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The Feel-Good Effects of Thiago, James Rodríguez, and Gareth Bale

Three marquee signings tell the story of three Premier League teams at different stages of their development

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Sometimes, something just feels right. No explanation is required. The answer may not be found using reason or analysis. It may even defy logic and sense. There are times, in life, and football, when things land in the places they were meant to be. Like when a player joins a new club and we forgo the intense scrutiny that is typically applied to every transfer and think, “I like that.”

As the Premier League embarks on a season marked by unprecedented uncertainty, three marquee signings completed in the past couple of weeks just feel right. The arrivals of three very different players—Thiago Alcântara, James Rodríguez, and Gareth Bale to Liverpool, Everton, and Spurs, respectively—have galvanized their clubs, each of which faces very different challenges this season.

For Liverpool, it’s evolution; for Everton, revitalization; and for Spurs, resolution. While each player offers something unique to his new club, Thiago, James, and Bale have one thing in common: They are superstars with proven ability, who offer incredible value for players of their status and pedigree. Exorbitant transfer fees often reduce players to dollar figures, conflating their quality with the price paid to acquire them. Kai Havertz’s signing at Chelsea highlights this point: Incredibly, many have already started to question whether the 21-year-old will prove to be a good value.

It’s refreshing to see three established stars join three big clubs and their arrivals met with childlike excitement about their ability and impact, not endless debates about finances. It’s hard to remember a time in the modern era when three marquee signings have cost so little—the only fee that will be paid is by Liverpool for Thiago, who will cost a maximum of $35 million. The defending league champions and 2019 Champions League winners are trying to improve on a side that has conquered pretty much all they can domestically and in Europe. For coach Jürgen Klopp, maintaining Liverpool’s dominance is not only about consolidation, but innovation: How do you add something new to an all-conquering team? You buy a player like Thiago.

Words cannot paint an adequate picture of how beautiful the Spanish midfielder plays. He’s a master of subtlety, a commander of the small spaces and angles that dictate the course of a match. The former Barcelona and Bayern Munich midfielder is a truly panoramic footballer. By this, I mean that he is one of the few elite players whose genius is not revealed by watching him on television. To understand Thiago’s gravitational force, you really have to be in the arena, because he so often operates outside of the frame.

Thiago’s impact comes with the sudden change of tempo that sends the opposition into panic mode. His ability to send a team collectively onto its heels is so powerful and instantaneous it can feel as though he has summoned a force that tilts the field toward the opponent’s goal. When you witness it live, you can feel the atmosphere shift: There are sudden intakes of breath, sometimes even audible gasps. Thiago operates in the dimension not yet transferable through any screen.

He made his Liverpool debut Sunday against Chelsea, coming on as a halftime substitute at Stamford Bridge, replacing captain Jordan Henderson. One wonders whether the sight of Liverpool’s new no. 6 entering the field of play was more disheartening for Chelsea coach Frank Lampard than the red card shown to defender Andreas Christensen just before halftime. Playing against Liverpool with 10 men is bad enough, but when one of those Liverpool players is Thiago, it’s even worse.

When foreign players arrive in England to play in the Premier League, they usually need time to adapt. Thiago dominated straight away, completing more passes in 45 minutes than any Chelsea player did in 90—his 75 passes set a new Premier League single-half record. He made a few errors, one that saw him concede a penalty that Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson saved. However, as far as debuts go, few have gone as well as Thiago’s.

There were frequent glimpses of what he’ll offer Liverpool. He sees passes better than almost any player in Europe and has a slightly unorthodox manner of executing them. Sometimes Thiago completes a pass with a body shape that makes so little sense that it is hard for the brain to recognize it in real time. While slightly hunched over, he brings his passing leg across his body at an angle that reminds me of the way former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic served. In fact, such is Thiago’s ability to disguise a killer pass and immediately move into a perfect position to receive the ball again, you could say that he is one of the most “serve and volley” midfielders around.

Joining Thiago in Merseyside is James Rodríguez, who delivered his own master class performance in his home debut against West Brom. His move to Everton unites him with Carlo Ancelotti for the third time; Ancelotti previously coached James at Real Madrid and Bayern and has arguably gotten the best out of the Colombian player in their previous two stints together. Ancelotti seems to love James much like Arsène Wenger loved Mesut Özil: Both coaches are baffled that the world cannot see or unlock the artistry they feel is so clear in those players. As soccer becomes more tactically rigid and system-oriented, we see less of players like Özil and James on the elite teams. Nowadays, watching classic no. 10s playing with such freedom of expression feels as melancholically nostalgic as watching old Paradise Garage videos.

After attempting to sign pretty much every no. 10 available in the past few years, Everton may have finally landed the one they need. James’s arrival feels like a case of the right player with the right manager at the right club. Everton have gone through numerous transformations in the past decade. After a number of failed coaching appointments, and a change of ownership, it appears that they’re developing a new identity. James might seem like an unlikely part of that transformation. Think back to June 2014, when he cushioned the ball on his chest and fired a left-footed, 25-yard Puskás Award–winning volley into the Uruguay goal in the Maracanã Stadium. Imagining that one day he would be scoring and assisting at Goodison Park in his home debut for an Everton side managed by Ancelotti would be one hell of a stretch. But wilder things have happened in the six years since Colombia eliminated Uruguay from the World Cup at the round of 16 stage and, if anything, the signing makes almost too much sense.

For too long, James was lost in a team dominated by the personalities of multiple World and/or European Cup winners. At Everton, he brings experience to a young and developing forward line. He’s already one of the best stories of this young Premier League season. Free of the burden of expectation—as well as any transfer fee—Everton is an almost perfect environment for James to become an important, regular starter again. He scored a goal and had an assist against West Brom on Saturday, but his contribution went beyond the score line. James linked play throughout and dropped into the pockets of space where no West Brom player could get to him.

It was Everton’s win over Tottenham in James’s debut that left Spurs coach José Mourinho lamenting his squad’s inadequacy. He blamed his players’ mentality and the team’s training schedule, among other things—it was enough to wonder whether filming for the second season of the Amazon documentary All or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur has already begun. In truth, we’ve seen this movie before; Mourinho making excuses for his team’s shortcomings, laying blame at everyone’s feet but his own. We know each scene, each line, each camera cut, by heart.

However, maybe Mourinho’s old mind games still have some life in them, as Spurs chairman Daniel Levy seemed to heed his cry for help. Shortly after the loss to Everton, news broke that Bale would be making his long-rumored return to Tottenham from Real Madrid, joined by Real Madrid fullback Sergio Reguilón. Mourinho responded to the news by saying he now has too many players. A week is a long time in soccer and Mourinho knows it; lately, it seems he’s decided that Dele Alli will be the latest player Mourinho sacrifices “for the family.”

Despite Mourinho’s manipulative powers being on full display two weeks into the season, Bale’s return has rejuvenated the team and its fans. He’s returned to the club that he brought so much glory and a club that loved him so much in return. In truth, it’s hard to think of this happening at a better time. Spurs’ progression to becoming a regular title challenger was thrown into doubt—much like their identity—following Mauricio Pochettino’s departure and Mourinho’s arrival. Bale’s signing on a yearlong loan without a fee (in addition to Reguilón) has given Spurs fans some well overdue and much-needed cheer amid a backdrop of ridicule thanks to Amazon’s documentary series, which seemed to do more harm to the club’s image than it may have hoped.

Much like Thiago and James, it’s frighteningly easy to underappreciate Bale’s ability, and for Spurs, it’s as much of a tactical fit as it is an emotional one. It’s unclear what philosophy, if any, Mourinho is trying to implement at Tottenham. Often, Spurs rely on the sheer quality of their forward line to get them out of trouble. If he’s healthy, Bale adds serious firepower to that front line, which struggled with injuries last season, especially when Harry Kane was sidelined for a prolonged period. If Bale operates on the right-hand side—a place where he had so much success in Madrid—with Son Heung-min on the left, flanking Kane, Spurs will have such a fearsome attack that they may not require a system.

After being made to feel unwanted for so long, while being responsible for so much, Bale’s return to the place he most felt love may save a Spurs club that has looked dangerously close to undoing the hard work put in during the past decade. And while Mourinho may claim during the opening titles of All of Nothing that the most important things in life are courage, honesty, and friendship, we all know that—at the end of the day—it really is love that conquers all.