Watching Manchester City play Barcelona on Wednesday night, fans of every other club in the Premier League must have been choking with envy. Sure City lost, sure they failed across two legs to match opponents who were nowhere near their best, sure they are not yet a force to dominate Europe. But one thing we can be confident of after that display in the Nou Camp: there cannot be a better defender in the land than Vincent Kompany.
My, he was magnificent on Wednesday night. Powerful, intelligent, controlled, he was everything you want of a centre back. And what a leader too, his every contribution oozing the kind of selfless team ethic that insists others follow. There was one moment when, assessing correctly what was about to happen, he stepped in to intercept a through ball and strode forward before delivering an inch perfect pass of his own that looked as if he were channelling the spirit of Bobby Moore. There is no team in England that would not be improved hugely by his presence in their starting eleven.
His performance makes it all the more noticeable that there is currently a big hole alongside him in the heart of the City defence. Manuel Pellegrini attempted to plug it in the first leg by stationing Martin Demichelis there. And we all know what happened to that idea. With the Argentine suspended for the second leg, in came Joleon Lescott, who was culpable for Barcelona’s opening goal, the one which utterly undermined City’s chances. Until his hapless mistake, City were still, in theory at least, in contention. The moment the Englishman got the ball tangled up in his feet, allowing Lionel Messi to spring clear of the defensive line, they were finished.
It makes you wonder how a club with such resources, such backing, such ambition has not acted to sort things out in that department. There were vague noises about making a bid for Martin Skrtel over the summer last year, but nothing materialised. Sure, the progress Matija Nastasic made last season might have hinted at solving the problem. But his extended absence this year has shone the spotlight every more unflinchingly on a serious flaw in the team building process.
Until now, in truth, none of this has really mattered. When City were banging in the goals at the other end, we barely noticed that the defence was about as reliable as Uli Hoeness’s accountant. But over the last few weeks, as talk of the quadruple has been quickly silenced, the attack has been gripped by a collective slump. Without the goals to shield him, suddenly, Kompany has found himself rather busy.
It doesn’t help that the magnificent Sergio Aguero – the forward equivalent of Kompany – is struggling for fitness. On Wednesday, in what many Spanish pundits were suggesting was an audition to become Messi’s strike partner next season, Aguero looked a man firing on half a cylinder.
And the problem is, just as the Argentine is obliged to sit out the business end of the season, so his attacking colleagues appear to have been gripped by collective inertia. City have scored only one goal in their last three league games, the matches against Norwich, Stoke and Chelsea. And inspection of their forwards’ returns will explain why.
Alvaro Negredo, who started the season as if determined to annex the golden boot by January, has not scored since the Capital One Cup evisceration of West Ham in January. Edin Dzeko, meanwhile, last put the ball in the net against Tottenham two months ago. And he hasn’t often been close to improving on that record since then. In his last nine appearances, the Bosnian has had 33 shots, of which only five have been on target.
With nothing happening up top, it means Kompany has found himself increasingly exposed. Unable to rely on the forwards to correct any errors at the back (after all, it was the skipper, in a typical show of leadership, who scored the consolation on Wednesday) he has been recently been doing an impression of a small boy in the Dutch countryside, desperately trying to plug the leaks as the flood rages.
For Manuel Pellegrini, the dramatic decline in attacking zip could not have come at a worse time in the season. All clubs go through dips in form (except Fulham, whose form has remained at a steady level of hopelessness all year). His slump has arrived just when he didn’t need it, at the very point in the season a team with proper title ambitions needs to be at its best. Yes, he is the only manager in the Premier League to have won a trophy this season (sorry David, the Community Shield hardly counts). But the expectation on him was to deliver so much more.
With Chelsea looking ominously in gear, despite their admitted lack of firepower, with Liverpool smoothing on thanks to the most productive forward partnership in the division, Pellegrini needs his strikers to recover their mojo. If the manager is to have any hope of satisfying the rampaging ambition of his employers, starting on Saturday at Hull, Dzeko, Negredo and Navas have to remember how to hit the net. Pronto.
And Pellegrini could do worse than remind them if they require a role model in the application of effort and determination, they don’t have to look far. He is there a few yards behind them, in the person of their own captain, Vincent Kompany, currently the finest defender – and most admirable footballer - in the Premier League.
- Sports & Recreation
- Premier League
- Vincent Kompany
- Manuel Pellegrini
- Manchester City