Receive Free Life & Art Updates

In the late afternoon at the Emirates Stadium, one of the most polarizing footballers in the Premier League made a risk-averse pass. moans. Oh, the piercing groans. Reader, I pity him. Some of Arsenal’s patrons have not “owned” Kai Havertz so far.

Cheekbones are useless and neither is elegant ennui. You always thought he should show up at the Milan fashion show in a full-length matte black Issey Miyake trench coat. But there’s more than visual bias going on here. Havertz was seen as an underachiever: less than the sum of his best parts. At 24, he is enjoying a stellar career, just yet to win the Ballon d’Or, which seemed to be taken for granted in his teens. This is not a crisis. It’s a discomfort.

The trick, for individuals and larger entities alike, is to understand that malaise can be a worse fate. Crises often force change. Tolerable underperformance is, or can be, persistent.

Consider Havertz’s country of residence. Clearly, Britain would be richer if it eased planning laws, rejoined the European single market and shifted some of the tax burden from workers to asset-rich retirees. It is also clear that things are not bad enough to make such divisive reforms viable. The UK has stagnated precisely because it is doing just fine. It’s still a land of low unemployment, M&S simple food, a cosmopolitan capital city, bread and circuses as fun as the Premier League, and finally normal politics. Things need to get worse to get better.

Or take Havertz’s own country. Germany must change. Its best customer (China) is not on good terms with its most important friend (the US). Its previous openness to Russia is outdated. In the global media, its once-vaunted economic model has been seen as a warning, not a template. This will not work.

Actually, it will, no? How do painful reforms happen when a country is still wealthier, safer and freer than most?

Just ask the French. The publishing houses of their super cultural capital have been publishing books like this for decades. french suicide and french fall. But if France is really screwed, Emmanuel Macron may be able to reshape the place without causing an outcry. Change is provocative precisely because enough people have enough to lose. But that fact is not intellectually sexy.No one wants to read a book called France needs to improve a bit.

Listen, I know how close my argument is to the pathological line. So, to be clear, I am not praying that history will throw Europe into crisis. If a place’s troubles go from chronic to serious, there’s no guarantee it will succumb to change (see Argentina). It’s hard to ignore a particular pattern of events. The liberal economic reforms of the 1980s followed the OPEC crisis. The modern welfare state arose out of the world wars. Amid domestic chaos, America’s Bismarck Abraham Lincoln strengthened the power of the federal government. Cause and effect are hard to pin down, but the record keeps showing these chronological crises and profound innovations.

The pitfalls of tolerable badness exist in our own lives. I’m starting to suspect that almost no one suffers from the fabled midlife crisis. What happened at that age was a malaise. It’s a tough one to get out of, because things are more or less fine there. With more cash and confidence on hand and no clear reason why a breakup — professional, romantic — might work out better than it did when you were younger. Midlife almost needs a catalytic shock.

A fan at Havertz’s former employer Chelsea told me that Arsenal will lose in the league this year because the player is too good to be thrown out but not good enough to lift the team. He said it’s better to sign a less capable talent because they could fail quickly and get promoted.

Havertz is often viewed as a very European footballer for his technical prowess and tactical flexibility. (He doesn’t have a clear position.) But what if Europe is a very Havertzian place? It is a continent with 8 goals and 5 assists per season in terms of its economic performance and geopolitical clout. There are many worse things. It’s underachievement, not failure. But just listen to the groans outside.

janan.ganesh@ft.com

Be the first to hear about our latest stories – Follow @ftweekend

Svlook

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *