Exclusive: Vincent Kompany on the 'incredible' evolution of Manchester City with Abu Dhabi's backing
Vincent Kompany sits in the shadow of Emirates Palace hotel, and the link between the club he represents and its owners is obvious.
The Manchester City captain provides a connection of his own, the bridge between pre- and post-Abu Dhabi takeover, a constant among the change that has lifted to the club through the most successful period in its history.
Signed nine days before the September 2008 acquisition by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed’s Abu Dhabi United Group was completed, Kompany has been the only ever-present player since. He has won two Premier League titles, one FA Cup and the League Cup three times, scoring a goal in the 3-0 final victory against Arsenal last month.
More trophies are expected. City sit 16 points clear in England’s top flight with eight matches remaining. They are two games from confirming themselves as champions for the third time in six years. Dominant domestically, they are considered among the favourites for continental honours too, when they reconvene their bid for a first Uefa Champions League crown next month with a quarter-final against Liverpool.
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Some have suggested Pep Guardiola’s side play the best football in Europe, perhaps that England has ever seen. While that is open to debate, there is little doubt City have come a long way from when Kompany arrived.
His position within that progression is unique. No City player understands better the journey.
“It’s difficult to describe to be honest,” Kompany says, as City spent five days in Abu Dhabi this week on a warm-weather break. “It’s been incredible. It’s just witnessing evolution that’s been interesting. I’d come to a club that was really, really interesting already, lovely, with a very rich past and so much passion.
“But there was a lot to do still. And then when Sheikh Mansour and [chairman] Khaldoon [Al Mubarak] came in they really transformed the club. But not just in that the investment was necessary, but it was more in the strategy of how to get to a certain goal.
“Today we see the first years of what probably they envisaged to do with the club. And for me to be a part of the entire process is, I don’t know, there’s so much value to that.”
Intrinsically linked to the process, Kompany sees value everywhere. Not simply in an investment in player recruitment that exceeds £1 billion (Dh5.1bn), but in the improvements in staffing and infrastructure. It is highlighted by the City Football Academy, a youth development and first-team training centre built on a regenerated former brownfield site in East Manchester. It spans 80 acres.
Now 31, Kompany remembers arriving at City from Hamburg aged 22, into a dressing room that soon hummed to playful Brazilian duo Robinho and Elano. The young centre-back was immediately struck by the superior quality of the pitch at City, but not the facilities that accompanied them.
“You’d come into the changing room and the gym and all this kind of stuff and that was really not up to date,” he says. “And then you had just these phases where they built it out and improved it gradually to then bring us to the place where we are now, which is the City Football Academy. Which is incredible.”
Outwardly at least, the club seems an altogether different place from then to now. Kompany views it slightly differently, though.
“I always say it’s different and it’s the same,” he says. “You still have that same core that Mancunians are a certain way and you will never take it out of it. They like a certain type of player, a certain type of behavior.
“And then everything else is not only new for us, but new for the industry of football, in the sense that a lot of the things from the football that the manager wants to try and play to the entire support of the football team and how we try to build as a group, as a club, think.
“A lot of innovation has happened and a lot of future opportunities will still continue to arise with the whole set-up. It’s a really exciting time for the club.”
In his 10th season at City, Kompany’s longevity and personality – he is one of the game’s more cerebral characters – ensures that he is more invested than most.
In almost a decade in Manchester blue, the Belgian has battled through more than 40 injuries, so has spent a significant chunk of his spare time at the club’s academy, running the rule over potential stars of the future. His contract expires next year, but Kompany sees beyond that, no matter if he is involved with the club in a different capacity. Even, he has said, as an Etihad Stadium groundsman.
Such affection for City must therefore make this season’s success extra sweet.
“Yeah, definitely,” Kompany says. “Because it’s not been an easy ride all the time. You leave a lot of blood, sweat and tears in the process. You want to be there for the good times. So I’m really happy that my body, my mentality, has allowed me to still be here and perform and compete with these guys every single day. I enjoy that little bit more because of 10 years at the club. Of course.”
The immediate future appears bright. City are England’s lead club on the pitch, boasting a collection of genuinely world-class stars and possibly football’s foremost manager. Understandably, Kompany attributes much of this extraordinary campaign to that.
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“There’s two things,” he says. “The first is obviously the talent and quality of the squad. The second is the manager and his approach to everything, in terms of what he has been able to teach us is top drawer. He’s been exceptional really.
“And then for us to also take it on board and to learn and improve. It’s been a good match so far and there’s still potential to be even better.”
The question is just how good?
“It’s hard to say,” Kompany says. “Everything depends on the hunger of these guys. If they can keep that fire in the belly, that desire to improve and get better, there’s no limit to how good this team could be.”
From what Kompany has seen thus far, that fire looks set to burn bright. The quality and the consistency of performances this season are testament to that. Guardiola’s presence almost guarantees it, so too Kompany’s.
He realises City remain some way short of the sort of dynasty created on the other side of Manchester - they have yet to win the Premier League back-to-back – but there can be no denying the feeling that something special is brewing.
However, Kompany is keen to stress that feet should stay firmly planted.
“I have enough experience to know you have to wait until the next pre-season, when everybody’s had a bit of a holiday and bit of a celebration because you’ve won the league or something like this,” he says. “And then see whether that hunger is still there. You can see it in the eyes almost.
“So if next pre-season they come back and we go the same way and deliver the same attitude, then I will feel comfortable in what this team can achieve.”