Manchester City will begin defense of its Premier League title with a team that doesn’t (exactly) look like its predecessors. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Two months on, the euphoria has not yet faded. A few days ago, with the rich promise of a new season drifting into view, Manchester City released “Together: Champions Again,” an official documentary detailing the thrilling, triumphant journey that culminated in Pep Guardiola’s team lifting yet another Premier League trophy last May.
There are still drops of pleasure to be wrung from the happy memories, even as the thoughts of Manchester City’s fans start to drift to the delights to come. Saturday’s meeting with Liverpool in the Community Shield, the phony war that traditionally heralds the dawn of a new English season, offers the chance to see Erling Haaland in sky blue, a first glimpse of the player around whom the club’s future will be built.
It is strange, then, that flourishing in that valley between the twin peaks of jubilation and anticipation, has been just a hint of melancholy. Guardiola has, every couple of weeks, had to pay tribute to a departing star: first Gabriel Jesus, then Raheem Sterling, and finally Aleksandar Zinchenko.
“The nicest player I ever worked with,” Guardiola said of Jesus. “An explosion,” he said of Sterling. “An important player in the locker room,” he said of Zinchenko. The players have noticed it, too. “There has been a lot of change this year,” Kevin De Bruyne said recently. “It has been quite sad, because I had good relationships with the players who have gone.”
These are not the sorts of departures that have become familiar to City in recent years. There was sorrow, of course, when Yaya Touré and Vincent Kompany left, and when David Silva followed, and when Sergio Agüero departed. These were players who would be commemorated, soon after, in statuary outside the stadium, or players who deserved to be.
But their exits were natural, inevitable, predictable. The sun was setting on their careers; City, a club that has grown accustomed to the idea that tomorrow always offers more, could offset its sadness with the knowledge that they had given their all, that the team could only grow in their absence.
Sterling, Jesus and Zinchenko, though, are different. None of them are ready to retire. None have outlived their usefulness. They have left, instead, because they feel like they can be more useful somewhere else, and they have done so in a steady stream. The Manchester City that takes the field this season will be distinct from the one depicted lifting the Premier League trophy, wreathed in smiles, in the documentary.
That is not to say worse, of course. The truism — echoed by Haaland after he made his first appearance in preseason last weekend against Bayern Munich at Lambeau Field — that City has spent the last couple of years playing “without a striker” is not accurate, as Jesus would doubtless point out himself. But it has not had a striker of Haaland’s type, his profile, for some considerable time, and it has not had a striker of his quality since Agüero was at his peak. Haaland’s presence alone should make City more of a threat, not less.
But it does not seem too much of a stretch to suggest that City will be different. The club might have identified Marc Cucurella, the Brighton left back, as the ideal successor to Zinchenko — a fairly straight swap, given that Guardiola chiefly deployed the Ukrainian as a left back — but Sterling’s substitute is Julián Álvarez, a young Argentine striker, rather than what might be termed a wide forward.
To Guardiola, Jesus was the sort of player who could “press three defenders in 10 seconds,” and play across three positions. Haaland, it is safe to say, will be used rather differently. Likewise, Fernandinho, having chosen to spend the final years of his career in Brazil, has been replaced by Kalvin Phillips, a more direct sort of a midfield player.
Quite what impact all of this has on the way City will play is not yet clear, of course. Guardiola has been plain that he expects his new arrivals to fold into what he has built; he will not be reconstructing his masterpiece, or redefining his philosophy, to suit them.
He might have acknowledged that Haaland’s “movement and quality in the box” compels his team to “put as many balls as possible into the box,” but it is fair to say that he will not be reinventing himself as a long-ball manager, the sort who encourages his wingers to sling in crosses from all angles at a striker memorably described by the comedian Troy Hawke as a “Nordic meat shield.”
“We’re going to adapt the quality that the players have to be involved in the way we play,” Guardiola said. “We are not going to change the way we play.” That may broadly be true, but at the same time it is impossible to imagine Guardiola not finessing his approach somewhat to reflect the range of characteristics in his squad.
Haaland, certainly, will have to learn Guardiola’s ways of doing things, but it hardly seems a stretch to suggest that the manager will have to learn how to elicit the best from his forward, too. City’s press, for example, may require a slight recalibrating. The same is true for the way its attacking line rotates, and its preferred methods for building play.
The outcome, doubtless, will be what it always is with Guardiola: a team that dominates possession, scores great floods of goals, and either wins or comes very close to winning almost every competition in which it is involved. The question, instead, lingers on how it chooses to get there.
Guardiola has a somewhat checkered history with players regarded as pure No. 9s: He turned Robert Lewandowski into the finest exponent of the position on the planet, and had no little success with David Villa and Agüero, but struggled to dovetail with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Samuel Eto’o.
That he has approved the signing of Haaland — and to a lesser extent Álvarez, a player many at City suspect will prove something of a secret weapon this season — suggests Guardiola recognizes the need to fine-tune his style.
Not because of some shortcoming — as he has said, City has done “pretty well” under his aegis, after all — but because he wonders if there might be a way for it to become even more impressive, even more devastating. This has been a summer of euphoria and anticipation at Manchester City, but it has also been a summer of change. That change has been made in the belief that what emerges will be different than what came before. Different, but better, too.
Euro 2022: Almost Home Now
England will face Germany in the final of Euro 2022 on Sunday in London, where they are already talking, yet again, about how football’s coming home. The Times will provide live coverage of the match at nytimes.com. To ensure you know what you’re talking about at your watch party, or so you can pretend to look smart if you really haven’t been paying attention, here’s some background reading from earlier in the tournament
People Get Older
Mark Cuban has, it seems, started channeling Helen Lovejoy. Just as he did in March, and then again in April, Cuban used an interview with Men in Blazers this week to fret and to fluster about teenagers. Not their moral and spiritual fiber so much, admittedly, just how they consume professional sports content. But still: Won’t somebody please think of the children?
Cuban’s theory is based on his realization that his 12-year-old son engages with sports only by devouring highlights on TikTok, that most transient of social networks. A few seconds of a dunk or a 3-pointer or a goal, then he moves — or is moved by the algorithm — on to whatever captures his fancy next.
This, as far as Cuban is concerned, has dire consequences for the sports that produce those highlights, based on the assumption that we are accidentally breeding an entire generation of humans without an attention span. These young people will, he believes, never develop the ability to follow a game over the course of an hour, or an hour and a half, and thus it is incumbent on the sports to adapt to the demands of their new audience.
He is not alone in this, of course. Luminaries as respected as Florentino Pérez and Andrea Agnelli have suggested more or less the same thing — though not based, presumably, on a sample consisting exclusively of a Cuban scion — and the same fear has come to permeate much of the news media, print and broadcast alike.
Now, given that we have all apparently decided that wealth is an accurate measure of wisdom, intelligence and virtue, turning billionaires into our new philosophers, deviation to this orthodoxy does not seem to be tolerated. There does, though, seem to be one apposite fact missing from this puzzle: the fact that people grow up.
Children being restless and easily distracted is not a new thing. It is not a function of the social media age. There is a reason, for example, that “Tom and Jerry” was a five-minute cartoon in which animals hit each other with mallets, rather than an hourlong slow burn filmed in the style of a Nordic noir.
It does not feel impossible that, perhaps, younger people have always struggled to pay attention to games in their entirety; that they have been inclined to dip in and out; that they have preferred, for example, to consume the relatively brief clips on “Match of the Day” or an equivalent, rather than settling in with a beer and a snack to watch a whole 90 minutes. It is just that now they can get those highlights on TikTok, rather than on linear television.
There is a strange insecurity to the sports industry. It is, at the same time, a vast and overweening production, full of strut and swagger and self-importance, and yet convinced of its own impending demise. Cuban’s son will, like everyone else, get older. And as he does so, he and the rest of his generation will learn the delights of delayed gratification, to appreciate the finer arts of their chosen sports, to realize that the highlights are a gateway, not a replacement.
Romance: Not Dead
As Cristiano Ronaldo contemplates his next move in the 2D chess match he is playing with Manchester United, he could do worse than to take into consideration the most heartwarming — and among the most intriguing — transfer of the summer: Luis Suárez, the Uruguayan striker, going back to where it all began.
Suárez, even at 35, had options after leaving Atlético Madrid this summer. He was linked with Aston Villa, and a reunion with his former Liverpool teammate Steven Gerrard. There were offers from Major League Soccer, where the Seattle Sounders held his discovery rights. He might have chosen to go to the Middle East, to Saudi Arabia or Qatar.
Instead, Suárez’s head was turned by a sweeping, organic campaign from fans of Nacional, the team in his homeland that he left some 16 years ago, to take his journey full circle. There were, by all accounts, some 50 million tweets left on the hashtag #SuárezANacional. The club’s fan base printed and wore tens of thousands of masks of his face at a league game last month.
On Thursday, they had their reward.
“All of the videos and messages we have received have been so moving, it really touched our hearts in this situation where we had to decide,” Suárez said after announcing his return to Montevideo. “It was impossible to turn down the chance to play for Nacional again.”
Suárez is not an uncomplicated figure, and he has not always made it easy to admire him. But it is difficult not to see the romance in his decision to turn down far more lucrative, far more ego-soothing offers in favor of something more authentic. Humans like stories, and Suárez has chosen to complete his.
Ronaldo does not appear ready to do that yet. At 37, his priority remains to play in the Champions League, to have one or two more chances to add another couple of honors to his extended résumé. Manchester United, the team that made him a star, cannot offer that, and so he does not want to be there any more.
Nor can Sporting Lisbon, Ronaldo’s equivalent of Suárez’s Nacional: Ruben Amorim’s team is in the Champions League, at least, but it is a bit of a stretch to imagine it venturing far into the knockout rounds. That has left one of the best players of all time in a curious position. He needs one of Europe’s best teams to be sufficiently badly organized to sign him, but sufficiently well run to win the Champions League. That is not a story that will have a happy ending.
“Maybe one compromise is limiting them to corners and free kicks into the box?” suggested Ajoy Vachher. “Clanging heads and hard-struck balls hitting heads would still happen, but much less frequently, and a critical part of the game would be preserved.”
Many others went for a more comprehensive solution: Michael Valot, Mary Jo Berman and Tom Kalitkowski all suggested that some sort of “lightweight headgear” might allow the game to preserve heading while minimizing long-term risk. That is thoroughly sensible, of course, but I do wonder how culturally acceptable it would be to players and to fans.
I also thought Tim Schum made a fascinating point about the relevance of the development of the ball itself. The consensus holds that, because modern balls are lighter, they pose less risk than the heavy, sodden, leather balls that players of previous generations were compelled to head as “an act of courage.”
That has come with a risk, though. “With the modern ball has emerged the ability of artisans to ‘spin’ or shape the flighted ball toward or away from goalkeepers,” Tim wrote, something that may have served to ensure crossing’s ongoing prominence in the game.
The other theme, you will be unsurprised to learn, centered on language. Thanks, first of all, to Kevin Duncliffe, for pointing out that the word “soccer” remains “alive and well” not only in the United States, but Ireland, too.
“In news media generally, soccer is the preferred term, and football is reserved for the Gaelic game,” he wrote. “In conversation, ‘football’ may refer to either sport and you have to pick it up from context. Meanwhile, here in the United States, I remain ever eager to point out that the term ‘soccer’ is neither American nor an abomination.”
And thanks to the dozen or so Italians, or Americans of Italian extraction or with Italian links, who educated me on the etymology of the word calcio. Lisa Calevi, for example: “I must remind you that calcio comes from calciare, meaning to kick.” My Italian is passable, though a little rusty, but I will confess I did not know that, and I am grateful for the correction.