Monday, February 26, 2018

TIME'S ARROW


There have been many images of Vincent Kompany over the last three seasons: Vincent Kompany on crutches. Vincent Kompany sitting on the turf, head in hands. Vincent Kompany being helped from the pitch shaking his head.

The beaming, pride-filled Vincent Kompany lifting the League Cup for the third time in a glittering Manchester City career is by far the most agreeable image of a player, who has been struck down by so many setbacks (41 and counting, according to the Mail), many felt this day, this great release from recent purgatory might never come. 

Kompany represents the oldest of old guards at City, from a time when the new boss’s accent was Welsh and the team’s playing style was slightly less well balanced than the smooth-as-silk repertoire we see today. Brought in as a £6m defensive midfielder by Mark Hughes, Kompany arrived at a time when City transfer splashes were just becoming a topic in the mainstream press.

Thaksin Shinawatra was wooing the locals with free satay sauce and the sumptuously exotic likes of Roque Santa Cruz, David Bentley and Ronaldinho were all said to be winging their way to Manchester.

Instead City hauled in the Brazilian genius of Jô to join the Bulgarian splendours of Martin Petrov and Valeri Bojinov and the hitherto little-known talents of Kompany.

Kompany makes his City debut v West Ham in 2008
European football was also on the agenda, but in the shape of a UEFA Cup trip to play EB Streymur, champions of a bleak scattering of rocks in the northern Atlantic. The club's game in the Faroes would go down in fan folklore. To match the basic ruggedness of Torshavn, City played the second leg at Oakwell, Barnsley. Multiple trips to the Nou Camp and Bernabeu were still a distant pipedream.

City had started the season with a 4-2 walloping at Villa Park. The side contained Tal Ben Haim at centre back and a midfield of Kelvin Etuhu, Gelson Fernandes and Michael Johnson. Ched Evans led the attack. By the second game of the season, at home to West Ham, useful signs for the future of the club had arrived in the shape of debutante Kompany. Starting in midfield, the Belgian would drop into central defence after Micah Richards had spent ten minutes on the turf attached to breathing apparatus. And so Kompany’s short journey from SV Hamburg to City’s central defence was already complete.

Since then he has grown into the club’s captain, an ambassador for everything right about Manchester City, an eloquent spokesman for the sport and a business graduate in his own right. Throughout this journey to greatness, he has been a humble and enthusiastic purveyor of everything sky blue.

In City’s simple dismantling of an end-of-era Arsenal side, he was immense, at once bossing the defence, charging forward through the middle and menacing David Ospina’s goal at the other end.

As fitting as it was to see three old hands, Kompany, David Silva and Sergio Aguero, forming the foundation of City’s third League Cup win in five years, the bright future under Guardiola may not include any of these players. Kompany’s injury troubles, allowing him only sporadic participation in City’s ascent to Europe’s top table are well documented. Little Silva, directing the midfield traffic in the face of Kevin de Bruyne’s muted performance, and the goal machine Aguero may only last one more season before they too become surplus to increasingly stringent requirements.

Look familiar?
With Yaya Toure’s gigantic presence also waning, it feels like City are coming to the end of the first great chapter of their modern renaissance. Supporters will grimace in attempting to imagine the club without these stalwarts, but that time is closing in fast. Hamstrings are tighter, muscles more susceptible to pulls and the battery levels are not as high as they used to be.

Niggling injuries have long staunched Kompany's flow, but they were not to be a hindrance on this grand occasion.

He proved faster than the rocket-heeled Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, as he shrugged Arsenal’s shiny new purchase off the ball in an epic thrust of his battered old frame. Down on the right flank, he produced a soft shoe shuffle that left Hector Bellerin scratching his hair extensions and those trademark surges through the middle that used to announce the arrival of the charging Yaya Toure now revealed Kompany in full flow.

The big man’s usefulness did not halt on arrival at the edge of the opposition penalty area either. Having scraped the post with a right foot poke, his moment of glory was not far away. De Bruyne’s intelligent flat corner to the edge of the area allowed Ilkay Gundogan a shot and, as it floated gently into the sea of flailing limbs in the box, a muscled leg let fly, diverting the ball past Ospina. It was Kompany of course, that galloping colossus, all uncontrollable body parts as he cavorted towards the corner flag. The elation stretching his face mirrored that of the last gargantuan goal pocketed in his name, his giant leap sealing the critical 1-0 win over a timid Manchester United that completely rerouted the 2012 title run-in with three games to go.

Here he was again, melon grin splitting his well worn features. Here he was playing in and scoring in a great Wembley final that he may well have thought was now beyond his fading powers. With John Stones and Aymeric Laporte on the sidelines looking on and Nicolas Otamendi as strong as an ox in the new firmament of City’s defensive stars, glory days like this may be numbered for Kompany in his soon-to-be capacity as apparent 4th choice centre back.

His total of 47 appearances in the last three seasons is only 10 more than centre back partner Otamendi’s total for the present campaign. His body’s capacity to recover has been questioned for over three years of trouble and strife, pulls and tears. For a player who has made it his trademark to go full throttle into the hectic field of battle, the body now says “be gentle with me”.

Vincent Kompany has given everything he has got for City in 326 appearances for the club. At Wembley his just reward was delivered in the fullest of spotlights. May it not be the last pot he lifts skywards in the name of Manchester City. This man of stout dignity, this captain for all seasons. 




Thursday, February 15, 2018

THE UNDERRATED BEAUTY OF COLLABORATIVE RIGOR

This article first appeared here on the pages of ESPNFC in abridged form. 

Swiss efficiency – from the herd of punctual trams to the hordes of office workers packing into Migros food hall at 11.45 for lunch – was everywhere to be seen in Basel.
The gleaming headquarters of Novartis, steel, glass and millions of tiny rivets  speak louder and more eloquently than the dark gothic shrines around the Münsterplatz these days. Bayer are here too, housed in giant metallic cubes that house busy humans in varied states of functional exhilaration.
Fountains pump jets of water at vigorously timed intervals, while foggy looking blokes with Manchester accents f and blind about having paid "50 quid for a couple of Baileys and Amaretto".
The waiter waits in the Zum Braunen Mutz. He waits non-plussed as you rummage for enough money to cover the modest round you have stutteringly ordered from him. He avoids eye contact as you wipe away a tear. 
That nationally stereotypical lust for efficiency and productivity will have won Manchester City some new fans in this frozen corner of the country, after a ruthless display of the by-now well worn passing routines ripped the will to live out of Raphael Wicky’s slumbering team.

Basel, returning from a long winter break, will have been less enthusiastic at resuming work than the city’s workforce appears to be after their early lunches. Off the pace and out manoeuvred by a City side as slick as they were hungry, the home side’s hopes had been demolished completely inside 20 minutes of the first half.

City’s dominance will have confirmed fears held in Madrid and Munich and in Paris and Barcelona, that here is a team that could well move through to the final in Kiev this May, if they keep up this coruscating pace and precision. We have become accustomed to seeing City’s delicious brand of pass and move flatten domestic opposition, but now the reality is beginning to dawn on the continent that in this theatre too they are barely to be held. For Maurizio Sarri, boss of Napoli, the penny dropped some time ago. "I'm not watching Juventus and Tottenham," he spluttered, "I want to see Manchester City."
Herr Wicky, a young coach with strident hair, has some sticky problems as he tries to get serial league winners Basel out of the 2nd place they currently occupy behind Young Boys. As Celtic can testify, 2nd place domestically is the same as 7th or 16th - if ever there were so many participants in the Swiss Raifeisen Super League -  but marrying being domestic giants with continental pygmies does not come easy. A sticky Wicky, one might say. Despite this, the local pygmies had devoured Benfica 5-0 and beaten the once much-vaunted Manchester United in the group stages, so due note had been taken. 

Wicky and his staff had made all the right noises beforehand of wanting to be energetic in their tracking of City’s main men and diligent in harrying space, but to carry this out, you first have to get close to your opponent. Guardiola's somewhat laconic performance at the pre-match press conference had involved only a simple parry to the tabloid press's interest in Leroy Sane's miraculous powers of recovery. "He's young" he smiled as the great and the good of her majesty's press looked for an angle.  
He is young, as are many of his colleagues, and this was to prove telling as City shot out of the blocks with three quick goals in 23 minutes. 
With Ilkay Gundogan lively if over-elaborate and Fernandinho shovelling up all the midfield loose balls, City quickly had a platform to feed the tireless running of Sergio Aguero, Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling. 
"He's young..."

It has of course been a recurring theme throughout this blistering season of goal-strewn football. Having taken a season to ingest the Premier League sights and smells, Pep Guardiola has put his thoughts into deeds and what a sonnet it is he is constructing in the name of Manchester City.

Sweet music flows from the beast where creaking noises used to emanate. Even the back four, erratically efficient in Basel , seems able to make mistakes and get away with them. Maybe Basel’s drowsiness had something to do with this, as Vincent Kompany prodded short passes to nobody in particular and Ederson played his game of Russian roulette, slicing his passes hither and thither through the narrowest of margins.

So underused is the Brazilian goalkeeper, that you begin to get the idea that he is taking greater risks with his passing each game, just to liven affairs up for himself and his defensive colleagues. Certainly, a more alert side than Basel might have pounced on one or two of the loosely defended balls on this occasion. Early on in fact came several tasty pickings for Basel, as Otamendi swung a boot and inadvertently made a comfortable pass in completely the other direction and Ederson dawdled out disinterestedly to a dangerous-looking one-on-one.  

However, to labour these points is to very much miss the point.

City are in such perfect harmony going forward that a special kind of telepathy appears at times to be at work. With the successful return of David Silva, Fabian Delph and Leroy Sane – surprisingly rapidly in the latter’s case, but absolutely nothing to do with the good lab-coat wearing folk at Novartis – City’s personnel changes but the effectiveness of the whole remains utterly unaffected.

So imbued in these players is the system of pass and move, the ball zipping along that invisible thread as if being pulled by some puppet master above the main stand, that individual elements hardly seem to matter. They do, of course, with Kevin de Bruyne’s presence near Fernandinho the pivot for everything good that happens in City’s engine room. This is not to belittle the contributions of others, the ceaseless breaking of Kyle Walker, Sterling and Bernardo down the flanks, the prodding and jostling of Nicolas Otamendi in central defence and the agility (one sudden superb save required in an hour and a half of perfecting his passing angles) of Ederson, but certain players will be indispensable when the big games inevitably come round for this side.

Guardiola’s job now is to shepherd those precious legs and lungs through the rest of a less punishing February. With vital cup encounters v Wigan and Arsenal coming up, City could end the month with the first of a possible – whisper it – four trophies on the boardroom shelf and the likelihood of the other three joining it hugely enhanced.

BOING
A club once revered for its ability to shoot itself solemnly in the foot without due aid from others, is slowly growing into the most reliable of teams to support. Those battered fans, who exited  the St Jakob Park in Basel this midweek to return to the warm embrace of the Zum Braunen Mutz, have survived traumas in the past that many clubs’ fans have not had the dubious pleasure of experiencing. We've seen things etc etc. Well, there were sights to be seen in Basel, make no mistake, from the fast flowing Rhein to the fast running Raheem Sterling, everything was a blur of shining, liquid forward movement. As the Münsterplatz bells rang out, it was difficult to deny this was another metaphor in a dimly lit town full of the things. As the moon rose high in the frozen night sky, you could only imagine it falling from its majestic height  and being trapped instantly on the instep of Bernardo Silva. We had been serenaded again and the art and endeavour of Guardiola's maestros had lit up this land of scientific certainty.
No certainties in football, that's for sure, but in this season, decorated so beautifully with the art and craft of talented men, there was perhaps only ever one sure thing:  maybe it is only really City that can stop City now. 
City not putting all their still life pears in one basket.







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