Vincent Kompany: Manchester City captain and Man of Glass has to slow down if he wants to shine again

Captain still the soul of the club but rushing back from injury and into tackles is hurting his chances of regaining top form

We talk about their galaxy of attacking talents and pursuit of two world-class players for every position, but one bald statistic reveals the weakness at the heart of Manchester City. They have conceded more goals in the Premier League this season than that fragile, ever-changing, three and four-man defensive unit of Manchester United’s.

As City and Chelsea go  toe-to-toe again on Saturday evening, you suspect their respective back lines could be the decisive factor.

The problem used to be City’s enduring struggle to find a quality centre-half to partner Vincent Kompany, but the inconvenient truth is that the problem now is Kompany. Where previously he was the epitomy of calm and reassurance, he has been painfully prone to rushing in. The penalty conceded to Arsenal two weeks ago, an unconvincing display in the FA Cup defeat to Middlesbrough and culpability in all three Liverpool goals in the defeat last April are just three landmarks. It is hard to sustain the argument that Kompany, the soul of City, remains the ballast of the team.

The reason why the fabric of his game is frayed has nothing to do with a deterioration in his football. Missing games with muscular injuries is the problem. Only once in the past two seasons has Kompany played more than seven consecutive games, and that is more of a problem for him than it would be for many. His prime qualities include an instinctive speed of interception surpassing most defenders, and special awareness. Both take time to recapture. He won’t regain the previous level immediately

“Of course, he needs minutes to be at his best,” his manager, Manuel Pellegrini, said on Friday. “Of course [his injuries are] a matter of concern because [there are] too many injuries, especially muscle and calf injuries. We are trying to study why it happens. It’s very difficult to know exactly what is the major reason.”

 

There have been times when you can see in his eyes the pain he feels at the trouble which is beginning to chip away at his reputation. He left the field visibly distraught when he pulled up with one of many such injuries against Everton 15 months ago, knowing in his heart that this meant another period on the sidelines. He was out for two months.

“People who know me see I work like an animal when I am out. I want to be back stronger,” he said after the defeat to Arsenal.

In the Belgium national team, they have never known a player so relentless in his attempts to shake off muscular problems. He has a special diet and a personal regimen of stretching exercises. When his team-mates are changing for a game, Kompany will be sitting on the floor, doing yoga-type exercises, work which often continues into the warm-up. He acquaints himself with  all the new development in  the treatments of muscle  injuries and is in close contact with Belgium’s most famous physiotherapist, Lieven Maesschalck.

For a long time, the work warded off injury. When Kompany joined City from Hamburg in 2008, he was known in Germany as “The Man of Glass” because of the sequence of injuries he sustained there. But he has since stayed fit for long periods – playing 75 per cent of potential game time. “The Man of Glass” is now “The Man of Reinforced Glass,” read one Belgian headline a few years back.

But a flaw resides in that characteristically intelligent search for perfection in defeating the physiological problem. Kompany is – and always has been – far too eager to return to action too soon and, once on the pitch, to go flat out from the first whistle. That has  created a physical vulnerability. He has bulked up substantially since his early days, carries more muscle flesh than most players, and is thus prone to suffering a re-occurrence of the problem.

And then there is the footballing risk. By striding out so boldly into each challenge, he is prone to being turned by, or to fouling, his opponent. He should have been dismissed for a rash moment against Alexis Sanchez two weeks ago, after having been booked for conceding the penalty that saw Arsenal take the lead.

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Vincent Kompany was in disbelief at the penalty award (Reuters)

 

Some say Kompany’s introspection runs deeper than a concern about his physical fitness. One manager, whose side have come up against City frequently in the past five years, and fared better than most, suggests that the flaw in Kompany is, if anything, an absorption with his own game rather than the partnership with the central defender standing next to him.

“You are looking to the  senior defender to be defining where the other one is positioned in relation to him,” that manager says. “There have been a string of partners alongside him over the years but they’ve come and gone.”

The Independent columnist Danny Higginbotham believes that had City only been able to find someone good enough to partner Kompany then the necessary intuition would have developed.

When all the PR talk is done, how Kompany really feels about the drop-off in form is difficult to ascertain. There is certainly an irony in the way that John Terry – the defender they were convinced they would be signing in the early Abu Dhabi days in 2009 – has achieved the longevity that Kompany is struggling for. Terry was on the phone to City during that dalliance, telling Mark Hughes’s backroom team that he was desperate to join what then was known as “the City project”. Chelsea gave their captain a new contract and that was that.

The search for an answer to Kompany’s muscular problems needs to be relentless. His speed, strength and power still make him one of the world’s top five best central defenders on his day and he happens to be steeped  in that City tradition of achieving things when all seems lost.

City need him back to his former self in a hurry; but not too much of a hurry.

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