Micah Richards Could Save Manchester City Career with Centre-Back Switch

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Micah Richards Could Save Manchester City Career with Centre-Back Switch
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The sight of Micah Richards as a peripheral figure at a moment of glory for Manchester City was one no fan could have envisaged eight years ago.

When Richards burst into City’s first team under Stuart Pearce in February 2006, he provided a shaft of light that supporters badly needed.

The 17-year-old’s improbable blend of pace, power and athleticism was allayed to a passion for the club whose youth ranks he stormed through with flying colours.

If City were to break a trophy drought entering a fourth decade, this fearless youngster from Leeds would undoubtedly be a part of it. The Premier League’s leading lights immediately sniffed around.

"I would love to see Micah stay here, captain the club, and maybe be here for 10 years and carry the club on his back if he can,” Pearce told The Times (h/t BBC Sport) in November 2006—the month Richards made his England debut, becoming the country’s youngest ever international defender.

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"He is good enough to do it. I have not worked with anyone so good and so young."

When Sheikh Mansour’s riches and ambition poured into Eastlands less than two years and two managers later, it was clear a vast overhaul was required.

Deadwood was to be hurled downstream at the earliest convenience, but Richards would survive. Among City’s 2008 batch of also-rans, here was a player with clear world-class potential.

So it proved, as he hoisted the 2011 FA Cup and played a vital role in the following year’s dramatic Premier League title triumph.

An uncomfortable trend of international snubs continued at Euro 2012 but, as Richards prepared to be reunited with Pearce and form part of Great Britain’s historic Olympic team that summer, the fairytale looked set to continue.

Fast forward to summer 2014 and the now 25-year-old defender's career has ground to a virtual halt.

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He remains stuck on 13 international caps, only two of those arriving post-2007. Roy Hodgson’s England head to the World Cup in Brazil with a defensive unit of questionable merits, but Richards was never a realistic option to bolster their number.

Depressingly familiar injuries and Pablo Zabaleta’s stirring progression from City cult hero to one of the world’s leading right-backs have combined to restrict him to 18 first-team appearances over the past two seasons.

Only two of those came in the Premier League this term, meaning the seemingly indelible link between City’s past and present was left without a medal when Vincent Kompany lifted a second title in three years. Richards' candid discussion of the matter on the club’s official YouTube channel was heartbreaking.

While Manuel Pellegrini rotated left-backs Aleksandar Kolarov and Gael Clichy on an almost weekly basis en route to glory, Richards was left to watch the indefatigable Zabaleta scale new heights.

A fresh contract reportedly unsigned (via The Guardian), it all points toward the end of a City career that will be fondly remembered.

Supporters will cast their minds back toward the fearless youth-team graduate who burst onto the scene, giving them a faint sight of the wildest dreams he helped to realise in 2012.

But it is the period of Richards’ City career in between these two points that could point toward an alternative future—a future where a superbly talented player with his best years arguably ahead of him is not lost to the club.

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When Pearce made way for Sven-Goran Eriksson in summer 2007, the ex-England manager switched Richards into the heart of defence alongside then-skipper Richard Dunne.

The youngster was a revelation as City stormed into European contention. Tellingly, after injury ended Richards’ season in February, the Blues won three of their remaining 11 league games and Eriksson paid with his job.

Mark Hughes came in and recruited a host of centre-back options, ranging from the imperious Kompany to the shambolic Tal Ben Haim. Richards was shunted around a number of defensive roles, his form subsided and his international place disappeared.

Although the two may never exchange Christmas cards, Roberto Mancini succeeded Hughes and helped Richards pick-up the pieces at right-back in what became the country’s most formidable defensive unit.

Richards the centre-back was consigned to the vaults. Off-field pressures at the Etihad Stadium provide an argument for trying to rediscover this player.

If reports of moves for defenders Eliaquim Mangala and Bacary Sagna (via The Manchester Evening News) prove correct it is hard to see a future for Richards at City.

But the confirmation on Friday night of UEFA Financial Fair Play punishments, including a reduced 21-man Champions League squad featuring eight homegrown players and spending and wage restrictions, makes such deals high-risk.

Mangala is one of the most sought-after centre-backs in world football and was heavily linked with City in January (via the Manchester Evening News). Since then, veteran Argentinean Martin Demichelis turned his form around sensationally alongside Kompany during the season run-in.

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The duo shepherded City to a decisive run of five consecutive wins and three clean sheets to ensure blue and white ribbons were reattached to the Premier League trophy. Perhaps the vast sums being pinned to Mangala could be put to better use elsewhere?

Even allowing for Joleon Lescott’s forthcoming departure, City could guard against a vast cash outlay in these uncertain times by stationing Matija Nastasic and Richards as understudies to Demichelis and Kompany, playing and improving regularly.

Demichelis will be 34 when his own deal expires next summer, meaning Richards and Nastastic can battle it out to become Kompany's long-term partner.

Following his achingly predictable Olympics injury, Richards made his first appearance of 2012-13 at centre-back in a 3-0 win over Sunderland. He was superb.

An enthusiastic attacking threat, Richards lacks the sureness of touch that allows Zabaleta to link so wonderfully with the likes of David Silva and Yaya Toure in Pellegrini’s expansive setup.

But the pace, power and aerial ability remain. With homegrown quotas to be met and finances to be balanced this summer, Micah Richards the centre-back could prove a sound investment for Manchester City.

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