If the Belgian defender's inclusion for the League Cup final against Arsenal felt sentimental, it brought a rich reward
Vincent Kompany a symbol of the old and new at Manchester City
There was a moment, a couple of minutes after his cathartic celebration of his goal, that showed the player Vincent Kompany used to be. He had already done his best impression of a winger to win a corner and reacted with a striker’s predatory sense to redirect Ilkay Gundogan’s low delivery beyond David Ospina. Then came a surging solo run, the Manchester City captain powering through the midfield and deep into Arsenal territory.
It was an instant reminder that his gifts are such that Mark Hughes once selected him as a No 10 at Anfield. Admittedly, the fact the Welshman spent a season not using the man who would become the best centre-back in City’s history in defence explains why his time at the Etihad Stadium was brief and unsuccessful. Yet Kompany had a blend of the physical and the technical that meant it was possible to use him further forward. He has an adventurous streak. By the time he charged towards the Arsenal penalty box at Wembley, he was playing on adrenaline, just as he was in the instant when he outpaced Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, supposedly the quickest striker around.
It illustrated why Barcelona used to covet him. The power and pace to defend one on one, the ability to look bigger and quicker than anyone else, the skill-set to operate as a midfielder and the galvanising powers of a natural leader: few defenders have as many attributes. Kompany possessed everything except a guarantee of fitness.
His pockmarked past, disfigured by 41 injuries, added to the romantic feel of Sunday’s League Cup final. Three of City’s finest servants in their glory years scored, in Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Kompany. If Pep Guardiola’s choice of the Belgian had felt like a sentimental selection, it brought a rich reward.
There has always been something symbolic about Kompany, signed a few weeks before City were transformed by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed’s takeover. He felt the last of the old and the first of the new. It is easy to accuse nouveaux riches clubs of losing their identity and becoming purely about the money; that was never the case with two men signed nine days apart in the summer of 2008. Kompany and his old sidekick Pablo Zabaleta always brought the much of the soul, warriors whose bodies were battered by their commitment to the cause. The scars were more visible in Zabaleta’s case. Kompany’s forever damaged groin kept on sidelining him.
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Kompany and Zabaleta are part of a modern breed, the imports who nonetheless came to symbolise a club and define it. Think of the great talismanic Premier League captains – men such as Roy Keane, John Terry, Steven Gerrard, Patrick Vieira and Nemanja Vidic – and Kompany belongs in their bracket. He is a throwback to the British leaders of bygone days, but a very 21st-century figure, an arrival who has been assimilated and adopted as one of City’s own. “I will always be involved as a fan, as a player, as a manager, as a technical director, as a groundsman, it doesn’t matter,” he pledged in November.
He has 15 months left on his current contract. The cold reality is that, when the euphoria of Wembley fades, his immediate future may be as the fourth-choice centre-back. Guardiola had admitted that, because of Kompany’s fragile frame, he cannot rely on him. He has instead branded Nicolas Otamendi “Superman” for his efforts this season.
The costlier John Stones and Aymeric Laporte represent the future. But the probability is that none will ever mean as much to City as Kompany does. Perhaps City will never mean quite as much to them as it does to him, either. But that steadfast dedication helped make his Wembley heroics so memorable and so meaningful.