Signed for $45 million as a youthful centerpiece of AC Milan’s rebuild last summer, rumors of 22-year-old Andre Silva leaving the club for the Premier League just six months later appear shortsighted on both the club and the player. Moving to Serie A comes with a learning curve, much less for a young player at the striker position. But Silva was criticized by manager Gennaro Gattuso for disrespecting the club with lackadaisical performances, and he has yet to score in the league. Perhaps there would be more patience in a different season, but the urgency of Silva maintaining his starting place for Portugal in this summer’s World Cup adds an extra variable to his decision in moving sides in exchange for playing time. The foundation of top European clubs and the shape of players’ careers will be shaped by the transfer window this winter and especially following the tournament in Russia, for better or worse.
Although the final between Germany and Argentina took place just four years ago, the seasonal interchange of players, managers, dominant teams and tactics combined with the rapid pace of social media makes the 2014 World Cup appear even further in memory. Take the career of German midfielder Mario Goetze since scoring the match winning goal in extra time to beat Argentina. The 22 year old had just completed his first season at Bayern Munich. He was dubbed “the German Messi” and deemed a “once in a century talent”.
A year after his famous goal, he was criticized by Franz Beckenbauer for “playing like a child” on the field. He played 14 matches for Bayern in 2015 before moving back to Borussia Dortmund the following summer. Diagnosed with a medical condition that almost ended his career, he was limited him to 11 matches in 2017. He’s scored 14 goals since the 2014 finals, and has enough distance to understand how those Messi comparison ended up harming his perception. And still, even after the injuries, criticisms and struggles, Goetze is only 25 years old.
But his path shows how quickly the game moves on from phenom to phenom, making it even more essential that sides eschew labels of potential and capitalize on results as Germany did. The 2014 Champions League finals cemented Atletico Madrid’s European rise even as they lost 4-1 in extra time to city rivals Real Madrid. That summer’s transfer window reshaped Diego Simeone’s side into the current era. While Thibaut Courtois was already set to return to Chelsea from loan, Diego Costa and Filipe Luis also made the move. Antoine Griezmann, signed to replace Costa’s production, carried the club’s attack in the following years since and is now rumored to be leaving this summer post-tournament.
Real Madrid also used the 2014 summer window to reshape their side. No player in Brazil raised their profile and transfer price more than James Rodriguez, whom Real Madrid purchased for over $100 million and is now on a loan to buy deal at Bayern Munich. A year older than Goetze, James is another example of the gap between player excitement and potential and a lack of development over a four year span. Most impactful was Real Madrid double move in midfield of purchasing Toni Kroos from Bayern Munich while sending Casemiro out on loan to Porto. Compare their midfield in the 2014 Champions League finals with the rematch against Atleti two years later: the first appearance emphasized directness, transition play and physicality with Angel Di Maria (who became the most expensive British transfer to at the time to Manchester United to make way for Kroos) and Sami Khedira partnering with Luka Modric. This in contrast to the control, skill and silky technique of Kroos and Modric defining Real Madrid’s stylish dominance.
Barcelona bought Luis Suarez that summer from Liverpool to form a prolific attacking front three alongside Neymar and Messi that combined for 122 goals in their first season together. The improvisational and instinctive understanding of the trio raised questions of how European strikers were developed in contrast to their South American counterparts. Lost in the accolades of goals was Barcelona also signing keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, no less a foundational figure in the club’s success, in the same window.
Suarez’s move to Spain opened the door for Alexis Sanchez to move to Arsenal the same summer for some $50 million. Sanchez scored 14 goals in his first three months with his new side and has scored 60 goals in 120 league matches since, giving more ammunition to Arsene Wenger’s South American streetball playing striker thesis. Although today, like Griezmann, there’s rumors of him leaving his club this summer as well. If there is another theory that says a manager’s effectiveness lasts only three years, perhaps there’s something about staying at a club for four seasons being enough time to unsettle a player as well.
An enduring image of the 2014 World Cup was Robin van Persie’s flying header against Spain as part of a 5-1 route in the opening group match. The moment emphatically capped the end of the tiki taka era and turned Germany’s gegenpressing tactics into the dominant style since. 23-year-old German midfielder Emre Can, tailored made for this current era, was rumored to leave Liverpool last season but stayed with the promise of getting more playing time to secure his place on the World Cup roster as he’s aware that one bad season could prevent him from being selected this summer. France manager Didier Deschamps excluded winger Ousmane Dembele for a series of World Cup qualifying matches due to the ongoing transfer saga between Borussia Dortmund and Barcelona.
If the distance of four soccer years is evident in the likes of Goetze, Kroos and Griezmann’s career since the last World Cup, then the cycle moves just as quickly for a national side in how and if they renew themselves with a new generation. When the core of a side is made up of players in their early twenties, as Germany were in 2014, the easy prediction is for that side to continue to improve and dominant international play.
But the transition between early twenties phenom to mid-twenties world class yet consistent player comes with its own hurdles. An enduring image four years ago was Robin van Persie’s diving header against Spain in the opening stages of the World Cup to emphatically slam the door on the tiki taka era. But heading into 2018, with a mix of new, dynamic attackers and old stalwarts like Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, we have a revamped Spain side. Likewise, we can assume Brazil won’t lose 7-1 in any match in Russia. That 2014 roster was a group held together by talented individuals in contrast to Tite’s current side featuring a midfield foundation of Renato Augusto and Paulinho plucked from the Chinese Super League.
Tite observed how Paulinho is improving and expanding his box to box instinct after his surprise summer transfer to Barcelona. He gave credit to the club’s style of play for elevating his midfielder but made it clear he had no influence on where his players move. But that is how the World Cup this summer hangs over the background as the ebbs, flows and crescendos of a season shapes players, national and domestic sides and transfer moves well before and well after the event.