Since his move from Espanyol in the summer of 2008, Pablo Zabaleta has established himself as one of the finest full-backs in Europe. He’s reliable defensively, excellent going forward and an outstanding professional—a cult hero with the Manchester City supporters.
He has enjoyed new-found respect after a superb 2012/13 season, but Zabaleta hasn’t always found it easy in English football.
Initially he struggled to hold down a regular place in the side; continually flitting between a number of different positions, liable to a red card and often found wanting in one-on-one situations.
But thanks to his staggering level of commitment, the City fans have adopted him as a favourite straight away.
He never shirked a tackle and would often have gaping wounds patched up that so he could continue—he constantly seemed to be playing in a blood-stained bandage. Even though he was lacking in certain areas, his tenacity and drive made him stand-out.
Gradually, as he adapted to the pace of the English game, Zabaleta began to excel, winning a starting spot at right-back in Roberto Mancini's first-team towards the end of the 2012 season.
He scored the first in City's 3-2 win over QPR on the final day—a game which saw City crowned champions for the first time in 44 years.
The 2012/13 season was less successful for the club, but Zabaleta flourished, becoming recognised as a fine right-back after a series of excellent displays. He barely put a foot wrong as he added a new attacking dimension to his game previously absent.
He was given the vice captaincy, voted the club’s Player of the Year and awarded a new four-year contract that will keep him at the club until he’s 32.
Even this season, where he hasn't truly hit the heights of the last campaign, he has outperformed many of his rivals.
Of the regular right-backs in the Premier League, only Joel Ward (37) has won more tackles than Zabaleta (31). To put that into context, Branislav Ivanovic has won 24, Nathaniel Clyne 23 and Seamus Coleman 19.
Zabaleta has also out-tackled many of his European counterparts, with Dani Alvez (27), Alvaro Arbeloa (21), Daniel Carvajal (16) and Rafinha (9) behind him in the tackling stakes.
He has made just two defensive errors since the start of last season, neither of which led directly to a goal. By comparison, Kyle Walker has made five (two led to goals), Bacary Sagna has made four (two led to goals) and Nathaniel Clyne has made four (one led to a goal).
He's become almost faultless defensively, with his positional sense and professionalism two of his best characteristics.
He has two Premier League assists already this season and has created seven chances for his teammates in total. He gets forward very effectively and offers a far more steadying influence than his teammate Micah Richards, making him City's first-choice right-back by some distance.
His close relationship with City and their supporters is well documented.
During the early period of his time at City, Zabaleta lived in Didsbury, an affluent Manchester suburb just outside the city centre. In an interview with Ian Ladyman for the Mail, he told how he would regularly play pool in the Barleycorn, a pub known for its popularity with City fans.
Zabaleta is also a player who recognises the importance of loyalty—a rarity in the modern game. In the interview with Ladyman, Zabaleta is quoted as saying:
It's important players have respect for the club and also to the fans because, if you are a player who wants to leave, then the way you do it should be right. You have to respect the club that has made the players as big in the football world as they are.
It's not often you hear a player talk in such terms about the club and fans that they play for.
With his mix of dedication, professionalism, reliability and attacking ability, he has become one of the best full-backs in world football.
You would have to go a long way to find a City fan who would willingly swap him with anyone else.
Statistics provided by Squawka.
Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and will be following the club from a Manchester base throughout the 2013-14 season. Follow him on Twitter here @TypicalCity.
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