Bouncing back is usually associated with sport’s strongest characters. Picking yourself up after a hardship, especially after setting the standards so high is too often too daunting a task for many players. In a fragile game where a sudden injury can signal your permanent decline, players become quickly unnerved and their obsession with reaching those former heights is usually their undoing.
Vincent Kompany enters 2016 having turned a page on the darkest year of his career. Yet despite bouncing back in determined fashion, he finds himself at crossroads; his City career hanging in the balance. A constant reoccurrence of various muscle injuries, particularly his calf, has limited Kompany’s football to just 12 appearances this season. Worst yet is his seemingly inability to shake them off, reminiscent of the scenes of last season where his reputation as a first-rate center back took a hell of a beating. The Belgian’s work to recover from that horror-show could all be for nothing.
Kompany came back from pre-season noticeably leaner and slimmer. He reportedly arrived into training three weeks early, desperate to return to his previous heights. That flingering, clumsy stature is still there, like it always has been, but there is a dynamism now to a man who looked physically destroyed last season. At his pomp Vincent was a hugely dominant defender, using and relying on his physicality to its maximum. The mobility he lost was abundantly clear for all to see last season, where his constant muscle injuries started to eat away at his agility and turn of pace. The signs started to linger in 13/14 but Kompany actually had a decent season and came back strong to win the title with Demichelis. Any mistakes were attributed to the massive upheaval in formation and tactics, a player slowly getting to grips with the demands of an expansive game in a high defensive line – a far cry from the elite deep defensive unit we were so accustomed to with Mancini.
However things started to take a turn for the worse next season as Kompany seemed like he could barely trust his body anymore. He appeared heavy, nothing players were gliding past him and he looked shattered mentally and physically. Soon enough the basics disappeared and the declining Belgian became a nervous wreck who was literally costing his team every time he played. It was literal self-destruction, he was a log sinking to the bottom of the ocean and he was carrying his team with it. Something had to be done but City were still mildly in contention for two trophies and Pellegrini played him through it. It was a hilarious joke and his timely replacement at Southampton was long overdue and welcome. From it blossomed a promising partnership in Demichelis and Mangala, a proper set of defenders who seemed to understand and inspire confidence in each other and the team.
Demichelis naturally dithered away at the ripe age of 35 and in came a very proactive defender in Nicolas Otamendi from Valencia in the summer. Kompany had found himself again and now he had to re-find himself on the pitch. He simply didn’t have the legs to chase and press attackers anymore so the club hired a classic Kompany style defender in Otamendi to do the leg work for him. No position is more about partnerships than the center-backs and it was realised that deploying Kompany as the reserved, reactive defender who holds back and covers would be best for the team. Armed with Kompany v.2, City have a fantastic set of aggressive, ball-winners (Otamendi, Mangala) and reserved ball-players (Kompany, Demichelis).
Kompany has been a revelation in his new role and despite one or two moments of 14-15 Kompanying where he has unnecessarily scythed down an opponent high up the pitch, he has looked calm, composed and inspiring. And through that composure, Kompany has emitted among his back four a sense of adulation akin to a returning long-lost mother back to care for her children. The once shy and timid Mangala now takes no prisoners and stuck two fingers at Txiki when asked if he wanted to spend the season at the Mestalla. The Frenchman has shown in more than flashes why City paid top dollar for him last year. The pair were sensational together in the first six games of the season, keeping more clean sheets than we have managed since and setting the foundation for our best form of the calendar year.
But things never go to plan and Kompany’s injuries returned. Not only did they derail a potentially brilliant partnership but they are also throwing Manchester City’s other center-backs under the bus. Kompany’s inability to stay fit means that a pair not suited to each other in Otamendi and Mangala have to play every game because poor planning resulted in a young gem in Denayer being sent out on loan while Demichelis’ legs got rotten. These sort of injuries usually point towards the beginning of the end, even if Kompany is only 29 with technically his best years as a defender ahead of him. Time is ticking and the omens don’t look good. City know fully well they can’t afford to have another key player who spends half the season in the medical room.
Kompany means so much to Manchester City. He is their figurehead and their mouthpiece, a player whose personality shines through better than any club advertisement or PR move. He is virtually the superglue that holds the team together, on-the pitch and off it. If this is the beginning of the end then Manchester City, more than anyone, would be worse off.