As he leapt onto an advertising hoarding and screamed with delight at the visiting supporters in the Smethwick End of The Hawthorns on Monday night, Vincent Kompany was reacting to a lot more than putting his side 3-0 up at West Bromwich Albion.
This was a goal which lifted a weight off his shoulders, peeled the monkey from his back and allowed him to finally feel as though things were moving in the right direction again.
Kompany was responding to being written off from pillar to post by many over both the back end of last season and the summer. Plenty pointed to the Belgian skipper as a weak link as Manchester City’s 2013/14 Premier League title defence fell drastically and disappointingly short last season.
Indeed, Kompany’s words to Sky Sports at full time at West Brom—reported here by the BBC—were centred on the team, but they could just as easily have been about his own displays, as he said:
Last season was below what we're used to doing.
There are a lot of favourite teams now and we're not part of it, I've heard. It's something that gives us extra motivation.
In the first sentence, replace “we’re” with “I’m.” In the second, swap “teams” for “defenders” and “we’re” for “I’m” again. Then in the third take out “us” and put in “me.” Kompany is the very definition of a team player, but he must have been tempted to do just the same.
Yet the criticism wouldn’t have even occurred if we didn’t all know just what a fine player the 29-year-old is.
Imperious in City’s two Premier League title wins—probably more so in 2011/12 than 2013/14—Kompany was a fixture on everyone’s shortlist when the best central defenders in the world were being discussed. Yet suddenly those fine performances disappeared during a below-par 2014/15 season, which featured fewer appearances for City than in any of his previous six campaigns for the club.
The reason for that was of course some niggling injury issues that seemed to hang over Kompany ever since he skippered Belgium at the previous summer’s World Cup.
In Brazil, he was omitted from his side’s final group-stage match against South Korea only to be rushed back into the team for the knockout games against the United States and Argentina, all the time looking a little restricted in his movement.
Whether or not these were the issues which plagued him going into the new campaign at City isn’t quite clear, but what is is that Kompany surprisingly lost his discipline over the season—picking up 11 yellow cards and a red for Belgium in a Euro 2016 qualifier in Israel, a far cry from the three bookings he received back in the 2009/10 season.
Everyone gets older, of course, from elite-level footballers to those who write about them, but there wasn’t so much a sense that age was catching up with Kompany and more that circumstances were.
Before the 2014/15 season, City had paid huge money for Eliaquim Mangala—more than twice as much as Crystal Palace’s XI when the pair met in April, according to the Daily Mail—but like many footballers before and after him, the Frenchman struggled to get to grips with life in England from the start.
The former Porto man was erratic, forcing Manuel Pellegrini to turn to the more reliable Martin Demichelis on several occasions, meaning that the Argentinean and Kompany would be required to defend deep in order to not expose their comparative lack of pace when facing plenty of the Premier League’s rapid attackers.
With Kompany and Demichelis dropping off, they were going to be relying on their central midfielders in front of them to fight several fires. But, in truth, none of them ever really got close to extinguishing an ember over what were disappointing campaigns.
Fernandinho, seemingly experiencing some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder from being overrun by the German midfield in the first half of Brazil’s infamous World Cup semi-final defeat, just never seemed to get going.
As City’s best “natural” holding-midfield player his extended influence was missed, particularly as he’d been so good in the title-winning 2013/14 campaign.
Signed as a player to share the Brazilian’s duties, Fernando was never anything more than average in his first season in England, whilst Yaya Toure played probably his strangest season in a City shirt—one in which it was often difficult to work out if he was actually performing within himself or not. Javi Garcia was sold and James Milner was never played in his preferred central role, hence this summer’s move to Liverpool.
With all of that going on ahead of him, it was no wonder that Kompany struggled.
He began to look uncertain, even unsteady on his feet at times, and there were plenty wondering whether the City skipper was on a downward spiral from which he would never recover.
One game doesn’t prove that he has, of course, but the signs at The Hawthorns on Monday night were that such worries were misplaced.
Up against a strong forward and a quick presence playing off him—Rickie Lambert and Saido Berahino—Mangala looked a lot more assured, something which must bode well for his season given that plenty of other clubs’ forward lines have similar qualities.
Ahead of him, Fernandinho patrolled in that spot at the base of midfield, which allowed him to both pick up any central runs from Berahino and launch attacks of his own by passing the ball to Toure, who seemed to have decided that this was a good time to show his very best once again.
The Ivorian was brilliant, and fed in passes to David Silva, Raheem Sterling and Jesus Navas at will as City, according to Opta, recorded 211 more passes than any other team had done during their opening match of the Premier League weekend on the way to their resounding victory over dizzied opponents. Throw in the signing of Fabian Delph as evidence that City’s midfield has improved, and you’ve got all the evidence you need as to why Kompany was smiling.
With this level of control going on in front of him, there is little wonder that the Belgian looked so calm and composed at the back, as City delivered by far and away the best performance of any top-flight side we’ve seen so far.
West Brom were long beaten by the time the ball flew off the City captain’s shoulder and into the back of the net just before the hour mark—a strike which resulted in the sort of wild celebrations that are normally reserved for grander occasions and settings.
But as Kompany knew, those celebrations were about more than just one goal on one impressive night in the West Midlands, they were about the beginning of what he’ll hope is a return to form for both him and his team.
Something that, as we’ve discovered, can often be one and the same thing.