endures while working on a smaller budget than rivals. Two years on from my last book, Perched, it’s amazing how many other clubs, in that time, have continued to sign dickheads, disruptors, egotists and fading forces; while Liverpool continued to do the exact opposite.
Dating back to his earliest days as a manager, Klopp used strict questionnaires to discover what really made a player tick, asking a prospective signing about how hard he’d be prepared to run; if he was the kind of player who didn’t like to train too hard – happy to coast and reserve energy – but would promise to give his all during matches; if he’d be happy scoring a couple of goals without doing the hard graft, either for the team or in preparation.
Anyone who wasn’t prepared to work insanely hard all week in training as well as giving their all 90 minutes each game for the team found themselves instantly dismissed.
While most clubs would now say that they have a ‘no dickhead’ policy, few seem to stick to it. I’ve detailed in my previous two books the Liverpool players who, in the years before Klopp arrived, would have failed the test. Two that Klopp inherited – Mario Balotelli (just not a serious trainer and a general distraction) and Lazar Marković (not a dedicated trainer) – were never even considered by the German.
The ‘dickhead’ – in football parlance – may just be a bad or lazy trainer. Or, he may be a bad teammate – a selfish player. He need not be a bad person, albeit that can obviously be an issue too (team harmony isn’t helped by sleeping with a teammate’s wife, for example).
He could be a lovely bloke, but a pain in the arse; a time-drain on the management and coaching staff. Sometimes, he’s just a Lost Boy: taken from a safe environment, and suffering under the spotlight, or bereft of direction and motivation; someone potentially recoverable, but where it may take time and effort (and that’s okay if you have the time to make the effort). While you can get a bargain if you can rekindle their spirit and desire, you can also get a white elephant who drains resources and saps team spirit; especially if he’s paid based on past glories, rather than current effort.
With every passing season, ‘no dickheads’ is a rule that makes more sense to me, as I observe what makes some teams tick and others implode, as Liverpool continue to sign model professionals – and many big-spending rivals rack up high-profile signings who rock the boat, and upset the apple cart, and piss in the pool; or various other metaphors that show how negative effects can spread.
The whole concept of the bad apple – why it’s so disastrous – is that it rots the rest; the full phrase being that “one bad apple can spoil the barrel”. Another metaphor is that the weakest link breaks the chain, and so you don’t want weak links in terms of attitude. While scouting players and managing a football team is about much more than this one rule, it remains vitally important.
It has even spread to dickhead family members and dickhead agents, all of whom need to be avoided. Hangers-on need to be scraped off like unwanted barnacles. A united team and a united squad requires a sublimation of the ego – what I call the egosystem – to make for a whole that pulls in the same direction. Again, it’s no coincidence that modern Liverpool don’t sign superstars, and that players become superstars at Liverpool; and if they leave, certainly after shining under the management of Jürgen Klopp, they often return to being mere mortals.
Part of this is having a wage structure that allows no one individual to be out on his own.
It’s about focusing on their football to the exclusion of other excessive energy-drains and distractions.
It’s about players wanting to be here.
All of these require strong leadership, from the manager, the coaching staff and the analytics and scouting staff who make the big decisions. The stronger the leadership, the easier it is to keep everyone in line; but strong and unfair leadership can prove disastrous, too. Again, it’s one thing assembling a squad without bad apples, and another to get them to play great football, and remain committed and enthused over the longer term.
When reading this chapter, think about whether or not Liverpool would have made some of the decisions discussed. Remember, these are players often earning more money than those who play for Klopp, and in some cases, at least twice as much.
Later on, I’ll discuss the positive impacts of some of Liverpool’s record-breaking squad, as well as the difficult decision of when to phase out great servants.
Dele Alli’s Brother
In mid-January, before Dele Alli moved to Everton for a fee that ranged from £0 to £40m, Jonathan Northcroft wrote about the player’s strange decline in the Sunday Times.
“[Mauricio] Pochettino voiced fears about the pitfalls the player faced as early as in 2017, in his book Brave New World. ‘Dele is experiencing a new situation. Praise can create confusion,’ Pochettino wrote. The Argentine also observed that Dele ‘needs to be surrounded by the right people’ and in the agency world they wonder whether his representative is the best-placed person to gee him up and push him on. Dele’s previous agent was the experienced Rob Segal, who has a reputation for being able to challenge his clients, but since 2017 he has been managed by his best friend and adoptive brother, Harry Hickford, who is part of a group of mates with whom he enjoys socialising.
“Another lives with him, and anyone who has met Dele will attest to a laidback, fairly shy, polite and gentle nature.”
So, he’s not some nasty lunatic, but the warning signs had been there since 2017, with the alarming change of agent and the best recent-years Spurs’ manager’s warning; and 2016/17 marked the player’s peak, with 2017/18 seeing a halving of his league goals, from 18 to nine. Between 2020 and 2022, he scored just once – for Spurs and in his first five months at Everton. Indeed, he didn’t even start a league game for the Toffees until the final game of the season: a 5-1 defeat at Arsenal, where he departed after 67 minutes with the score 4-1. Maybe his talent will shine through again, but it needs hard work and dedication.
Too much too young, as the two-toned poet Terence Edward Hall put it in 1979. Occasionally a family member or friend can offer a wise guiding hand, but too often it now seems to be about spreading out the wealth within an entourage at the expense of proper guidance and long-term career planning. Friends and family do not tend to offer dispassionate advice, especially in an age where ‘home truths’ are no longer fashionable, and there’s a culture of just telling people how brilliant they are; that they are perfect, just as they are. That’s an invitation to stagnate.
(The French midfielder Adrien Rabiot’s mother, Veronique, who acts as his agent, is famously overprotective, to the point where dealing with her, and her son, sounds difficult in the extreme; even if family difficulties led to the decision to ‘helicopter parent’ his career. Chaos seems to follow the player, wherever he goes.)
After moving clubs, and with a lot to prove after two years of decline, Dele Alli arrived at his first training session in a £300,000 Rolls-Royce. While people may not want to be judged by the cars they drive – and clearly it does not sum up everything about a person – the choice of a vehicle is a conscious decision, that displays something.
Zlatan Ibrahimović wrote of his time with Pep Guardiola in 2009/10: “At Barça, players were banned from driving their sports cars to training. I thought this was ridiculous – it was no one’s business what car I drive – so in April, before a match with Almeria, I drove my Ferrari Enzo to work. It caused a scene.”
Yet as great as an individual player Ibrahimović was, he did not fit in at Barcelona, the best team he played for. Barcelona got better without him. He got better without them, too, but no team he played for got close to the Barça team he was essentially booted out of. And even then, you could argue that if anyone had the right to drive a Ferrari Enzo to work it was Zlatan. But did it help anyone? Did it help him? Did it help Barcelona?
The more ostentatious the car, the greater the sense of attention it will draw; unless perhaps a beaten-up old Volkswagen, in which case, attention is drawn by a different kind of shock. People may be outraged at a footballer driving a £300,000 car (playing for a club whose stadium is situated in an area where the average house price is one-third that amount); and then a kind of backlash arises, where people say, “why can’t they drive a £300,000 car if they want?” and find reasons why the criticism might be sinister.
But none of that really matters.
The issue is: on the first day of training, when properly meeting many teammates for the first time, what signal are you going to send? It feels like peacocking, and yet does that bond and unify? While Everton and Spurs are both traditionally big clubs, the latter remained part of the Big Six, and the former – last a mighty force in the 1980s – were fighting relegation, albeit still a few points and places above the drop-zone. So Alli was taking a step down, as his career drifted. After four Spurs managers had questioned his attitude or disliked his work ethic, a sense of responsibility had to fall upon the player himself.
Writing for Caught Offside in April 2022, Alli’s ex-agent, Rob Segal, noted: “From Everton’s point-of-view, there are players who went there in the winter, who were free transfers, but are on big contracts. Dele is a player who, since being at Goodison Park, just has not delivered, so I would be surprised if any of the top clubs are considering him even if Everton does end up going down. Dele didn’t go in there as an £80m player – he was a free transfer. To add insult to injury, to turn up on his first day in a Rolls-Royce was really rubbing it in the fans’ faces, well documented and ill-advised…”
While José Mourinho has clearly lost a lot of his ability to relate to, and inspire, players who obviously get ever younger in relation to himself (and has become a manager out of time, in terms of elite levels – the Europa Conference League, full of mid-table clubs, is now more his speed), he clearly also knows when a player doesn’t train properly. “I told Dele very directly that he doesn’t train well,” he said when in charge at Spurs. “He’s not a good trainer. I’m not saying he’s a disaster but I’m not saying he’s Harry Kane. Harry Kane trains well.”
The spiky Portuguese also said, “… He’s not a good trainer, we need to find the right motivation for the guy.” It is a message that Mourinho repeats again, albeit with more force – caught by Amazon TV cameras for its 2020 All Or Nothing documentary – in Tottenham’s pre-match team meeting when he says to Alli in front of his teammates: “I understood already that you are a fucking lazy guy in training.”
“I asked him if he was Dele or Dele’s brother?” Mourinho also famously said.
Meanwhile, as Everton battled relegation, Dominic Calvert-Lewin appeared in various photoshoots, wearing ‘outlandish’ clothes, including a schoolgirl’s uniform. While each player has a right to do whatever he wants privately, the public image – when fighting for a football team – ideally needs to reflect a sense of dedication. Of course, had Calvert-Lewin done so a year earlier, when playing such good football, it might have been different; at that stage he could have played in the Premier League in a tutu and tiara if scoring goals, bullying defenders and tearing past opponents.
Calvert-Lewin ended up battling some dark thoughts, and as such he deserves some sympathy: “One thing I learned this season is that everyone in whatever walk of life is fighting battles you know nothing about, and there is no shame in finding someone to talk to and being open and honest with yourself about how you really feel. To all the young kings suppressing emotion I advise you to talk, to a friend, family member or someone that will listen, talking saved my life.”
Yet the more high-profile you make yourself, the more you will invite certain pressures. Fame can obviously, and frequently, be destructive; and greater the fame, the crazier people seem to get.
Unlike other high-profile pursuits, footballers can’t really take time off to coast and pursue other interests. A film star can embark on a music career, or vice versa, but they are not part of a fixed team, where constant unity is essential; they can take a sabbatical, mix things up. Beyond often simply needing to look good, peak physical conditioning is not essential. Elite players are contracted to play football with the long-term stability of deals up to six-years in length (unless the club tries to sell them, but of course, cannot without their permission), and in return there needs to be total devotion to the cause.
Football fans are not like other cultural consumers, in that they pay a lot of money week after week; not for one great concert a year, or a two-hour film, but for a commitment of ten months each season.
Most people don’t care if their favourite singer is out partying or doing enough cocaine to kill a hippopotamus; but most football fans want their players to be serious about what they do (especially now that exceptional fitness is required to excel, and the cost of watching is so much greater than in the more amateurish days of yore). And while ‘optics’ is often a terrible concept – how something looks is not always how something is – there ideally needs to be a projection of professionalism and dedication. Indeed, there should be professionalism and dedication. And while some extracurricular pursuits are healthy, especially to escape the pressure-cooker environment of being constantly surveilled and judged, there will always be questions asked if a player draws attention to himself with anything other than performances. Even doing virtuous things can backfire.
For example, it would be totally wrong to say that Marcus Rashford is a ‘dickhead’ because he led extremely worthwhile movements to help underprivileged children. But at the same time, any off-field activity that raises a player’s profile also raises the focus on them on the pitch; and while it may be wrong to say that it causes a dip in form, being high-profile drags into the orbit all manner of external factors. Rashford was awarded the MBE, which seemed well deserved – but it took him to a higher profile level that his mere playing talent had not yet merited.
The more you draw attention to yourself, the more you’d better be sure that you’re performing at an elite level. (Such as: Paul Gascoigne and Robbie Fowler bleaching their hair shocking blonde in the mid-‘90s – it helped that they played to elite levels, which was not a luxury Øyvind Leonhardsen and István Kozma could afford.)
If a player would rather focus on social issues, or fashion, or a music career, then that is every individual’s choice and their right. It is their life, after all. But it cannot be at the expense of the football; if it becomes more important, then the football career will wither. These days, you cannot be a casual footballer; especially when earning north of £200,000 a week. By all means, play part-time in non-league for the love of the game if other issues have become more important. (Doing so would arguably be a net-good for humanity.)
Of course, then the cachet of being at a huge club is lost; the fame will dwindle, as will the influence. One of the things fans expect, when players are being paid that much money, is commitment to the club and to their profession. And as soon as it looks like that’s not the case, there can be trouble; even if the trouble is not entirely fair. At the very least, it makes life harder by inviting criticism that can be hard to shift, and which becomes a vicious cycle.
After all, Liverpool did not lose the 1996 FA Cup final because of the cream suits, nor did David James’ Armani photoshoots cause him to drop simple crosses. But it all added to a sense of diminished seriousness, as Manchester United, arguably no more talented, hoovered up titles.
The Reds – seen also in cream or ecru – were dubbed the ‘Spice Boys’ because they had a bit too much public fun while failing to meet on-field expectations. They were a great team to watch (I acquired my season ticket at the start of that time) and had bags of ability, but they did not focus as much on their game (and on things like nutrition) as that United team, who stole a march in terms of professionalism. Had the ‘Spice Boys’ won the trophies expected of them, then the cream suits and Armani shoots would have been moot, and no one would have been calling them the Spice Boys. They’d have called them legends, winners, immortals.
“I said to (assistant) Brian Kidd, ‘1-0’. Because of that,” Alex Ferguson once said, apparently thinking that the designer suits did play a role. “It was ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. Blue shirt, red and white tie and white suit. And a blue flower. Who designed that? They say it was Armani. I bet his sales went down.”
By early April 2022, Everton had fallen from five points clear of the relegation zone when sacking Rafa Benítez in January, with two games in hand, to one point clear, with no games in hand (on Burnley, their closest rivals). Speaking on the eve of Everton’s throwing away of two Mike Dean-awarded penalties to lose 3-2 at Burnley, ex-West Ham striker Carlton Cole said, “Right now, Dominic Calvert-Lewin can’t be seen doing this! You’ve got to time it … It’s all about Everton staying in the league, not striking a pose like Madonna!”
Everton survived, by the skin of their teeth; but it was a travesty that they were even in a relegation battle, as the 7th-most expensive team in the division, with a big wage bill and massive spending in the past half-decade. Their players let them down for an entire season, escaping relegation despite not even hitting 40 points.
Carlton Cole rightly noted that players need to have interests outside the sport, but the timing was terrible. And a day later it was a game where Calvert-Lewin was slated for a lack of work-rate by irate Everton fans. You could ask, why couldn’t Calvert-Lewin do his attention-grabbing fashion shoots in the summer, when players are given an extended holiday? Sometimes we all have to do things to help ourselves; or to at least not make life even harder.
In 2018, Gary Neville and Roy Keane slated Jesse Lingard for launching a fashion label in the buildup to a huge game against Liverpool. Speaking as a pundit on Sky Sports, Keane said: “If that was a good, strong dressing room that wouldn’t be tolerated. That’s why I worry about the United dressing room.
“For a young player, still learning his trade, he could be the nicest kid in the world, I don’t know him. But you’re coming out with all that nonsense. I think football should be your number one priority. People say you should have other stuff outside of football but I don’t think you should. Don’t hide behind your cars or tattoos or girlfriends, you can do that when you retire!”
(This was, in a similar way, something Gérard Houllier successfully instilled in a young, slightly wayward Jamie Carragher: you can do all the socialising you want when you’re finished. Over 700 appearances later, Carragher could hang up his boots and lead the life he wanted, with no regrets about not reaching his potential. A successful playing career then helped him transition into a successful punditry career.)
Back in 2018, Neville added: “Earlier this week, you talk about players and characters. I am actually a big fan of Jesse Lingard and I have no problem with him launching a clothes range, but don’t launch it before Liverpool away, one of the biggest games of the season. Not this week, concentrate on Liverpool. Do it before Fulham. I am not having a go at his character because players should have other careers, should do other things. But you see that little thing and I thought ‘not this week’ it’s Liverpool. Concentrate on Liverpool, no distractions. No disruptions.”
Lingard scored, but United got smashed 3-1 after 33 shots from Liverpool, in a game that cost José Mourinho his job. Lingard, meanwhile, scored just three Premier League goals for United between that game at the end of December 2018 and May 2022. Again, the fashion brand didn’t necessarily cause this, but it doesn’t help with perceptions. And perceptions are what fans often work from. If enough fans think a player is underperforming because of the publicity given to outside distractions, that matters. They cut him less slack, and perhaps start to react differently to him at a game, or online. Again, it draws the attention towards the player, and there’s less chance to hide and go under the radar during runs of bad form. Perhaps teammates who are working hard, and being paid less, also start to feel resentful.
In an article on the Athletic about Watford’s relegation, the writer notes, “[Claudio] Ranieri’s first game couldn’t have gone worse. The 5-0 defeat to Liverpool was disarray personified. Ben Foster’s fascination with his YouTube channel also led to a club rebuke after he gave away tickets to UFC fighter and Liverpool fan Paddy Pimblett in a home area. It was dealt with internally but is known to have angered several club officials, who understood the 39-year-old’s desire to prepare for retirement but questioned whether his hobby should be carried out on club time, and often in private training ground areas. Whether someone should have ensured the parameters were more clearly adhered to is up for debate.”
(Incidentally, as an aside, the article also offers an insight into the ‘joys’ Roy Hodgson brought them, with little note made in most places about how his points per game ratio was the worst of the three permanent Watford bosses in the season. “They won at Aston Villa (1-0) and drew at Old Trafford (0-0) but why couldn’t Watford pick up results at home? Hodgson’s abrasive responses when questioned about it didn’t endear himself to fans. Yes, he was being honest, but the relationship never really recovered from that point, even with the glimmer of hope afforded by March’s 2-1 win at Southampton. The intended bounce ended up being a thud instead.” Indeed, when relegation was confirmed at his old club Crystal Palace, on May 7th, he applauded the home fans but ignored the fans of the team he was actually managing. This is classic Hodgson: not such a nice guy if it happens to be your club he’s dragging down. His final home game was a 5-1 defeat to Leicester, and he retired, again, after a defeat at Chelsea.)
In the old days, the problem would be hangers-on who took players down the pub, out to nightclubs, or to mingle with a bevy of beauties whose nocturnal activities sapped the stars’ energy; George Best obviously remains the poster-boy for wasted talent. Maybe he had a great time. I’m guessing that he did, funnily enough – but it also ate away at the thing that created his fame: his footballing brilliance, and as his powers prematurely waned, he drank himself into oblivion.
Nowadays, it often seems to be all about social media influence, and fashion, and perhaps music too. These are (mostly) not players staggering around blind-drunk and getting into punch-ups in seedy boozers – they generally look after themselves and behave much better – but their focus is on their own brand, and any extensions of that, like actual fashion brands. It’s become so much about image that you have to wonder if focus is being lost – even by 5% – with their football. A drop of 5% in the marginal gains-world of ultra-fast and competitive Premier League football could be huge.
Fashion, in particular, seems to be playing a bigger role in football. Jack Grealish, who hardly set the world alight at Man City (and who would surely have failed the Reds’ ‘dickhead’ test due to various off-pitch incidents, including various drunken stupors between the ages of 19 and 25), was reported to be in line for an expensive sponsorship contract with Gucci.
Meanwhile, in France, the Paris Saint-Germain players continued to be accused of being more interested in Paris Fashion Week than donning the kit and giving it their all for 90 minutes.
To me, PSG represent almost everything that’s wrong with modern football: financial doping and sportswashing to obliterate the competition and make the league a near closed-shop; but unlike Manchester City, not especially serious about their football either.
There is a culture of disposability of managers, worship of individuals, and a fight for power and control within UEFA, in the drive for fame rather than hard-earned status; and above all else, to boost the reputation of Qatar.
Even the Parisian fans have grown sick of the circus, where procuring superstars and being seen as a fashion hotbed – as the club desires – outweighs the ability to win trophies outside of France. Domestically, they operate at three times the budget of their nearest rivals, and even then they can’t quite win the league every year. In Europe they’ve been flaky, and in previous books I’ve detailed my distaste for aspects of Neymar’s attitude; noting how Brazil won their only Copa America in his career the time when he wasn’t there – Roberto Firmino leading the line instead.
It got so bad in Paris in the spring of 2022 that Neymar and the new crown jewel Lionel Messi were booed for an entire game – their names jeered even before kickoff – days after crashing out of the Champions League. (And later, when they won the French title for the 8th time in ten years, the fans left early, still angered by their European collapse. According to the BBC, “The club’s ultras, annoyed by the club’s Champions League exit to Real Madrid, started to leave the stadium 15 minutes before the final whistle rather than celebrate with the players. The ground was empty 10 minutes after full-time and the players did not do a lap of honour afterwards.”)
Adam White for Get French Football News wrote after they threw away a big advantage against Real Madrid: “Worryingly for PSG, their ingrained culture has become the problem. They were defeated by their own inner demons and self-destructive streak. Their pathological inability to rise to the occasion continues to bite, regardless of who the manager is. Changing that culture of defeatism and mental fragility is getting harder by the year with each crushing defeat.
“They need to act decisively, and soon. This was the clearest sign yet that their top-heavy recruitment strategy, which focuses on attack and neglects defence, is self-defeating. PSG cannot be in a position where an off-day from one man can so quickly lead to an all-consuming defensive collapse.
“… Endemic entitlement within the squad needs to be eradicated. Placing more faith in academy products who have a hardwired connection to the city and the club would be an obvious route. It’s something many Champions League-winning teams have done and it adds an intangible edge that PSG lack. The quality is there. Bundesliga stars, and recently sold academy graduates, Christopher Nkunku and Moussa Diaby prove it – although that argument is counterbalanced by the haughty attitudes of fellow alumni Adrien Rabiot and [Presnel] Kimpembe.”
The summer of 2022 was all about PSG paying a fortune – in signing on fee (to stay at the club) and wages – to keep Kylian Mbappé for just three more years, and offering the player power to make decisions about the running of the club, which included him (apparently) instantly sacking the sporting director Leonardo and lining up Luis Campos. This is player power taken to a whole new level. The striker had been set to join Real Madrid, and the decision to stay in France sparked a bitter battle of words between key people at the two leagues, with questions about how PSG could afford it, and why Mbappé would stay in what the French call a ‘farmer’s league’.
Sean Ingle, wrote in the Guardian about the madness of “PSG being able to stump up a €200m-plus package for the world’s best player – despite making a €224m loss last year.”
(This followed previous huge losses, too.)
Ingle continued, “There are no good guys here, only a gnawing unease that the laws of economic gravity are being defied to the further detriment of the game we love. As La Liga put it in an unprecedented attack, the transfer showed that state-owned clubs, such as the Qatar-run PSG, ‘do not respect and do not want to respect the rules of a sector as important as football’ and that ‘sporting integrity’ was at stake.
“… cynics will hope the rules are more robust than the previous incarnation, which proved easier to circumvent than the Maginot Line – with PSG and Manchester City among those found guilty. There are also well-founded fears that state-run clubs are creating inflationary pressures in the transfer market, while PSG’s chief executive Nasser al-Khelaifi’s enormous influence across Uefa and the European Club Association is also impossible to ignore.
“To my mind, though, the reaction to Mbappé’s new deal goes beyond the understandable squeamishness about sovereign wealth funds running clubs. It is also about how easy it is for the teams to entrench their advantage and ruin leagues. Would anyone bet against PSG, who have won eight of the past 10 Ligue 1 titles, winning next year? And the year after that? Or Bayern Munich, who have won 10 Bundesliga titles in a row, another procession?
“Of course there are exceptions – look at Manchester United. But while English football is certainly more unpredictable, as was seen again on a dramatic final day, Manchester City have still won four Premier League titles in five years and just eight clubs have finished in the top three in the past 25 years. Eight! – the same number as in the first five years of the Premier League between 1992/93 and 1996/97, when Norwich, Blackburn and Aston Villa all challenged for the title.
“… In the US, where salary caps, luxury taxes and drafts for college players ensure that the major leagues are kept spicy and dicey, the difference is stark. Major League Baseball has had eight World Series winners in the past decade and five further teams finishing as runners-up. In other words, 13 of the MLB’s 30 teams have fought for the sport’s biggest prize in the past 10 years.
“In the NHL, meanwhile, 14 of the league’s 32 clubs have played in a Stanley Cup final since 2012. In the NFL, the figure is 13 out of 32, with some teams able to go from also‑rans to Super Bowl contenders within a couple of years.
“Curiously though, that lack of football’s competitive balance has not dented the game’s popularity. One explanation, based on detailed analysis of the data by the economists Dr Babatunde Buraimo and Dr Rob Simmons, is that TV audiences are far less interested in watching competitive matches than they once were – and instead they want the big names, regardless of the opposition.”
As such, PSG are surely perfect for the modern young fan, then, if that’s what’s craved: big names, and to support the superstars, not teams. Most people older than 30 surely still prefer football as it was conceived: played by teams, with unity, spirit, skill and desire, led by a manager, not a mannequin. You can still enjoy football without trophies, of course (that’s part of the point of this book, after all), but if you hoover up all the best talent, and invest several times more money than your rivals can, and do so in the name of sportswashing, then to be a mere bunch of show-ponies adored by immature people seems distasteful.
Signing an ageing Lionel Messi in 2021 was a vanity move. Having already bagged free-transfers on mega-wages – including £300,000 a week for ex-Red Gini Wijnaldum, and big-names Sergio Ramos and Gianluigi Donnarumma (as well as spending almost £60m on Achraf Hakimi) – it seemed that PSG leapt on the sudden availability of Messi via Barcelona’s awful financial management over recent seasons.
Except, Messi didn’t really want to be there; he was almost kidnapped. It felt a bit like Michael Owen, stuck in Spain in 2005, desperately wanting Liverpool to match Newcastle United’s £16m bid, a year after the Reds had lost him to Real Madrid for just £8m (due to his entering the final year of his contract). Liverpool would go as high as £10m in 2005, but not break their transfer record a year after Owen had left for less than half his market value. Owen ended up at Newcastle, never really wanting to be there. It didn’t go well.
These sudden vanity purchases can be seen elsewhere in the past two years. In the summer of 2020, there was the priceless – or should that be costly? – farce of James Rodriguez at Everton. Signed seemingly to ‘win’ the transfer window, he arrived at a club he didn’t even want to play for – he later admitted that he only wanted to play for the manager – to earn more per week than any of the Liverpool side who’d just been crowned champions (on the back of also winning the Champions League 12 months earlier).
Rodriguez at Everton also sums up almost everything that’s wrong with modern football: the transfer as form of dick-swinging, where the transfer itself is to be fetishised, as a show of wealth and power and PR, and ignoring the possibility of the harms outweighing the benefits – the player, whose move is overseen by super-agents, who is only there for the money, and who gets an unhealthy excess of it compared to the honest pros and current best performers who work for the team and the club; the player who initially wows his teammates in training, only for them to soon consider him ‘invisible’, as if they feel they are playing games with 10 men when he’s barely strolling about a few months later; the player who has a great first month and then goes missing when the temperature drops below 20ºC; the player who just takes a game off, as … well, he can’t be arsed every week, right?; the player disappearing on a private jet before the end of the season; the player as status symbol, not squad member and team player.
A year later, this particular player was given away, to get his £250,000-a-week wages off the books as the club panicked to meet even relaxed post-Covid FFP standards after years of vanity purchasing. Aged 30, he spent the past year in the Qatari league, which just about sums him up.
When these big names unexpectedly appear on the transfer market, it’s interesting to watch clubs suddenly throw their plans out the window to make sure they get them.
Given that his goalscoring and creativity output had remained sky-high in Spain, Messi is a unique case, but it shows, as I keep reiterating, that players are often products of their environments, and elevated or diminished by those around them. Sometimes others are helping to hoist them up, while shared understandings are lost in an instant when placed alongside ten new teammates.
The egosystem represents the sum attitude of a squad, and how they interact on and off the pitch. It is an ecosystem, but where egos play a huge role. A perfect egosystem will be one where everyone is pulling in the same direction (without needing to hold hands and sing Kumbaya), and where the egos – which will still be at play (as these are highly motivated and competitive human beings) – are kept within acceptable bounds. The aim is to win games, and to win trophies; not to be more famous, more followed on social media, and win more individual trophies. At least, to be a proper football club, that should be the aim.
A simple but enlightening issue with Messi is that he’s taken well over 100 penalties in his career, at a success rate that’s marginally below average; at the time of writing, he has missed 30 of his 131. Over such a large sample, perhaps anyone will revert closer to the mean; he has scored 77%, and the current success rate for penalties is now up to around 80% (albeit keepers are now slightly more hindered by being forced to stay on their line, which has seen the conversion rate creep up a little).
However, compare it to Liverpool’s penalty-takers in the past five years (excluding shootouts), nearing to the end of 2021/22: Mohamed Salah had taken 25, scoring 22 (88%); in the same period, James Milner had taken 10, scoring nine (90%). Fabinho, with a near-perfect record from Monaco, had scored all four of his Liverpool penalties. Roberto Firmino missed two of his four, and so he doesn’t really get to take them any more. Sadio Mané’s goalscoring figures would also be boosted towards the top of the scoring charts if he was the one who took the penalties, but his attempts have yet to convince. (He also missed one for Senegal in the first half of the AFCON final in February 2022, but scored in the shootout to beat Salah’s Egypt; and scored in the shootout that eliminated Egypt from the World Cup qualifier a month later, only to then miss once back in a Liverpool shirt in the FA Cup final shootout.)
Someone, somewhere along the way, should have taken the ball off Messi. If you are merely an average penalty taker, why are you taking them? Salah is the main man at Liverpool, and all penalty takers should have the leeway to relax by not thinking they’ll lose the duties if they miss a single spot-kick. But if they start to miss too many, or their record is mediocre, they should lose the privilege. In a world of marginal gains, this is consistent marginal losses.
It should not be about how many goals Messi or Salah score, as even bad penalty takers can boost their tallies (take ten, miss five, and that’s still five more goals to you than the other strikers), but about having the best person for the job in possession of the task.
There’s something similarly wasteful about Cristiano Ronaldo’s free-kicks. Between the start of 2017 and April 2022, he scored one league free-kick, coming as one of his 69 attempts (in all competitions) at Juventus, after a barren final season at Real Madrid from dead-balls. When he finally netted one late in the season at home to Norwich in 2022, he had gone nearly two years, and almost 60 attempts in league football, without success.
In 2021, an article on Business Insider during the delayed Euro 2020 noted: “The Juventus forward’s two misses mean he has now taken 28 direct free-kicks at the European championships since making his tournament debut in 2004 – at least four times more than any other player during the same period – and has scored none. At World Cups, Ronaldo has also taken a total of 23 direct free kicks, scoring just one.
“… Between 2009 and 2018, the Portuguese star scored 33 free kick goals in 444 attempts for Real Madrid – which equates to a conversion record of 7.3%. For Juventus, that conversion rate has plummeted to just 1.4%, with Ronaldo having scored just once in 72 attempts across the last three seasons.”
The article also suggests that, “the rolling average conversion rate for free-kick takers in the English Premier League is 9.2%,” albeit that sounds high.
Again, the superstar reputation means that Ronaldo demands the ball, and then wastes what, over a longer period of time, will amount to several ‘lost’ goals for the team. (And my constant point is: who is quantifying all the lost goals?)
Perhaps it could be argued that these superstars become more confident overall by adding penalty and free-kick goals to their tallies – a scored penalty might get them out of a slump (and as such, would make some sense if a game is already essentially won) – but it still feels too much about them and not the team. The best penalty taker should take the penalty, unless there’s a sentimental reason with the result not in the balance. Direct free-kicks are obviously much less likely to lead to goals, but why keep wasting situations due to the superstar taking them no longer being up to the task?
Most fans are utterly deluded when they say “I could have scored that”, but equally, most fans might have at least a chance of bettering Ronaldo’s record on free-kicks during the run when he failed to score from well over 50 in a row (and far more if you include his wasted attempts for Portugal). Even one deflecting in from an aimless toe-punt by a middle-aged man would be an improvement.
Again, bringing Ronaldo back to Old Trafford was an impulsive buy by United, that seemed to undermine what they were actually trying to do. As soon as he rejoined, I felt it likely a mistake for all concerned (as I made clear in my writing). The craziest part – similar to the free-kicks – was how it seemed no one dare say to him “you’re 37, sit this one out”.
If a player is too iconic and powerful to take orders, then there’s trouble. If a player is more iconic and powerful than the manager, then discipline will be lost. If he has to play every minute of every game, despite fading physically, the team will suffer. For that level of laziness (or energy conservation, he might argue), you’d expect a couple of goals per game. After all, how many goals are not scored because of runs not made, or attempts to win the ball back in the final third? If pressing is what Jürgen Klopp calls football’s best no.10, then how many chances are not created because the strikers let the opposition waltz out with the ball? Ronaldo can jump and spin whilst making a strange noise (like someone squeezing a tiny cat) when he scores a goal, and social media will light up, but what’s the point if United are now actually a far worse team?
Contrast this with Liverpool. Dan Kennett, early pioneer of data analysis on TTT, said of the Reds on the Anfield Index Under Pressure Podcast, “167 shots from pressing this season. 32.5xG created, which gives 19.5% xG per shot. League average shot quality is just under 10%, and ours has been 12.3%. Shots from pressing are 37% more valuable! Pressing is still the best playmaker you can ever have!”
Ergo, how many shots were never even created, due to Ronaldo’s lack of movement? (Obviously Erik ten Hag should improve United as a team, but he will need to find ways to compensate for Ronaldo’s negative traits.)
While his transfer fee was modest (albeit still expensive for someone of his age), in 2021/22 Ronaldo picked up the same weekly wage as Mo Salah, Diogo Jota, Sadio Mané and Luis Díaz combined.
If there’s one thing Alex Ferguson knew it was never to let a player get more powerful than he himself; when they started getting close, they were out the door. Yet, weirdly, Ferguson seemed to play a role in Ronaldo returning to United in 2021, to play for a middling manager with sentimental value to the fans, but no great clout in the dugout. (Remember, Ferguson also chose the ill-equipped David Moyes as his successor. This was a titan of the game whose time had passed – going out with an unconvincing league title and leaving a squad that had issues – but whose influence remained outsized.)
Even then, United had been on a much better trajectory before the return of the Portuguese megastar, based on a more youthful approach, and the offloading of big-name players including Alexis Sánchez, brought in – just like Ronaldo a few years later – in a panic, on wages far exceeding the existing squad and failing to deliver. Ronaldo’s laziness in his younger years could be offset by his explosiveness, and the willingness of hard-working others (Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez, Park Ji-sung) to pick up his slack. Instead, with the ageing no.7 they played game after game with him doing virtually no closing down, in a team where young starlet Mason Greenwood also strolled about; which (before his far more serious issues arose) seemed unforgivable for a young striker in modern elite football. Also, neither passed to the other, in a battle of the egos.
Marcus Rashford also seemed incapable or unwilling to press, and in midfield, Paul Pogba was never noted for his work-rate. How was this supposed to fit together?
Egotistical older players and self-important youngsters, leaving all the hard to work to each other? The reason Fred and Scott McTominay had to play so much appeared to be that they were the only ones prepared to run. (It also seemed weird to me at the time that United boasted about scouting over 800 right-backs before plumping for Aaron Wan-Bissaka, apparently without realising that full-backs attack these days, even in mid-table sides, let alone ones supposed to be pushing for the biggest honours. Even he looked lazy and sluggish as Liverpool waltzed in time and again to blast five goals at Old Trafford. The lack of joined-up thinking at so many big clubs seems staggering.)
Some time ago I wrote an article entitled “The Toxic Rot of the Ageing Superstar”. The issue is that the superstar demands the ball; and everyone feels that they have to give him the ball, all of the time. Yet he cannot do what he used to do, nor do his teammates – to him, in his warped mind – feel up to his standards. Frustration surges, and he starts moaning. Yet the manager is often too scared to leave the superstar out; and if he does, then the attention it draws then becomes toxic in itself.
Play Ronaldo: you lose the running, the equality, the team spirit, the youthful zest.
Don’t play him: you get a circus.
As noted earlier, Ronaldo’s son died in childbirth in April 2022 [discussed with sympathy earlier in the book], but that doesn’t alter the fact that up to that point he’d always been an immensely egotistical player, whose waning powers were likely to cause problems. A supreme athlete who has looked after his body (in part due to doing less running in games), he hasn’t ever really focused on humility.
When, in late April 2022, Ronaldo scored to secure a home draw against Chelsea in a game they needed to win, the internet was flooded with hot-takes about how bad the team would be without him.
The Manchester Evening News noted, “As you can see from the messages displayed in the tweets above, some United fans have sarcastically joked that Ronaldo has been the problem behind United’s woes this season. Throughout the campaign, it has been suggested that his return to the club last summer has been the catalyst for their demise. However, his tally of 23 goals this season suggests otherwise.”
This came with United fans saying they’d be relegated without his goals.
Yet this simply fails to understand how football works; the power of the team, and that team goals scored does not include goals not even created. You can build a team around the strengths of one individual, to the detriment of the other ten. Remember, this is the player who ranked as Europe’s “laziest” before he joined, and after he joined. No matter how many goals Ronaldo scored, the question was: has his return to United improved the team? Statistically, the opposite seems glaringly obvious.
United’s points per game since the start of Ronaldo’s second United debut fell dramatically from that of their 2020/21 total plus the three games of 2021/22, before he returned to a hero’s welcome. In the 41 games prior to his second debut, United had accrued 81 points from 41 league games, at 1.96 points per game. The next 35 games resulted in just 1.46 points per game, which was inferior to that of 8th-placed Wolverhampton Wanderers, who were one place below United in the actual table going into the run-in. United had fallen from 1st place on his return after three games, return down to 7th, with the form of an 8th/9th-place team. The man who was supposed to take them from 2nd-place (albeit in a season without ever really troubling Man City) to title challengers instead steered them off course. Even when Ronaldo became more prolific as the season wore on, perhaps adjusting more to new teammates (none of whom were there when he first left in 2009), the results were still bad.
With just one game to play – having been astonishingly hammered 4-0 at Brighton (notable for a bad foul by Ronaldo, and a 30-yard free-kick sent 30 yards over the bar) – Man United had guaranteed posting their worst points tally in the Premier League era (58, with 64 the previous worst; they then lost the final game 1-0 at Crystal Palace). Yet obviously they already had seven of those points from three games before Ronaldo signed, and were top, after finishing 2nd. So, only 51 points in 35 since Ronaldo returned. The points per game since his return had dropped to below 1.5.
Now, it would be overly simplistic to put all of any downturn down to one individual or one decision, but in this case, that individual was so overwhelming – overbearing, even – that it also cannot be ignored. United won their first two league games on the adrenaline rush of his return (one against a clueless, rudderless Newcastle), but then won only one of the next eight, once he was playing regularly. Though he did score goals, they won just three of their eight Champions League games, exiting at the round of 16 to an Atlético Madrid side Liverpool had beaten home and away, and failed to beat Young Boys home and away in the group stages.
(Let’s be clear: a limited but hitherto semi-succeeding manager failed only after Ronaldo arrived, and his replacement, Ralf Rangnick, also failed. Ole was doing okay at the wheel before the mega-move for ‘CR7’.) The trouble with buying a player who comes with his own circus is that, before long, they’ll send in the clowns.
By the winter, Ronaldo was ‘outed’ as doing the least running and pressing of any Premier League striker. In early games where points were dropped he berated teammates and stormed off without applauding the fans; something he did several more times throughout the campaign. He produced several petulant offences that would have got lesser names sent off, including kicking the ball twice into the groin of a prone Curtis Jones, as Liverpool humiliated United at Old Trafford. In April, he smacked a phone out of a young Everton fan’s hand when storming off the pitch. Injured for the game against Man City, Ronaldo hopped on a plane to Portugal rather than support his teammates.
Back in December, during an insipid team display at Newcastle, a despairing, high-pitched Gary Neville said of United on Sky, “They’ve not done one single thing right as a team, and not one single player can go in and say they’ve done their jobs, or even done themselves justice. There were no positives. Nothing. They’re whinging at each other! They’re a bunch of whingebags! A bunch of whingebags! Watch them on that pitch, honestly, arms in the air, complaining about everything! Honestly, they’re absolutely shocking out there in that first half. They got the last manager the sack! Ralf Rangnick is not going to get the sack, he’s only had a few weeks with them, but honestly, they’ll get a lot of managers the sack, that lot, if they carry on like that.” (Exclamation marks courtesy of Sky Sports’ transcription, albeit you can almost hear Neville’s voice screeching away.)
He added, “Something isn’t right in there. I don’t know what it is, but there is definitely whinging going on – they are all at each other and not helping each other.”
It seems that this attitude arrived – or certainly exploded – with Ronaldo, the worst culprit of the whinge wars. It didn’t appear as apparent at the club in previous seasons, albeit there were other issues, and there was a bit of moaning. Were he less influential, his behaviour would not be so contagious. That’s the kicker with the frustrated ageing superstar: too big to drop, too iconic to be censured.
An additional problem was that it totally undermined United’s fresh-spark superstar, Bruno Fernandes. A compatriot of Ronaldo, no one could be more aware of the megastardom of the returning no.7. Fernandes started the season with a hat-trick … and then Ronaldo returned, and into the older man’s shadow the younger man fell.
On the BBC, after United capitulated 3-1 at Arsenal days after losing 4-0 at Anfield, Phil McNulty noted: “Fernandes and Ronaldo have played in the same team 33 times for United but only combined for three goals. Fernandes assisted Ronaldo against Young Boys in September, Spurs in October and Atalanta in November. There have been no Ronaldo assists for his compatriot.
“In his first season at United, from when he signed in January, he made 22 appearances and managed 12 goals and eight assists in all competitions. Last season he made 58 appearances with 28 goals, including 13 penalties and 18 assists.
“This term, he has made 42 appearances with only nine goals and 13 assists – after starting with an opening-weekend hat-trick in the 5-1 win against Leeds United.”
Ronaldo’s arrival clearly affected Fernandes, with the established, exceptional penalty taker soon missing against Aston Villa in September 2021, with a sense of ‘Ronaldo should be taking this’ – presumably due to his status, not his success rate compared to his compatriot’s – clearly in the air. In the Arsenal game in April 2022, Fernandes missed again, with Ronaldo looming in the background.
Having made some good points, I feel that McNulty then missed the mark entirely with: “Ronaldo, on the scoresheet again at Emirates Stadium, is portrayed by some as a ‘problem’ for United (and therefore ten Hag) because of his status and ego, but plenty of clubs would love a goalscoring problem like him.”
This, after an article detailing where it had gone wrong for Fernandes; with no hint that the problem could be the arrival of his compatriot. Given that the buck-toothed Portuguese had scored 28 goals and created 18 assists the previous season, and started the new season with an opening-day hat-trick, then why wasn’t the question, whose goals was Ronaldo taking?
Rangnick himself said that no striker of his would have to press hard if he scored 25 goals and got 15 assists, which was taken by people to refer to Ronaldo, but that’s what Fernandes exceeded in 2020/21; by contrast, Ronaldo had 16 league goals (23 in all competitions) but just three assists. In essence, they had replicated one Portuguese player’s goals whilst removing the work-rate and assist-making of the other. They had added a penalty-box predator to the team, but where the team stopped functioning. And now there’s a doubling, or even a squaring, of the whingeing.
People still don’t grasp how much adding a player can simultaneously subtract. At Chelsea, a similar transfer – the big-wages arrival and what it did to others in the egosystem – indirectly cost them the chance to retain key players, as well as seeing the team regress overall.
The signing of Romelu Lukaku was supposed to propel them to the title; instead, there was one game where he had seven touches of the ball, an all-time league low record for someone playing a whole game. (That said, Allan of Everton managed just one successful pass in the game at Anfield later in the season, and that was from the kickoff. But he played “only” 73 minutes.) As of the start of May, Lukaku had scored just five league goals (adding three more in the dead-rubber run-in, before disappearing again in the FA Cup final), and barely created anything. Like Andriy Shevchenko and Fernando Torres, he was a mega-expensive signing who didn’t necessarily suit the team; a vanity purchase, like the yachts the then-owner famously collected.
Lukaku’s arrival indirectly cost them Antonio Rüdiger, their best defender, and one of the elite centre-backs in the division. Even before Chelsea lost the ability to renew contracts, after the war in Ukraine saw their owner sanctioned, the German had yet to sign a new deal because the bar had been raised by this new guy.
As the Athletic reported, “Chelsea’s first contract offer was made last August  but the proposal was seen as something of an insult with Rüdiger already one of the lowest-paid senior players on around £90,000-a-week.
“It did not help matters that Romelu Lukaku was given a base wage of about £340,000-a-week when he joined from Inter Milan.”
Again, noses put out of joint; the egosystem crushed. Rüdiger had been their best player in the first half of the season. In June 2022 he officially joined Real Madrid (and Lukaku was loaned back to Inter – ouch!).
Back at United, it’s not even like Ronaldo created chances others were missing; his expected assist rate (xA) after 34 games was a measly 2.7 for the season, so a fraction below his actual output of three; and averaged just 0.13 per game. Fernandes xA the season before was a whopping 11.0, at a rate of one every three games, compared to Ronaldo’s one every ten games.
In 2021/22, Mo Salah’s expected assist rate was 0.35, with all Liverpool’s attackers (including squad attackers) well ahead of Ronaldo’s 0.13 for creating, bar Sadio Mané – just ahead at 0.15; but Mané was dribbling lots out wide, and chasing back, and when playing as the centre-forward, linking play and scoring open-play goals.
Plus, Mané wasn’t replacing anyone who was more productive. (Also, he earned a mere fifth of what United were paying Ronaldo, and whose arrival in 2016 sparked team improvement, not regression.) In 2020/21, Fernandes had 0.77 xG/xA per 90 minutes (expected goals plus expected assists). In 2021/22, it had fallen to 0.54, and of course, he started the season with great numbers – goals and assists in those opening games. United were finally a smoothly running machine, even if only a BMW and not a Ferrari. His shots per 90 minutes then fell by over 20%. Indeed, Ronaldo used to get double-digit assist numbers with Real Madrid, then close to that level with Juventus, but those numbers had been falling in recent years, along with the goals – even if he still scored a reasonable amount.
When you add a ‘goal machine’ (which Ronaldo still is, to some degree), it’s utterly pointless if that individual scores 20 or even 30 goals, and the team falls four or five places in the league table.
In all 38 games in 2021/22, United scored 57 goals, but seven of those were in the three games before Ronaldo made his second debut. In 2020/21, they had scored 73 league goals, at 1.92 per game; a season later, after Ronaldo’s second coming, they had scored just 50 at 1.43 per game. It’s almost identical to the drop in points per game mentioned earlier: 1.96 to 1.46. Ronaldo, who hit few goals late in the season when chances of the top four had all but gone, could have scored fifty goals, but if that was because he was the only player taking shots – never passing, never moving from the penalty spot, never creating anything for anyone else, and everyone directed (or compelled) to pass to him – and they lost every game 3-2 or 4-2, it would have been utterly self-defeating.
It felt, to me, like United had no tactical plan when buying Ronaldo for a second time – it was panic, mixed with marketability, with perhaps some sentimentality. And even if he just needed six months to settle back in to English football, how will he fare when he turns 38 next season? Again, the idea of signing him was for instant impact. They got it: a nosedive.
This is not squad building, but vanity shopping.
Indeed, one of the reasons United made Ronaldo their highest-paid player (more than twice what Liverpool paid anyone) was to stop him going to Manchester City; albeit it’s hard to see how he’d have fitted in there. (Although at least all the other City players work hard, and might have carried some water for him, as they did for Sergio Agüero – before the Argentine, after being left out of the side in the early Pep Guardiola months, at least started to put in some kind of out-of-possession work, at the insistence of the manager.)
Lionel Messi going to PSG felt very similar: starry-eyed opportunism on the French club’s part, with no thought to any second-order effects. How will the team play, with a manager who demands pressing – when, on a whim, bringing in the game’s other great modern superstar, who, at 34, had been doing less and less work off the ball over the years? (A presser in his youth under Guardiola, Messi now walked about the pitch.)
How would someone – a talented and dedicated worker – like Wijnaldum feel, having been gazumped in his move to Barcelona, only to suddenly be made peripheral with the need to shoehorn another attacker into the team? With Neymar, Kylian Mbappé, Julian Draxler, Ángel Di María and Mauro Icardi, the ex-Liverpool midfielder could not balance the top-heavy team with the arrival of Messi.
By the time the French champions exited the Champions League at the round of 16, Wijnaldum had been on the bench for half the league games, and made just three starts in Europe. As someone who looked absolutely fuming to be left out of Liverpool games (see his angry reaction that drove him on as a half-time sub against Barcelona, where he helped the game to explode towards that 4-0 scoreline), he got the pay-rise he wanted (and more), only to be surrounded by prima donnas who were strolling about on the field, as he watched from the bench. He got a league winners’ medal (again, as a bit-part player), but watched from afar as Liverpool had a far more exciting season. He ended the season on holiday while Holland played games without him, and was voted the biggest flop in Ligue 1 for the season.
PSG have more ‘marketable’ stars than Liverpool, and will win domestic trophies, but he joined an absolute madhouse. He seemed to have his heart set on a move to Barcelona, a far more romantic ideal, before they ran out of money (and then, belatedly, scrabbled around to find some via loans and, of course, offloading Messi and various others). Under Xavi, Barça, after a terrible start to the season with Wijnaldum’s old Netherlands boss Ronald Koeman, seemed to have rediscovered their identity, and Wijnaldum would presumably have been happier there.
As with Philippe Coutinho, Wijnaldum got the big-money move, only to become an afterthought, unappreciated and unloved.
Indeed, it was reported in May 2022 that Coutinho had agreed to take a huge wage cut from his eye-watering £480,000-a-week wages to fit into Aston Villa’s structure, where he could only expect £125,000 a week, at the top.
“I don’t think you can underestimate football happiness – and in any walk of life, in any job, in any role,” Steven Gerrard said when asked to explain why Coutinho agreed to join Villa on a permanent deal for such a colossal drop in earnings. To me, it sounds like Gerrard has learnt a lesson from Klopp. It’s one of the truest things in football.
“If you get out of bed every morning and you’re playing for an ambitious club where there’s a journey where everyone’s pushing towards it and moving it, and you’re a big part of that, and you’re made to feel welcome and you’re essential and people want to build around you, I think that’s very important,” Gerrard added.
[Note: things have not gone so well for Coutinho, or Gerrard, for that matter, since the publication of the book. But I think Gerrard’s words remain true, albeit was this another case of buying a player’s seductive past?]
One of the issues that almost drove Barcelona to bankruptcy was their wage structure; and how Messi, despite ‘deserving’ to be the best-paid player in the world, distorted the rest of the squad’s wages. According to a report in the Financial Times, Messi’s wages tripled during Josep Maria Bartomeu’s presidency, and the no.10 earned more than £500m between 2017-21.
The issue was, in paying Messi fortunes, everyone else could ask for mini-fortunes. This is where people fail to grasp the second and third order effects of a wage bill, and how just paying anyone ‘what he wants’ distorts everything asked for by new players, junior players, squad players and kids signing their first deals.
In Catalonia, if Messi were to get a 50% rise, and others, already paid a mere fraction, asked for a 30% rise, then Messi would be talking about tens of millions – but everyone else, as those mere fractions, would still be talking about excessive millions. Multiply that by a whole squad, and it’s chaos. Any other business would have gone bankrupt. Indeed, Barcelona should have; just as Chelsea would have, once Roman Abramovich’s wealth was sanctioned and the usual cost would be going into administration.
The Anti-Dickheads – Smart Buys and Starmen
The Fast-Improving Luis Díaz
When Liverpool signed Colombian Luis Díaz in January 2022 – bringing forward a deal planned for the summer as Spurs and others sniffed around – the Reds bought another fast-improving attacking player, whose goal return (if not his scintillating displays) fell below the standards he had started to set at Porto. Of course, by the end of the season he’d played more games than anyone else in the world, according to official studies; he tired a bit in the run-in, as you might expect.
In 2017, with Atlético Junior, he scored just one goal in 23 appearances, aged 20. A year later, he scored 16. Before long he was signed by Porto, and scored six and then six again in his first two seasons. Then, he had 14 in 16 league games when Liverpool swooped (as well as going from one goal for Colombia in his first 16 caps to seven in his next 19). His four league goals for Liverpool in 13 games was an exact mirror of Luis Suárez’s return, eleven years earlier, after a similar January move. It’s unlikely that Díaz will replicate the 30-goal seasons of Suárez, but it does suggest that his finishing – with a bit more luck (he was denied in all manner of ways in his first half-season) – could see him getting 20 goals a season.
Liverpool fan and TTT subscriber Jorge Echeverri explained to me in vibrant detail how he, a Colombian, became a die-hard Red, well before his now famous compatriot; and how Díaz is sparking greater interest in Liverpool in his homeland.
“The decade my father spent in London in the 1930s, his death when I was six years old, and my status as an only child combined in such a way that it was unavoidable for me to travel to England from Colombia once I finished my degree in architecture. The year was 1978 and, a few months later, I was already enrolled in the LIFS (London International Film School) in Covent Garden.
“My passion for Millonarios, the team that I had followed since childhood weakened due to the distances, and the delays with which I got its news. It is worth mentioning that the team received its name in the years that in Colombia were nicknamed as ‘El Dorado’, where many star players from Argentina immigrated to Colombia, because of a strike in their local league. Among them was Alfredo Di Stefano, who played for Millonarios, and contributed to defeat Madrid at the Bernabéu 4-2. The artistry exhibited during the match was his ticket to play in Spain. Madrid bought him and, in a way, together with the end of the strike in Argentina, brought about the beginning of the end of those golden years in Colombian football.
“Nevertheless, as the months passed away, my love for the sport was still in good health and I followed with curiosity the steps that Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa were taking at Tottenham. Of course, my interest was due to the empathy with which all South Americans learn about the careers of their countrymen in Europe and, more so in those days, when the two Argentines came to be the forerunners of the handful of players who today parade through the English stadiums. In addition, and although the matter could be contradictory, the World Cup in Argentina was fresh in my mind, where a mantle of suspicion covered the victory of the hosts’ 6-0 win over Peru. It is significant that while the fans celebrated the goals that sent their team to the final, the sportswashing dictator Jorge Rafael Videla and his military filled planes with political opponents to throw them to their deaths at the mouth of the Río de La Plata.
“(‘They are disappeared, they are gone, they have no identity, they are not dead or alive, they are disappeared,’ said Videla, the President of the Military Junta in 1979.)
“It was against this background that I learned one September afternoon that Bob Paisley’s Liverpool had beaten Spurs 7-0. Curiosity piqued, for the next three years I soaked up both the absurd dominance the team exercised over others, and the characteristics of its host city: its affiliation with progressive ideas, its particular accent and, especially, the animosity towards Manchester United, a sentiment that I had shared since the years in which that team had played the intercontinental finals against the Argentinian Estudiantes de La Plata.
“However, my return to Colombia marked the rebirth of my love for my local team and a distancing of what was happening in the English league. Except, of course, for the attention I paid to the 1984 European Cup final where Bruce Grobbelaar’s ‘spaghetti legs’ captured my sympathy. Later, Hillsborough and the treatment given to the tragedy by the police and certain media, as well as the gradual deterioration of Colombian soccer, colluded in such a way that the balance ended up tilting in favour of the Reds. Of course, this was influenced by my need to support the team that my feelings – not my reason – chose with all my soul. The rest is history: while the attention I paid to the tournament in my country was in a tailspin, my passion turned to Liverpool.
“Thus came the years in which Rafa Benítez took charge of the team and their resurgence on the world scene. The attraction was such that I had to make the peregrination to Anfield as a commandment. That afternoon Liverpool won 2-1 against our suffering neighbours even though Milan Baroš saw red. It was not by chance that an ex-girlfriend who in those years lived with a Basque cameraman, and whose parents were friends of Xavi Alonso’s parents, sent me the shirt that one of my daughters wears.
“In Colombia as in other countries – I am thinking of Egypt before the arrival of Mo Salah – the fans that Liverpool normally had were low in number. The vast majority of my fellow countrymen, followed, and follow, Barcelona and Real Madrid, and when it came to English football, Chelsea, United, and, to a much lesser degree, City. Not even the resurgence of Liverpool in the hands of Klopp managed to change that state of affairs.
“All this has been altered with the advent of Lucho Díaz to the Reds. Today, the newspapers and the radio give permanent accounts of his deeds, and those of the team, in much greater numbers than that of the ailing internal tournament, even more so as the national team has been eliminated from the Qatar World Cup. Not in vain, a few days ago, a serious magazine in the country – Cambio – published an article by the journalist (anthropologist, professor and researcher) Weildler Guerra. Because he exposes my ideas about Lucho much better than I do, I allow myself to quote him:
“‘Díaz’s talent has become a source of national pride, since members of a country or a social group also have a collective self-esteem.’
“Lucho’s father, Manuel Díaz, had a soccer school, and his son accompanied him to training sessions as a child. This provided him with a community to learn from and a teacher who saw in his son a kind of rough jewel that he had to polish. In 2015, Díaz was part of the Colombian indigenous team that went to Chile, where he showed his exceptional skills and potential as a player. ”
“When Luis Díaz was asked where his magic for soccer came from, he responded spontaneously: ‘From La Guajira. It comes from my roots. I always played soccer in my town, in my homeland.’ This reiteration of his links with La Guajira makes us evoke the sense of aesthetics among the Wayúu (the indigenous group predominant in the arid lands of this region of Colombia). For them it is not enough to possess material wealth. Human performances must be ornate. When a necklace or a mule is delivered in compensation, these constitute the luxury of payment. Consequently, the simplicity and naturalness of Luis Díaz as a human being adorn his talent as a player.”
Therefore, if before it was almost impossible to find a person wearing the red jersey, now its presence competes with that of the other teams and I don’t think I’m wrong if I say that they already outnumber the others.”
And to think, Díaz, while hitting the ground running, surely has other gears to find.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Tomkins Times - Main Hub to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.