Because we should have beautiful things

If all goes well, Bayer Leverkusen will end this season with one record, two trophies and only three disturbing existential questions. They will all return on Wednesday, to Dublin, to the Europa League final, and they will all take on exactly the same, disastrous form: what if?

What if Exequiel Palacios had seen Ademola Lookman coming? What if Granit Xhaka hadn't given the ball away? What if Edmond Tapsoba had extended his leg? Could the final have been different? Could Leverkusen have recovered to beat Atalanta? Could Leverkusen manager Xabi Alonso have led his team to an undefeated treble?

Of course it's cruel that things go this way. After all, Leverkusen has lit up the European season like no other team. He won his first German championship, after 120 years of trying. This weekend he should add the German Cup to his trophy haul. They overtook Benfica to become the holder of the longest unbeaten run in European football since the First World War. And he did it all, in case no one had mentioned it, in Alonso's first full season as manager.

This is how his season should be remembered. When Alonso, his players and his fans reflect on this season in years to come, they should focus on what the team achieved, not where it fell short. He has surpassed even the most imaginative of his ambitions. But duty is not the same as will. Nothing hurts as much as almost. Leverkusen, whether they want it or not, will always ask themselves this.

There is, however, a positive side. A couple of months ago, when both Liverpool and Bayern Munich began looking for a new manager, 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 had no intention of breaking it at the first available opportunity.

At the time – and perhaps even more so now – this seemed decidedly countercultural. Not only is football conditioned to believe that every wave is there to be ridden, it is economically structured in such a way that anything new, bright or promising is immediately snapped up by the (often self-appointed) great and good of the game.

Kieran McKenna, for example, has been at the top for just a little longer than Alonso. He is only 38 years old. In his two seasons at Ipswich Town, he led the club from League One – the third tier of English football – up to the Premier League. Next season, for the first time in two decades, Ipswich will take their place in the English top flight.

Whether McKenna will be there is a different question. Brighton are eager to appoint him as Roberto De Zerbi's replacement. Chelsea want to offer him the chance to be fired this time next year. Ipswich are set to offer him an improved contract in a bid to persuade him to stay. But the chance to move forward and make a quantum leap may prove too much to resist.

The same will most likely be true for Crystal Palace. The club's transformation, in the final two months of the season, into something of a cross between Guardiola-era Barcelona and Michael Jordan's team from Space Jam was inspired not only by the expert work of its new manager, Oliver Glasner, but from the improvisational talents of Eberechi Eze and Michael Olise.

Palace, who at one point this season were at risk of relegation, suddenly looked unstoppable. Glasner's team beat Liverpool at Anfield, eliminated Manchester United 4-0 and then dismantled Aston Villa on the final day of the season. In the Selhurst Park sunshine, it must have been tempting to fantasize about what this team could achieve next season.

But that, of course, is all it could be: a daydream. Tottenham and Manchester City are following Olise. Eze has been linked with offers to join Manchester United and Chelsea. None of these moves, in all honesty, are a particularly attractive proposition at this point, but they will make little difference. One star, or both, will be gone, and the Crystal Palace will be left with nothing but the memory of a magical spring.

This is the great pain of modern football: that, for all the glitter, the glamour, the hype and the buzz, its brutal economy leaves most fans, and most teams, with nothing but a succession of “if”. All the vast majority can do is wonder what might have happened if things had gone a little differently.

Leverkusen – and perhaps only Leverkusen – have averted this fate, for now. Alonso pledged his loyalty and many of the team's best players soon did the same. More significantly, Florian Wirtz, its all-action creative force, also plans to stick around for a while.

The club, despite the ruthless logic of the modern game, may still have a chance to build something: not permanent, perhaps, but at least lasting.

The questions from Dublin, however, will remain. Leverkusen came too close to something extraordinary not to have some regrets. But he won't have to wonder where this team could have gone, under this coach. He will have the chance to find out for another year. It's really a shame that the same can't be true for everyone else.

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

Mauricio Pochettino was finally beginning to sculpt something into the vague shape of a team from the random raw materials presented to him by the club's numerous owners and sporting directors. As the season drew to a close, Chelsea had won five games in a row and climbed to sixth place in the table. That strange feeling was a promise.

So, naturally, a couple of days later, the club officials decided to relieve Pochettino of his duties. (The authorized version of his departure was that he had “agreed to leave” the club. This is, presumably, the way you might “agree to leave” a bar when a bouncer grabs your arm and carries you towards the bar. door and throws you onto the sidewalk outside.)

I have a vague memory of suggesting, semi-seriously, last summer that Chelsea's chaotic recruitment strategy made sense if you operated on the assumption that the team's owners no longer saw football as a sport, in which the ultimate ambition was to win games and prizes, but more as a sort of year-round content factory, where the main 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 the noise, suggests that the analysis wasn't entirely correct. It would seem that there is absolutely no need for the “semi” qualification.

Disheartening news: Bayern Munich have found a manager. The club, in the last two months, had chosen (at least) five candidates to fill the role next season, only to discover that none of Xabi Alonso, Julian Nagelsmann, Ralf Rangnick and Oliver Glasner wanted it. Even Thomas Tuchel, the incumbent president, has made it clear that he would prefer not to stay.

Now, sadly, Vincent Kompany – last spotted at the scene of Burnley's relegation from the Premier League – has said yes, depriving European football of one of the few opportunities for general merriment in a business which, as a rule, takes itself intensely on the serious.

There has been a tendency to see Kompany's (imminent) arrival as a sign of Bayern's desperation. The fact that Bayern – with its annual ambitions of winning the Champions League – have been forced to tie their fate to a man whose team have won just five of 38 Premier League games this season is surely a measure of how the mighty have fallen.

And yet: last summer, in the aftermath of Burnley's elegant promotion, Kompany was considered sufficiently promising to be discussed as a potential signing by both Tottenham and Chelsea.

His experiences since then have, of course, been difficult and bitter, but they have also made him a much better manager. His underlying talent has not disappeared; instead, it is likely that he was strengthened by the kind of knowledge gleaned in adversity. Bayern's willingness to look beyond Kompany's achievements is not so much a punchline as a sign of progress.

In what can only be described as a small miracle and a small personal triumph, I remembered that last week's correspondence section omitted two emails that – had Attila Yaman don't come up with the kind of convoluted metaphor I can't resist – that would normally have been presented.

And so, sorry for the delay, let's get to the point David Nolan. “Your submission for the 'Rookie of the Year' award is excellent,” she wrote, correctly. “But it seems to run counter to your general disapproval – or perhaps feigned ignorance – of many American sporting foibles. Whatever happens next? Reluctantly recognizing the merits of rugby?”

I want to reassure both David and the United States of America as a whole that I do not disapprove of American sports. Is the atmosphere a bit flat at times? Safe. Is three hours too long for a sporting event? Obviously. Should adult teams be named after Tuscaloosa Longhorns? Don't be absurd. But are they so bad that they should be compared to the lesser form of rugby? Never.

Courtney Lynch She's also American, but she wants us to know that's not why she's asking the question. “I'm not as American in my worldview as you suggest, but it's a thought I can't escape,” she wrote, phrasing the question with so many caveats that it sounded rather British. “But isn't it just a matter of time before MLS becomes the best and most competitive league in the world?”

Courtney's logic is this: Major League Soccer has made great strides over the past 30 years. More and more American kids see football as their favorite sport. Given the commercial advantages enjoyed by the United States, will this process end, in a few decades, with MLS as the pinnacle of world football?

And – although very few Europeans would agree with me – I think the overall trajectory is not unreasonable. Not least, coincidentally, because of a point highlighted by Matt Dishongh. When it comes to the title race, he wrote, MLS is everything that European leagues are not: “always competitive and unpredictable. This is a clear benefit for MLS, and should be heavily promoted to U.S. fans of these other leagues.”

There are caveats to this idea – ones containing phrases like “Champions League”, “revamped Club World Cup” and “glacial generation transition” – but I wonder whether the topic requires rather fuller exploration than the the last paragraph of the correspondence section. With due apologies for another cliffhanger, we'll return to this over the summer, when the newsletter material will be, well, a little thinner.

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