Man City seek balance with Mangala
There have been few more expensive subplots in Premier League history. The most expensive defender ever in English football has been overshadowed and overlooked. His fee, though remarkable in its own right, was dwarfed when Manchester United paid almost twice as much for Angel Di Maria. Now Eliaquim Mangala's debut has been delayed. Again.
So, for another two weeks, if not longer, the 32 million pound Frenchman has an affluent form of obscurity. It reflects in part on the unglamorous nature of the stopper's job and the sense that, to many, Mangala remains something of an unknown quantity. Nor was there anything surprising about his signing; more a sense of boredom that the saga had dragged on for so long. Perhaps there is little to whet the appetite.
Yet Mangala is among the most significant signings this summer. The success, or otherwise, of his maiden campaign in England will be a factor in Manchester City's chances of retaining the title. The feeling that they are constructing a team for several seasons will be stronger if there is finally stability in the centre of defence.
While Martin Demichelis won over many of his critics during a remarkable four-month period when he suddenly became a steadying presence in the title run-in and a stalwart of the Argentina side who reached the World Cup final, the reality is that Manuel Pellegrini's long-term ally remains a stopgap signing, bought in part because City were reluctant to commit a substantial fee for a younger centre-back last summer.
Now they have. Mangala, at 23, is a decade Demichelis' junior and cost almost 10 times as much. Twelve months ago, a central defender was City's cheapest acquisition. Now another is their dearest. It is a role reversal that indicates the need to bolster the backline, despite Demichelis' late career surge. With Vincent Kompany increasingly injury prone, the probability is that Mangala and Demichelis will be paired at times. Sooner or later, though, the veteran should be eased out of the strongest side.
The truth is that there has been an imbalance at the heart of the City defence for years, between one of the world's finest defenders, in Kompany, and an often inferior sidekick. If Mangala justifies his price tag and the usually cautious Manuel Pellegrini's bold words, that will change. "In my opinion, he has all of the mental, physical, technical and tactical attributes to become one of Europe's very best defenders," the City manager said.
And a partnership of equals is required. The most extreme example came in a friendly against Bayern Munich 13 months ago when one Belgian, Kompany, was outstanding and another, Dedryck Boyata, was abominable: Rarely can two centre-backs have produced such contrasting performances.
It was an anomaly but Kompany's supremacy is not. The faces have changed but the theme has remained the same: Kompany has been at City for six years; Mangala is likely to become his fifth regular centre-back partner, after Kolo Toure, Joleon Lescott, Matija Nastasic and Demichelis. There would be at least one more, too, had he not spent the 2008-09 season in midfield, when Richard Dunne was paired with Micah Richards, Nedum Onuoha and Tal Ben-Haim.
Not since Dunne and Richards have a duo been the unquestioned first-choice pairing for successive seasons. Last year, too, City's defensive record deteriorated as a more attacking ethos brought more goals at both ends of the pitch. Especially when Kompany was absent, theories they had a soft underbelly proliferated.
The captain explained the particular demands on a City centre-back, greater than those on his counterparts elsewhere, in February. "We play with two strikers, and we have two wingers who are virtually strikers," he said. "One of our midfield players -- and we have only two -- is also virtually a striker. Our full-backs are pushing up all the time."
In other words, a centre-back has to be capable of defending one-on-one and of patrolling a large zone, much as Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand could in their prime, but not as they declined. It heightened the focus on the slow Demichelis, made his mishaps more prominent and his eventual renaissance more surprising.
So, of all the mental and physical attributes Pellegrini believes Mangala possesses, speed is most important. Pace has been prioritised in City's major dealings. It is apparent in midfield, too, where Mangala's Porto teammate Fernando was lured to Manchester to be an all-action destroyer. Terms such as "holding midfielder" and "anchorman" are inappropriate in his case: This is a defensive midfielder with the speed to cover ground and snuff out counterattacks while his colleagues are stranded upfield.
Theirs is a high-risk brand of football. There are already instances when City suffered from being outnumbered in the centre of midfield. Having a more mobile centre-back will offer further insurance.
But it is a moot point quite how good Mangala is. He is only France's fourth-choice centre-back, behind Raphael Varane, Laurent Koscielny and Mamadou Sakho, and it is hard to imagine either of the latter pair costing 32 million pounds. He is untried in Europe's major leagues, having joined Porto from Standard Liege.
And, to the many who don't watch Portuguese football, Mangala is almost a mythical figure, often been referenced but rarely seen. He went to the World Cup without taking the field. He was coveted by City for a year amid speculation linking him with Chelsea and Manchester United and even underwent a medical four weeks before eventually signing. Having put pen to paper, it will take at least a month before he appears.
There were times when it was tempting to wonder if he ever actually existed, let alone would finally formalise a transfer. The delay in sealing his move explains the wait for his debut: He had no preseason. But when his City career belatedly begins in earnest, Mangala has much to prove to illustrate he is the right man. Because, for all the millions spent in the Sheikh Mansour era, City are yet to buy a centre-back who has proved a long-term success. The moneyed regime inherited Kompany. Now they have invested in Mangala.