When Owen Hargreaves’ Manchester United contract expired, the Etihad Stadium seemed like the least likely destination for the injury-plagued midfielder.
Roberto Mancini, however, has offered the 30-year-old a chance to rebuild his career, albeit under intense public interest.
The move is unquestionably as shocking as it is surprising. Manchester City, a club with a seemingly infinite supply of money, has snapped up an injury-prone 30-yeard-old on a free transfer.
The Canadian-born England international’s arrival is obviously a big risk, but what can Owen Hargreaves offer the Manchester City team? How can he fit into it?
With Nigel De Jong, Yaya Toure and Gareth Barry all occupying a position similar to the one that Hargreaves fills, it is difficult to see how he could break into a starting eleven.
His omission from Mancini’s Champion’s League squad serves as a further example of the limited service he is likely to offer the club. It seems almost certain that he will be a bit-part player for the Citizens.
This does not mean to say that his role at the club will not be an important one.
After securing Champion’s League football for the first time in recent history, Manchester City’s fixture list is the most congested that it has ever been. Despite the depth and abundance of talent within their squad, even the best players in world football can become fatigued.
If Hargreaves can keep himself fit at the appropriate times of the season, he could find himself in regular contention for a slot in City’s starting eleven, if not the substitute’s bench. In particular, he could be called upon during the weeks when the club has European commitments.
A recent article on the BBC Sport website reports that a return to football before City’s fixture against Bayern Munich on Tuesday, September 27 is a long-shot. This suggests that he will not feature in the club’s Premier League fixtures against Wigan and Fulham.
In the future, these are the kinds of games that he will need to deputise in. He is obviously not in contention for regular football, and these are games in which Mancini may be looking to rest some more established members of his squad.
Should he prove himself fit, the Carling Cup fixture against Birmingham on September 21 could be the opportune moment for Hargreaves to make some kind of cameo appearance for the Citizens.
The fixture comes at an awkward time for Mancini’s men, who will play two difficult fixtures in five days against Everton and Bayern Munich. It will be too much of an ask to expect City to field an unchanged starting eleven in each of the three games, which could throw Hargreaves into contention for selection.
Similarly, the depth he provides in the holding midfield position could be called upon against Wolverhampton on Saturday, October 29 and QPR on Saturday, November 5.
The Wolverhampton game, in particular, is sandwiched between a derby match against United and a potentially decisive Champion’s League fixture against Napoli. If Hargreaves can make himself available at such a time, he could find his services called upon.
The beauty of signing Owen Hargreaves is that he should slot easily into the Manchester City starting eleven; there will be no need for Mancini to change the Citizen’s attacking flair.
His service will be most appreciated in late January and early February, when Yaya Toure departs Manchester for Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. The prized midfielder will be representing the Ivory Coast in the African Cup of Nations, an awkwardly scheduled tournament that Premier League managers loathe.
Despite Toure’s absence, City is scheduled to play Premier League matches against Tottenham, Everton, Fulham and Aston Villa. At this point in the season, Owen Hargreaves’ experience and technical ability will be an invaluable asset to the club, assuming he is fit.
Between 2005 and 2008, Hargreaves had established himself as one of the best combative midfielders in world football. Stand out performances against Portugal in the 2006 World Cup, and Chelsea in the 2008 Champion’s League final; highlight the Englishman’s versatility and capability of dominating the midfield area of the pitch.
He will make a superb natural replacement for City’s defensive midfielders. He is a strong, solid tackler off of the ball and a competent dribbler and passer with the ball at his feet. He is capable of controlling the pace of a game and could become a pivotal link between City’s defence and offence.
With players like David Silva, Samir Nasri, Adam Johnson and James Milner likely to be playing alongside him, not to mention City’s full backs, Hargreaves will be able to sit deep and not worry about doing too much running. Samir Nasri and David Silva in particular love to come into the centre of the pitch. If Hargreaves can win the ball and offload it quickly, he will be able to link up supremely well with his teammates.
Unfortunately, until these predictions are rendered true, premonitions will always surround his match fitness. The midfielder suffered an injury at the peak of his career, and has since only featured in four Premier League games over the past three seasons. Who is to say that he will re-find his form? Or even be able to play 15 to 20 games this season?
Manchester City can expect to play about 60 games this season, at a bare minimum, and Mancini should be hoping to get 15 games out of Hargreaves this season. Anything less could compromise the efficiency of the Italian’s rotation system.
At the same time, let’s not forget, to reach the minimum amount of games required of the England international, he will be playing four times the amount of football that he has played in the past four years.
It is too big a demand to expect De Jong, Barry and Toure to be featured in more than 50 games without dropping some level of performance, but are Manchester City expecting too much from Hargreaves at the same time?
It therefore seems reasonable to conclude that Owen Hargreaves has the potential to slot beautifully into the Manchester City's starting eleven when he is called upon.
He will break into the team at semi-regular intervals and, provided he stays fit, can expect to feature in at least 15 to 20 games this season. At times when City has a particularly congested fixture list, he can expect to find his way into Mancini’s match squad.
If Hargreaves proves his fitness, who is to say he cannot achieve more for the Citizens?