Is a player an employee, or a devoted, loyal lover?
That question sits at the core of supporter perceptions of a player, these days one player in particular, Marc-Andre Ter Stegen. When he was signed for 12m from Borussia Monchengladbach, it was an acknowledgement of his bright future. Ter Stegen is now 23 years old. No idea what you were doing at age 23, but most young men are trying to hump their way through an area code, and doing 180s so fast they run into their impatient, ambitious selves.
Ter Stegen is the No. 2 keeper at the best football club in world. Like every Millennial, he wants more. He wants to save the world, make a difference, be recognized for his talents, all that Millennial stuff. But unlike too many impatient Millennials, he actually has talents worth recognizing. He has been with the club long enough to learn its systems, be part of a Champions League and Copa del Rey-winning side. He has become sufficiently fluent in Spanish to give pressers in the language, and believes that his time is now. So like any talented young person at any place of employment, he’s antsy.
A series of quotes attributed to the player have made it clear that he believes that he is ready, and needs for the club to make a decision. Let’s look at both sides of the debate:
He should be patient. It’s Barça
Sorry, but no. Employers are losing Millennials left and right, for some very good reasons: youth, talent and ambition don’t have to wait, because they are desirable. The onus is on an employer to retain that person, and Barça is no exception. Ter Stegen will have played on a team that won a Treble last season, and is on track to repeat that astonishing feat. Why should he stay at a club where he has already done it all, if he is unsatisfied with his role within the team? If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it, as the pop song goes.
Culers overestimate the drawing power of Messi, Iniesta, Neymar, et al. Supporters at every club overestimate loyalty in this modern game. A player like Ter Stegen is selfish, and he should be. Every athlete hears a timer ticking every time they step onto the practice pitch. Examples abound. Mathieu went away to play an international match, came back with a torn meniscus. Victor Valdes went up for a ball, a play he executed a zillion times before that. He landed wrong, and is now giving up goals in Belgium.
There are things that an employee needs to do to demonstrate that they are ready for a position. Way back when, a young editorial assistant got a shot at a reporter’s job. It was incumbent upon that dude to be ready to handle his shit, or go home. I did. Others didn’t. Ambition and impatience are only so if you can’t back it up. If you are ready, ambition and impatience become acknowledgement that it’s time. When an employee is ready, and says “Give me what I have worked for or I am leaving,” only a foolish one isn’t ready to walk, having done advance research that makes them confident the path will be a rosy one.
No employee should wait one second longer than they deem necessary, when they are ready for a position. That is even more true for athletes. It is also true that employers want to try to get employees to be patient, because people hate making hard decisions. Even ruthless bosses.
It is immaterial to this discussion whether Bravo is better or worse than Ter Stegen, because Ter Stegen believes that he is ready. Should he wait? No. Hell no. Who would in his position? If his coach wants to play a 33-year-old veteran over him he would be stupid to stay whether the team is Barça, or the Valhalla XI. A player has to think about his development, and his future. “Wait til next year.” Why? It’s like a boyfriend saying, “I’ll change!”
The other complexity is that everyone wants a hot young sweeper keeper these days, and Ter Stegen is the one. Liverpool would grab him in a nanosecond, rumors are popping up that Manchester City has secured the first rights, whatever that means, should Ter Stegen find his way to market. The market for keepers is hot right now, and Ter Stegen has the skill set to become one of the best. The world is his oyster. Anyone who expects him to wait is kidding themselves.
Luis Enrique should make the right decision
What is the right decision in this case? Luis Enrique has rarely, in his (admittedly short) time as first team coach, been wrong. His transfers have almost all worked exactly as expected, and his team won a treble. This season, that team is on track to win its domestic league, faces a winnable league cup and is in the Champions League quarterfinals against an opponent against whom it is 6-0. Irrespective of what naysayers have said about varied and sundry things, the Barça coach has been, on aggregate, faultless.
He also rules his group with a iron fist, and is not interested in the inmates running the asylum. So “right decision,” for the proponents of Ter Stegen, means giving the young German the shirt and putting the position’s future in his hands. That seems as simple as anything that we can see from our completely obscured seats.
Why isn’t he the No. 1? Is it as simple as Bravo doing nothing wrong to lose his spot? No, because we know that Barça is a meritocracy. A player can take another player’s position, if they play well enough to move up the depth chart. It happens rarely because of the murderers’ row in that XI, but it can. If Ter Stegen was better enough than Bravo in training to grab the spot, it would be his. No coach is stupid enough to decide to play a lesser player in a position as important as keeper. Does Luis Enrique see something in his defense that demands the more goal mouth-rooted skill set of Bravo? Or is this Liga v Cups thing just a silly compromise worked out by a coach who wants to have two world-class players at every position, and is whistling past the graveyard with one of them?
Right now, Bravo is the Liga keeper, and Ter Stegen is the Cup keeper. At most teams with such an arrangement, there is a clear No. 1 and No. 2 position. With Valdes/Pinto, the latter was the Cup keeper until the matches mattered, then he stepped aside. Ter Stegen remained in goal throughout the entire Champions League competition. Copa as well. It’s clear that if Bravo is No. 1, Ter Stegen is No. 1A.
The right decision is, as far as Luis Enrique is concerned, the one that he has made at present, for his own reasons. Who knows about the future? Ter Stegen will, therefore, if his discussions don’t have the desired outcome, have some decisions of his own to make. At that point he would almost certainly leave the club and Barça would have to hope that Bravo has some Gigi Buffon in him, and can continue to be a top-flight keeper for many years to come. People would scream and rail, call various people incompetent, etc, etc. And Barça would keep right on winning, short-term, which is what any coach is thinking most about — this season, this championship, this competition. Luis Enrique is no exception.
Who has the whip hand?
Ter Stegen’s buyout clause is EUR80m. No club is going to pay that for him. Sorry. Yes, he is talented, and a world-class keeper for years and years to come. City can pay that fee without batting an eyelash, but won’t. Not with Joe Hart, the England No. 1, as their net minder. And if they could, why wouldn’t they just add another 10 and go for Courtois?
Hart is 28, entering prime years for a keeper. If RM doesn’t get the fax to the wrong place this summer, United will also be looking for a No. 1. Liverpool? While the prospect of a Klopp project would be appealing, Liverpool is no way in hell going to pay 80m for Ter Stegen, without even getting into the style differences of the Prem, weatherable only by a coach such as Guardiola. Imagine the howls of derision as Ter Stegen plays up around the halfway line, on those weekend Prem broadcasts. “What IS that young man doing? The net is that way!”
Let’s assume that City/Guardiola can lure Ter Stegen. What of Joe Hart? Ter Stegen doesn’t want to hear, “You can come and compete for the spot.” He’s already heard that. He wants the No. 1 shirt. That heavy clause makes this a completely different situation to that of Thiago Alcantara, rather than a mostly different one.
Both were young, ambitious players with world-class talent who are/were ready to start for any club in world football. That’s where the similarities end. Alcantara’s buyout was a steal. Ter Stegen’s isn’t. Alcantara had club legends in his path. Ter Stegen doesn’t. An iconic coach said, “Thiago or nothing!” It made his decision easy. If Guardiola says that about Ter Stegen, it’s a pretty safe bet that Barça will have a hard time holding on to the German.
So now what?
Sit tight and stop squabbling. Bickering over a situation you have nothing invested in makes no sense. I saw one comment about “plastic fans,” and “Bartomeu defenders.” Madness. One side is calling Ter Stegen disloyal and impatient, the other is saying that Luis Enrique is taking a huge risk with a class talent. Both sides are right. But because we know exactly nothing about the meat of the situation, both sides are just as likely wrong, misguided and ignorant. The future awaits.