by Daisy Cutter
When Manchester City finally secured the services of Eliaquim Mangala for the not inconsiderable sum of £32M this summer I resisted the temptation to exaggerate my knowledge of the player. This was despite seeing evidence of similar occurring all around me. You know the thing; a pimply virgin claims to be an expert on Portuguese football due to once playing as Benfica on FIFA and seeing ten minutes of Porto on a Champion’s League highlights package.
It is very easy to falsely elaborate on a player’s virtues and flaws – and we see it all-too-often in blogs and on Twitter – but I’m happy to admit that my insight into the player was limited, consisting of a handful of games where I was concentrating on the game not the individual.
From these my take on Mangala was that he was powerful, quick, and wasn’t backward in coming forward in dispossessing an opponent. All positive attributes granted but certainly not enough to hang an opinion on at this point.
Then a lingering doubt crept in during the World Cup when the 23 year old made the French squad but was overlooked in every game for Liverpool’s Mamadou Sakho.
Now Sakho I do know a fair bit about and he is not a player I personally rate highly. To my mind he is far too one-footed and hurried in possession.
So perhaps Mangala wasn’t yet the finished article? Perhaps there were failings in his game the teenage internet scouts had not detected?
When City finally got their man – at the second time of asking – the celebratory tone amongst Blues was a touch unsettling. After a year of chasing his signature it seemed it wasn’t only a done deal as far as putting pen to paper but, to the perception of supporters, we now had an awesome centre-back pairing for the next five years. After several seasons of Lescott, Demichelis, and Garcia providing able assistance for Kompany but always with the potential for mishap it appeared we now had our defence securely locked down. As Cooper used to say, just like that.
I remained circumspect, preferring to hold fire on any grandiose claims until I’d seen how Mangala adapted to the English game, settled in alongside Vinnie, and that hoariest of tests, how he’d cope on a wet Wednesday night in Stoke.
So why is it that I’m now discarding my caution based on just ninety minutes? Why is it that I’m not only gladly joining the rank and file premature optimists but I’m at the front and centre thumping my tub and declaring Eliaquim Mangala to be a sensational signing who – together with Vinnie and aided by fellow Porto incumbent Fernando – will offer City a formidable bolted door that will shut out the best and the rest for seasons to come?
It’s because I cannot recall ever being so excited by a debut performance as Eliquim’s on Sunday. It wasn’t just exceptional, it was flawless.
I knew he was fast but hadn’t before realised his pace was blistering. Better yet it was accompanied by lightning speed of thought, a priceless commodity in front-foot defending.
A quick aside – defending on the front foot, as perfected by Kompany, is not a trend that will go away. It’s the proactive modus operandi that best suits the modern game. Whilst the Johnny Evans jockeying and last-ditch John Terrying will fade from the game defenders who risk and risk early will become more commonplace. For now though, such is their rarity, their value is at a premium which explains why Liverpool went all-out for Lovren this summer.
Lovren however is noticeably struggling to implement his usual aggressive style at a new club and the first victim of front-foot defending done badly is always decision making. It makes the player look reckless, a liability.
It is this area that most excites me about Mangala. Throughout the game he knew when to commit and intercept, when to harry and bully, and when to step out and distribute. And all executed with an imposing air of calmness.
You would think there would be nerves, coupled with the distraction of having to second-guess every movement to tandem with a new partner.
Not a bit of it. Because the Frenchman’s decision-making was so switched-on it looked to all the world like he’d been playing alongside Kompany, in the blue of Manchester, since time immemorial.
The lad oozed class, a monster on his a-game, and he’s presumably still trying to get out slicks of Diego Costa’s hairgel from his back pocket three days later.
I was previously aware that he took no prisoners but the manner in which he dispossessed brought cheers to my throat. While some defenders are pickpockets and others flat-track bullies Mangala simply took the ball as if it was rightfully his.
It reminded me of a viral video on social media that I witnessed this week. It was of a car full of lads who pull up at a bus stop, wind down the window, and take a pizza from a drunk standing nearby. The drunk does not try and reclaim his midnight feast, he does not even have time to shout in despair. He simply stands there stunned at the cheek of it.
Time and again against Chelsea I saw that same hapless expression crease across Costa and Hazard’s chops.
Depending on who you believe – the Manchester United propaganda machine or the truth – United did a rigorous scouting check on Mangala but ultimately backed out, nicknaming him ‘bomb scare’ for a supposed habit of panicking on the ball.
Based on just a singular performance I think it’s fair to say that summation has exploded in their face.
They went for Roja, a fine defender but one forged from a reactive, traditional mould. We, it appears, have a Kompany MkII, a stylish yet no-nonsense colossus with the guile to sniff out danger and act upon it early.
I’ve watched the commanding displays of our Belgium leader with a mixture of immense pride and gratitude down the seasons. It may well be too early for certainties but I get the feeling I will be doing likewise with Eliquim Mangala.