A malaise can be worse than a crisis

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It is late afternoon at the Emirates Stadium when the most polarising footballer in the Premier League makes a risk-averse pass. The groans. Oh, the cacophonous groans. Reader, I pitied him. Some patrons at Arsenal aren’t, so far, “having” Kai Havertz.

The cheekbones don’t help. Nor does the elegant languor. You always think he should be on a Milanese catwalk in a full-length matt black Issey Miyake trench coat. But there is more going on here than optical prejudice. People regard Havertz as an underachiever: less than the sum of his exquisite parts. At 24, he is having a high-class career, just not the Ballon d’Or-winning one that seemed his natural arc as a teenager. This isn’t a crisis. It is a malaise.

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

Consider Havertz’s nation of residence. It is clear that Britain would be richer if it loosened its planning laws, rejoined the European single market and moved some of the weight of taxation from workers to asset-rich retirees. It is also clear that things aren’t bad enough to make such divisive reforms saleable. Britain is stagnant precisely because it is doing alright-ish. This is still a land of low unemployment, M&S Simply Food, a cosmopolis of a capital, bread and circuses as diverting as the Premier League, and, at last, normal politics. Things would need to get worse to get better.

Or take Havertz’s own country. Germany has to change. Its best customer (China) is on bad terms with its most important friend (the US). Its former openness to Russia has dated badly. In the global press, its once-feted economic model is invoked as a warning, not a template. This won’t do.

Actually, it will, won’t it? How does a nation make painful reforms when it is still richer, safer and freer than most?

Ask the French. The publishing houses of their super-literate capital have for decades released books called things like Le suicide français and La France qui tombe. But if France was so screwed, Emmanuel Macron might be able to remake the place without incurring vehement protests. It is precisely because enough people have enough to lose that change is provocative. But this truth isn’t intellectually sexy. No one wants to read a book called La France doit s’améliorer un peu.

Look, I know how close I am here to a morbid line of argument. So, to be clear, I am not petitioning History to send Europe a crisis. There is no guarantee that a place will submit to change if its troubles go from chronic to acute (see Argentina). It is just hard to ignore a certain pattern of events. The liberal economic reforms of the 1980s followed the Opec crises. The modern welfare state came out of the world wars. In conditions of domestic pandemonium, Abraham Lincoln, the American Bismarck, strengthened the federal government. Cause and effect are hard to establish, but the record keeps throwing up these chronological proximities of crisis and profound innovation.

The trap of tolerable badness is there in our own lives. I have come to suspect that almost no one suffers the fabled midlife crisis. What happens at that age is a malaise. It is a difficult rut to get out of because things are more or less OK in there. With more cash and confidence on hand than in one’s youth, there is no express reason to make the ruptures — professional, romantic — that might lead to something better. The midlifer almost needs a catalysing shock.

A fan of Chelsea, Havertz’s former employer, tells me that Arsenal will fall short in the league this year because the player will be too good to be dumped, but not good enough to elevate the team. It is better to have signed an inferior talent, he says, who could fail fast and be upgraded.

Havertz is often seen as a very European footballer, in his technical finesse and tactical pliability. (He doesn’t have a defined position.) But what if Europe is a very Havertzian place? In its economic performance, its geopolitical clout, it is an eight goals and five assists per season kind of continent. There are much worse things. This is underachievement, not failure. But just listen to the groans out there.

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