Vincent Kompany's display of resilience and reliability against Chelsea confirms one of the unlikeliest reinventions at Manchester City.
In good Kompany at the back
The greatest praise can come in form of a backhanded compliment. So it was at the City of Manchester Stadium on Saturday when Carlo Ancelotti briefed Daniel Sturridge on the touchline. Enter the comparatively untried attacker. Exit Didier Drogba. It was a triumph for Manchester City in general and Vincent Kompany in particular. His was a display of reliability and resilience that cemented his place as City's first-choice centre-back and confirmed one of the more unlikely reinventions in the club's recent history.
The final signing before Sheikh Mansour's takeover, Kompany had a reputation as a precocious defender in his native Belgium but spent the majority of his first season at Eastlands further forward, even operating as an attacking midfielder at Anfield 19 months ago. For the first half of last season, he was either injured or ignored while Mark Hughes persisted with Kolo Toure and Joleon Lescott, his expensive recruits. It proved an axis of errors and, upon his appointment, Roberto Mancini was quick to promote Kompany from the bench.
There was some surprise, however, that when City made six summer signings, they did not include a central defender, although Jerome Boateng is an option there. Yet the fact that the eight games Kompany has played this season, five away from home, have only resulted in the concession of two goals - an error from Joe Hart against Blackburn Rovers and a penalty at Sunderland - means clean sheets have become a habit.
As there has been an ever-changing cast of full-backs, a consequence of a series of injuries, there has only been continuity in the centre of defence. Yet, perhaps because of the road block erected in front of him, Kompany's role has been comparatively obscured. Much of the attention has been focused on the triple midfield shield of Yaya Toure, Gareth Barry and Nigel de Jong. All excelled in Saturday's 1-0 win with De Jong especially influential, crowding Chelsea in areas where players such as Florent Malouda and Michael Essien often have an impact.
But Drogba's attributes include an ability to add another dimension to his team's attacks. With his pace and his fearsome physique, he enables Chelsea to bypass the midfield and to go over, round or through opposing defences. A duel involving Drogba seems to offer his side an inherent advantage. With Kolo Toure famously one of the shorter centre-backs, the importance of Kompany was apparent. By depriving Chelsea of their option of going direct, he forced them to play through City. And it was here that Mancini's policy of crowding the midfield with eager workers paid off.
City's resources mean they make an unlikely underdog, but in one respect, it was a triumph for the rest of the league. It was a demonstration that Chelsea are not unstoppable as their first five wins suggested and, seemingly, as some members of their team came to believe. It is a fine line between confidence and arrogance and one that Chelsea's more self-assured players seem to straddle. It is only a week ago that Drogba was talking of doing a historic quadruple.
The Carling Cup defeat to Newcastle United has rendered that an impossibility. While the more grounded Ancelotti has the task of reminding his charges of more immediate objectives and of preaching the patience required in games that, unlike their early-season fixtures, are not overwhelmingly one-sided. The proof that, with organisation, determination and concentration, the Chelsea juggernaut can be halted offers the greatest encouragement to the rest of the division.
Yet the other lesson is that, despite the assumption that wealthy clubs invariably need to buy, as Kompany is showing at City, it is possible to find the answer within.
On surprise Saturday, as it might be christened, London's three representatives in the Champions League all lost. The greatest shock was West Bromwich Albion's victory at the Emirates Stadium. The theory is that, to overcome Arsenal, lesser sides must hassle them, focus on set-pieces and infuriate Arsene Wenger with their tackling technique. A stylish Albion did none of those and their victory is all the more admirable for it.
Gerard Houllier's winning return to the Premier League seemed to suggest it was as if he never went away. Emile Heskey, one of his favourite players at Liverpool, scored Aston Villa's late winner against Wolverhampton Wanderers. The natural assumption to make is that the Frenchman knows how to get the most from the often frustrating forward. Yet it is worth remembering that three seasons of underachievement under Houllier followed his career-best haul of 22 goals in the 2000/01 campaign. If the new Villa manager can make Heskey half as prolific a decade on, it will represent an act of alchemy.
It is coincidence, but uncanny nonetheless when, within the space of two days, two players from promoted clubs contrive to head into their own goals. Charlie Adam, the Blackpool captain, and James Perch, the Newcastle defender, were the embarrassed individuals, but if there is an explanation, it may lie in the opposition: few teams put the ball into the penalty area with more menace than Blackburn and Stoke City. It is testament, perhaps, to their powers of intimidation.