Why We Should Have Nice Things

All being well, Bayer Leverkusen will end this season with one record, two trophies and just three haunting, existential questions. They will all trace back to Wednesday, back to Dublin, back to the Europa League final, and they will all take exactly the same, baleful form: What if?

What if Exequiel Palacios had seen Ademola Lookman coming? What if Granit Xhaka had not given the ball away? What if Edmond Tapsoba had stretched out his leg? Could the final have been different? Could Leverkusen have rallied to beat Atalanta? Could Leverkusen’s manager, Xabi Alonso, have steered his team to an unbeaten treble?

It is cruel, of course, that it should be this way. Leverkusen has, after all, illuminated the European season like no other team. It has won its first German championship, after 120 years of trying. It should, this weekend, add the German cup to its trophy haul. It has overtaken Benfica as the owner of the longest unbeaten run in European soccer since World War I. And it has done it all, in case nobody has mentioned it, in Alonso’s first full season in management.

That is how its season should be remembered. When Alonso, his players and his fans reflect on this campaign in years to come, they should focus on what the team achieved, not on where it fell short. It has outstripped even the most fanciful of its ambitions. But should is not the same as will. Nothing hurts as much as nearly. Leverkusen will, whether it wants to or not, always wonder.

There is, though, a silver lining. A couple of months ago, as both Liverpool and Bayern Munich began to search for a new coach, Alonso made it clear that he would not welcome an approach from either club. He was, he said, still honing his craft. He had made a long-term commitment to Leverkusen, and he did not intend to break it at the first available opportunity.

At the time — and possibly even more so now — this felt distinctly countercultural. Soccer is not only conditioned to believe that every wave is there to be ridden, but economically structured so that anything new or bright or promising is immediately acquired by the game’s (often self-appointed) great and good.

Kieran McKenna, for example, has been in senior management for just a little longer than Alonso. He is only 38. In his two campaigns at Ipswich Town, he has guided the club from League One — English soccer’s third tier — all the way to the Premier League. Next season, for the first time in two decades, Ipswich will take its place in England’s top flight.

Whether McKenna will be there is a different matter. Brighton is eager to appoint him as a replacement for Roberto De Zerbi. Chelsea wants to offer him the chance to be fired around this time next year. Ipswich plans to offer him an improved contract in an attempt to persuade him to stay. But the chance to move on, and move up, may prove too much to resist.

The same, most likely, will apply to Crystal Palace. The club’s transformation, in the final two months of the season, into a sort of cross between Guardiola-era Barcelona and Michael Jordan’s team from Space Jam was inspired not only by the expert work of its new coach, Oliver Glasner, but by the improvisational talent of Eberechi Eze and Michael Olise.

Palace, which at one point this season was at risk of relegation, suddenly seemed unstoppable. Glasner’s team beat Liverpool at Anfield, dispatched Manchester United by 4-0 and then dismantled Aston Villa on the final day of the season. In the sunshine at Selhurst Park, it must have been tempting to daydream about what this team might achieve next season.

But that, of course, is all it is likely to be: a daydream. Tottenham and Manchester City are both tracking Olise. Eze has been linked with offers to join Manchester United and Chelsea. Neither of those moves, in all honesty, is an especially compelling proposition at this point, but it will make little difference. One star, or both, will go, and Crystal Palace will be left with nothing but memories of a magical spring.

This is the great sorrow of modern soccer: that, for all the sheen and the glamour and the hype and the buzz, its brutal economics leave most fans, and most teams, with nothing but a succession of what ifs. All a vast majority can do is wonder what might have been, had things worked out a little differently.

Leverkusen — and possibly Leverkusen alone — has averted that fate, for now. Alonso pledged his loyalty, and a number of the team’s standout players soon did the same. Most significantly, Florian Wirtz, its all-action creative force, plans to stick around for a while, too.

The club, in defiance of the remorseless logic of the modern game, may yet have the chance to build something: not permanent, perhaps, but lasting, at least.

The questions from Dublin, though, will linger. Leverkusen came too close to something extraordinary not to have some regret. But it will not have to wonder where this team, under this manager, might have gone next. It will, for one more year, have the chance to find out. It is just a shame, really, that the same will not be true for everyone else.

The working assumption has to be, at this point, that Chelsea is doing it on purpose. For much of the second half of the Premier League season, Stamford Bridge was swaddled in green shoots.

Mauricio Pochettino was, at last, beginning to carve something in the vague shape of a team from the haphazard raw materials presented to him by the club’s many owners and sporting directors. By the time the season drew to a close, Chelsea had won five games in a row, and risen as high as sixth in the standings. That strange feeling was promise.

So, naturally, a couple of days later, the club’s executives decided to relieve Pochettino of his duties. (The authorized account of his departure was that he had “agreed to leave” the club. This is, presumably, in the way that you might “agree to leave” a bar when a bouncer grabs you by the arm, marches you to the door and hurls you onto the sidewalk outside.)

I have a hazy recollection of suggesting — semi-seriously — last summer that Chelsea’s chaotic recruitment strategy made sense if you operated under the assumption that the team’s owners no longer saw soccer as a sport, in which the ultimate ambition was winning games and prizes, but more as a sort of year-round content mill, in which the primary metric of success was the amount of coverage the club generated.

The decision to part ways with Pochettino, just as he was starting to find a signal in all of the noise, suggests that analysis was not quite correct. There is, it would seem, absolutely no need for the qualifier “semi” whatsoever.

Dispiriting news: Bayern Munich has found a manager. The club had, in the past couple of months, alighted on (at least) five candidates to fill the role next season, only to find that none of Xabi Alonso, Julian Nagelsmann, Ralf Rangnick and Oliver Glasner wanted it. Even Thomas Tuchel, the incumbent, made it clear he would rather not stick around.

Now, sadly, Vincent Kompany — last spotted at the scene of Burnley’s fairly meek relegation from the Premier League — has said yes, depriving European soccer of one of the few opportunities for general merriment in a business that, as a rule, takes itself intensely seriously.

There has been a tendency to see the (impending) appointment of Kompany as a sign of Bayern’s desperation. It is surely a measure of how the mighty have fallen that Bayern — with its annual ambitions of winning the Champions League — has been forced to tie its fate to a man whose team won only five of its 38 Premier League games this season.

And yet: Last summer, in the aftermath of Burnley’s stylish promotion, Kompany was considered sufficiently promising that he was discussed as a potential hire by both Tottenham and Chelsea.

His experiences since have, obviously, been arduous and bitter, but they will also have made him a vastly better manager. His underlying talent has not disappeared; instead, it is likely to have been buttressed by the sort of knowledge gleaned in adversity. Bayern’s willingness to look beyond Kompany’s results is less a punchline, and more a sign of progress.

In what can only be described as both a minor miracle and a small personal triumph, I have remembered that last week’s correspondence section omitted two emails that — had Attila Yaman not come up with the sort of convoluted metaphor I am powerless to resist — would normally have featured.

And so, with due apologies for the delay, we come to David Nolan. “Your call for a ‘Rookie of the Year’ award is an excellent one,” he wrote, correctly. “But it seems to fly in the face of your overarching disapproval — or perhaps feigned ignorance about — many American sporting foibles. Whatever next? Begrudging acknowledgment of the merits of rugby union?”

I wish to reassure both David and the United States of America as a whole that I do not disapprove of American sports. Is the atmosphere sometimes a little flat? Sure. Is three hours far too long for a sporting event? Obviously. Do teams for adults need to be called things like the Tuscaloosa Longhorns? Don’t be absurd. But are they so bad that they should be compared to the lesser form of rugby? No, never.

Courtney Lynch is also American, but wants us to know that is not why she is asking her question. “I’m not as America-centric in my view of the world as this suggests, but it is a thought I can’t escape,” she wrote, phrasing the question with so many caveats that she sounds quite British. “But isn’t it just a matter of time until M.L.S. becomes the best, most competitive league in the world?”

Courtney’s logic is this: Major League Soccer has made huge strides over the past 30 years. More and more American kids see soccer as their preferred sport. Given the commercial advantages the United States has, does that process end, in a few decades’ time, with M.L.S. as the pinnacle of the world game?

And — though very few Europeans would agree with me — I think that general trajectory is not unreasonable. Not least, as it happens, because of a point made by Matt Dishongh. When it comes to title races, he wrote, M.L.S. is everything Europe’s leagues are not — “always competitive and unpredictable. This is a distinct advantage for M.L.S., and one it should be heavily marketing to the U.S. fans of these other leagues.”

There are caveats to this idea — ones that feature phrases like “Champions League,” “revamped Club World Cup” and “glacial generational shift” — but I wonder if the subject requires rather fuller exploration than the last paragraph of the correspondence section allows. With due apologies for another cliffhanger, let’s return to this over the summer, when the newsletter material is, well, a little thinner.


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