When the Goals Come Out of Nowhere

Giorgos Giakoumakis had never scored goals. Not in great numbers, anyway. He had played 22 games, spread across three seasons, before he finally managed a single one for his first club, a team of modest ambitions and close horizons called Platanias, based on his home island, Crete.

In the early stages of his career, he broke into double figures for a single campaign only once, mustering 11 goals in his final season at Platanias. It appeared, at the time, to be his breakthrough. That summer, he moved to A.E.K. Athens, one of the three powers that dominate the Greek capital.

There, Giakoumakis would carve out his own little place in the club’s mythology. Midway through his debut season, he scored a 93rd-minute winner to settle a derby with Olympiacos, decisively swinging a finely poised title race in A.E.K.’s favor. It was his first league goal for the club. It would also prove to be the last.

He spent much of the next two seasons out on loan, A.E.K. hoping either that he would find his form or that it might find a buyer. The signs were not promising. A spell back on Crete — this time with O.F.I. — brought two goals. A year in Poland, with Gornik Zabrze, produced only three.

Giakoumakis seemed set for a career as a journeyman. There was nothing on his résumé that so much as hinted at what would happen next.

This season, out of nowhere, Giakoumakis has been transformed into one of Europe’s most prolific forwards. He has scored 24 goals in 27 league games. He got three on his debut with his new club. He has scored four goals in a single game twice. He scored 11 — previously his career-best for an entire campaign — in January alone. That month, no player in Europe scored more.

More impressive still, he has done it all while playing for VVV Venlo, a club struggling to avoid relegation at the foot of the Eredivisie, the Dutch top flight. It currently sits 17th out of 18 teams. Earlier this season, it managed to lose by 13-0 to Ajax. It has recorded only six wins all year, and has scored only 39 goals. Giakoumakis accounts for almost two-thirds of them. “Without him,” his teammate Christian Kum said, “things would have been much worse for us.”

That sort of form attracts attention. Giakoumakis’s career prospects have been, in the space of just a few months, utterly transformed. He is now a fully minted Greek international, having made his debut for his country in November. Clubs further up soccer’s food chain have suddenly taken an interest. Norwich City, recently promoted to the Premier League, has watched him. So, too, has Southampton.

Many would caution them to treat his supernova burst with a degree of skepticism. This sort of thing happens, after all, with curious frequency in the Eredivisie. Dutch soccer has a long, proud and quite odd history of previously unheralded strikers suddenly hitting an almost impossibly rich vein of form.

Sometimes — as in the case of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Luis Suárez or Klaas-Jan Huntelaar — it is a harbinger of greater things; they could score great gluts of goals in the Eredivisie because their talent, their dedication and their brilliance meant that they could score great gluts of goals anywhere.

And sometimes — as in the case of Georgios Samaras, Vincent Janssen or, perhaps the most famous example, the Brazilian Afonso Alves — it is not. Sometimes, the volume of goals a striker scores in the Eredivisie is, if not quite an illusion, then certainly a trick of the light. Sometimes they do not go on to shine on a grander stage. Sometimes, their success says more about the shortcomings of Dutch soccer than it does about them.

“You do wonder why it always happens here,” said Arnold Bruggink, formerly of PSV Eindhoven and now an analyst for ESPN. “It is because all the teams want to play in the Dutch way. Even among the smaller teams, there is a sense that you have to play well. Everybody wants to do the same, even if they don’t have the quality to do it.

“It is a very young league, and it gets younger every year: it is not unusual here to have central defenders who are 19 or 20. A player who is 26 is a veteran. And young players make mistakes. If you look at the bottom teams in Spain or Germany, they will have conceded maybe 50 goals in 30 games. Here, it is often 60 or 70.”

Instinctively, then, it feels as if Giakoumakis’s story is actually about Dutch soccer: Its moral is that because goals come fast and loose in the Eredivisie, their meaning is difficult to discern, a reminder that there is no correlation between how many goals a player scores in the Netherlands and how many they might score elsewhere.

And yet there is a problem with that reading. Goals might be cheap in Holland, but not every Eredivisie team has a striker — every season — who scores them by the bucketload. The leading scorer at Ajax, as it canters to another championship this year, is Dusan Tadic, a midfielder. Something, then, must be different about Giakoumakis, just as something must have explained Alves or Janssen in years gone by.

The answer, of course, lies in context. There is a degree of serendipity in how Giakoumakis found himself in Venlo. It is not the sort of club that can afford to be choosy. It plays in one of the smallest stadiums, and has one of the smallest budgets, in the Eredivisie. At Venlo, success is getting to fight relegation again next year.

Stan Valckx, the man in charge of cobbling together its shoestring team, has no vast network of scouts. He cannot pay colossal transfer fees. He has to keep his eyes and his mind open, and he has to take risks. Most of all, he has no choice but to listen to every pitch from every agent for every player. “I always answer the phone,” he said.

That is how he found Giakoumakis. Last March, he got yet another unsolicited call, from an agent suggesting he take a look at a 26-year-old Greek striker playing in Poland. Valckx did what he always does: a little cursory investigation. Giakoumakis’s numbers were not especially impressive. “If you just looked at the statistics, he probably would not have come to us,” he said.

Footage of his performances, though, was more promising. “We have a team that plays more often in its own half than the opponent’s,” Valckx said. “We need a striker with depth in his game, who can hold the ball up, who works hard.”

Giakoumakis ticked those boxes. The club’s manager at the time, Hans de Koning, was encouraged by how Giakoumakis tended to celebrate his (rare) goals with his teammates, rather than taking the acclaim for himself. His salary was within Venlo’s reach. Valckx flew to Poland to watch him in the flesh, only to find that — because of attendance restrictions to combat the spread of coronavirus — he was not allowed into the stadium.

Instead, he watched the game in a sports bar. Still, he liked what he saw. The next day, he met Giakoumakis in a hotel. The player had done his research. He knew a little about his prospective teammates. He could identify which system Venlo played. Valckx was convinced this was a risk worth taking.

He does not pretend that he expected Giakoumakis to take Dutch soccer by storm. He did not think — he possibly did not even hope — that he was signing a player who might end the season as the Eredivisie’s top scorer, ahead of all the coruscating young talents at Ajax and PSV. He saw Giakoumakis as the sort of player who might “score a goal every now and again, as a bonus.”

But it is not only in the Eredivisie where what goals — or a lack of them — signify is difficult to pin down. What has enabled Giakoumakis to shine at Venlo is that the way the team plays suits him. His sole job is to be in the box, to win the ball in the air, to take chances. “I have never seen a striker so focused on goals as him,” Kum said. He is not asked to do anything he is not good at.

The same is surely true of all of those improbable names who went before him, Samaras and Janssen and Alves and all the rest. They, most likely, thrived because they found themselves in teams that accentuated their strengths and disguised their weaknesses.

That they could never burn quite so brightly as they did in the Eredivisie does not mean they were bad players who got lucky. True, perhaps, they benefited from those callow and generous defenses that make goals a little easier to come by in the Netherlands. And true, maybe their golden year was an exception, rather than the rule.

But it seems likely, too, that some fundamental truth was missed: that goals and the ability to score them are not innate traits, something that can be smoothly transplanted from one place to another with nothing lost in transit.

That nothing at all on Giakoumakis’s résumé suggested he was capable of this season did not mean it was impossible; that his time at Venlo has been so fruitful does not mean he will automatically be able to do the same next year, whether he is in the Netherlands or England or elsewhere.

Whether he is good or bad or indifferent is not fixed; what came before will not define what comes after. What they say about goals is, perhaps, true of all players: What matters most is being in the right place, at the right time.

For the second time in three years, the Premier League stands on the cusp of a clean sweep. In 2019, English teams took up all four slots in Europe’s major finals — Liverpool beating Tottenham to the Champions League, Chelsea overcoming Arsenal in the Europa League final — and, in 2021, it is 90 minutes away from repeating the trick.

Manchester City and Chelsea, certainly, are well-placed to make the Champions League final. City is in the stronger position, thanks to Paris St.-Germain’s second-half collapse, but Chelsea has less to fear: It turned out that beating a Liverpool team that had also lost to Burnley and Brighton did not prove Real Madrid was ready to reclaim its European crown.

Manchester United, meanwhile, demolished Roma, 6-2, to seal — or as good as seal — its return to the Europa League final. Arsenal retains a hope of completing the set: Mikel Arteta’s flawed and fragile team lost at Villarreal, 2-1, but he will have seen enough to believe redemption is possible next week in London.

It is dangerous to draw sweeping conclusions from relatively small sample sizes, but the direction of travel seems clear. The coronavirus pandemic has eviscerated the finances of clubs all over Europe, but the same financial advantages that made the Premier League such a force in 2019 have enabled its clubs to ride the storm better than most.

There will always be exceptions, of course. Perhaps the Europa League will return to its rightful home in Seville next year. Maybe Bayern Munich or Barcelona will be able to mount a successful Champions League campaign in 2023. No rule will ever hold entirely true. But it feels distinctly like prominence is now the Premier League’s to lose.

It might only have lasted two days, but what a two days it was. All that plotting, all that intrigue, all those appearances by Florentino Pérez on late-night Spanish television — I hope they do another superleague soon. You’ll be unsurprised to learn that the very notion of it brought a deluge of correspondence, the best of which I’ve tried to answer below.

Dave Moore: How much of the intense anger has to do with Brexit and class antagonism? Yes, people resented having tradition and history messed with, but isn’t part of the ongoing white hot outrage directed at the feeling that in a world in which there is a finite amount of money, people like these owners have a lot of it, and then they wanted even more?

Quite a lot, Dave. I think this is the same feeling that we would have toward things like Big Tech or governmental corruption if it didn’t all seem so complex and distant. The idea of the Super League upset fans on a sporting level — promotion and relegation is almost sacred, it seems — but the perception of greed from the already staggeringly wealthy was too much to bear.

Walid Neaz: If the rules were slightly different, might the plan have succeeded? For example, if the 12 teams didn’t have a permanent spot beyond the first season, but could then be subject to relegation if they had a bad year?

There is definitely a format that could have made this idea more palatable — I have an idea myself that I might be willing to share once everyone has stopped shouting — but a lot of the failure was a public relations one. Nobody ever made a good case for change, even if the change in question was bad.

Bill Kelsey: How deep into dire straits are Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus if they are clinging to this idea?

Deep, in the case of the two Spanish teams. Juventus’s problem is more sporting: The club’s executives know it isn’t possible to keep up with the Premier League teams or P.S.G. This was the only way of equalizing the revenue.

Stephen Gessner: People forget that the Premier League was formed in 1992 by a breakaway group of owners who needed more revenue, mostly from TV.

True, but the Premier League was always attached to the rest of the Football League by promotion and relegation. In one sense, it was a rebranding, more than a breakaway.

Paul Speelman: Would some sort of salary cap be worth looking at?

Yes, in principle, but no, in practice. How do you implement that rule across Europe, let alone South America and Asia? And how do you get lots of competing clubs who don’t trust one another to sign up for it?

Michael Fisher: Don’t you think players need to be more involved in decisions concerning the future of soccer?

Absolutely. I wonder if there is a time, now, for FIFPro — the global players’ union — to be more central in these discussions. More parochially, it strikes me that there is a pressing need for a Premier League-specific union within the broader English union, the P.F.A.

Kathleen Hayward: Why is nobody discussing the $130 million penalty clause, which Florentino Pérez is unlikely to forgive?

Good question, though I suspect the answer is that nobody is quite sure at this point how enforceable it is. As I understand it, there were clauses in the contract that made pulling out possible in certain situations. Besides, officially Pérez hasn’t given up on it yet ….

Matt Watts: I’m interested that there was no mention of your change of stance on the issue: that something like this was inevitable?

That was my stance, Matt, and you’re quite right: I hadn’t factored in how vitriolic the opposition to it would be, or how potent the impact of that would prove. Now I’m of the view that this idea is dead in the water for at least 10 years. But that said, in a way, I was right: It was inevitable that they would try it, and they did. (Is that a stretch? It feels a stretch.)