Who says you can't teach old dogs new tricks? Not Man-chester City's supporters, who are dusting down their passports ahead of the club's first European adventure for a quarter of a century; and not Kevin Keegan, who finally appears to have accepted that good defending is the key to sustained success.
With such talents as Steve McManaman, Trevor Sinclair, Nicolas Anelka and Claudio Reyna in their ranks, City's attacking instincts are as sharp as ever. But what differentiates this Keegan side from his Newcastle and England ones of old is its balance. The days of kamikaze football, where defending was a dirty word, have been tempered by a more pragmatic style of play, where individual brilliance has given way to teamwork.
Ask Keegan what single factor has most contributed to this turnaround, and the answer is emphatic: David Sommeil. "He's brought a calmness, an intelligence to our defence that we never had before. He's our rock." Alongside Sommeil in the hard place of central defence is Sylvain Distin. Together, the Frenchmen have created the foundations on which City's best start to a top-flight League season in a generation has been built.
"I think that if you can be solid at the back," says Sommeil, a £3.5m buy from Bordeaux at the tail end of last season, "it allows you to express yourself more freely up front. Some people say that tight defending is boring, but I think it's the opposite, because the better you defend the more you can attack."
Sommeil and Distin complement each other perfectly. The former stands at 5ft 11in and prefers to sit back, while the latter measures a towering 6ft 4in and likes galloping forward. "We're well suited," Sommeil says, "and we seem to have a good understanding." So much so they are talking the same language on the pitch, and it's not French. "I don't know why, but Sylvain and I communicate in English during games. It just feels right."
Every aspect of Sommeil's integration has been straightforward. "On paper, this was hardly the most logical place for me to come to," says the Guadeloupe-born 29-year-old, "but the club and city offer me everything I could wish for. Obviously it is very different to France, but I love the lifestyle. We train from 11am until two in the afternoon, which leaves me plenty of time to be with my wife and daughter, or pop into town. And from a sporting point of view, I am in the best league in the world with a club who are going places."
Belgium will be the first port of call for City, as they embark on their Uefa Cup voyage with a two-legged tie against Lokeren. "The first game is at our amazing new City of Manchester Stadium, so we'll be looking to get a solid start," explains Sommeil, who only found out City had qualified through the Fair Play League when he got a call from his brother while on holiday this summer. "They may not be a big name, but I know from my bad experiences with Bordeaux [where he lost to Anderlecht two seasons ago] that Belgian teams are well organised."
So, too, are Keegan's men these days. "That's true," says Sommeil, who still harbours ambitions of representing his country at full senior level, having won the military World Cup alongside Olivier Dacourt and Didier Domi, "and that owes a lot to the fact that we play in a 4-4-2 formation this year. We're more solid, with Michael Tarnat [a free transfer from Bayern Munich] on the left and Joey Barton [a product of the club's academy] in front of the defence. I know the manager had a reputation for playing top-heavy teams, but we're a well-organised unit now. Kevin Keegan is much more astute than people think."
Sommeil points to half-time during the home match against Arsenal, when Keegan warned his players not to sit too deep and rest on their one- goal advantage. "The coach knew that we needed to defend from the front," he says, "but we just froze and ended up losing 2-1. He was spot-on."
He also believes that Keegan was right to buy McManaman from Real Madrid on deadline day. "What a great signing. Steve proved how valuable he will be in our 4-1 win against Aston Villa, and his arrival shows just how serious this club are about challenging for top honours."
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