I’m going to take you back to the evening of Tuesday 18 September 2012. It was a mild night in Manchester. Probably. I’ll be honest, I can’t really remember and neither can you, so let’s just say it was and have done with it. I do, however, recall driving home from work in time to watch Manchester City’s first Champions League game of the season and it was a toughie – away at Real Madrid.
I’d just rushed from work to the car park opposite and was feeling rather warm, so maybe that’s why I thought it was mild. I tuned into BBC Radio Five Live to hear the starting line-up, since I had something like 20 minutes to get home in time for kick-off. When I heard Mark Chapman or Colin Murray or whoever was presenting the show read the eleven that Roberto Mancini had picked I winced a little.
Making his first competitive start for the Blues was a 19-year-old Matija Nastasic. It’s probably fair to say his inclusion in the starting line-up left a lot of fans scratching their heads and more than a little worried; the Serbian looked very much like a signing for the future when he joined in the summer and the vast majority would have preferred the tried and tested pairing that had led the club to the most Premier League clean sheets in their first top division title season since the 1960s. However, Joleon Lescott remained on the bench.
Despite the defence being the problem in City’s 3-2 defeat in Madrid – it was a solid performance, but to lose a game from a leading position with five minutes to play was criminal – there was one player who looked to have a very bright future indeed: the debutant.
A mere 28 months on from that game, Nastasic’s City career has finished with him being frozen out of the team and loaned abroad, which looks more than likely to become a permanent transfer to Schalke in the summer. Where did it all go wrong for the defender who seemed to have the world at his feet?
The Serbian shared most of the 2012-13 season with Lescott in the left centre-back role; Nastasic played 30 games, while his English counterpart played 33. He was the shining light in a season where everything seemed to go wrong on and off the pitch. The title defence was in ruins by the end of January, the FA Cup final was ridiculously underwhelming and the manager upset pretty much everybody at the club to leave his position untenable.
Despite all of that, City’s defence for years to come looked like it would be solid with Vincent Kompany and Nastasic developing an understanding. The club’s back line wasn’t the problem that year; they just didn’t score enough goals.
In that 2012-13 campaign, it’s easy to forget just how good Nastasic was. There were moments of sublime defending that would have been expected of someone with much more experience of professional football than he had. In the home tie with Real Madrid, he raced around the back of Joe Hart to clear off the line after Cristiano Ronaldo had lobbed the England goalkeeper. The winger barely got a kick that game without being under pressure from the inexperienced defender.
His final game of that season was the FA Cup final defeat to Wigan, where he was one of the few players who was clearly distraught at the way the team had underperformed. And it was that defeat that gave the club the excuse it needed to sack the manager – he had to go, but it was a hard sell as he was a fans’ favourite.
Mancini’s sacking was part one in the fall from grace for the young Serbian.
When Manuel Pellegrini arrived, the Chilean announced everybody would start his tenure with a clean slate. That’s how Edin Dzeko and Samir Nasri’s careers at the Etihad were saved, with both seemingly heading for the exit a few months earlier. But the ‘Year Zero’ approach punishes those who had performed the best – just as Nastasic had excelled, he had to do it all again.
Perhaps the worst thing to happen for his progress was a match in pre-season at the Hong Kong Stadium.
During the Blues’ summer tour, they faced Sunderland in the final of the Asia Trophy. The region was swept with monsoon rain and the pitch had the consistency of a potato salad. With nobody near him, Nastasic’s footing went and he was carried off with an ankle injury. It was by no means a serious one, but it meant he missed the start of the season.
When Kompany joined him on the sidelines during the opening fixture against Newcastle, Pellegrini’s hand was forced. He dipped into the transfer market one final time for that summer and brought in an experienced centre-back he’d worked with before in Martin Demichelis. Despite the Argentine picking up an injury in training, as soon as he was fit he was at the forefront of the Chilean’s thinking and Nastasic had slipped down the pecking order.
With fewer injuries to the other defenders at the club, he may have had a better chance to impress the new manager.
It was always going to be difficult for him to rediscover the form of his first year with the Blues. Naturally, players do go through peaks and troughs with their quality of performance and after such exhilarating highs in 2012-13, Nastasic couldn’t keep it up the next campaign.
He started solidly enough, with the Blues keeping three clean sheets in his first three games (a 2-0 win over Hull, a 0-0 draw with Stoke, and a 3-0 at Viktoria Plzen), and his fourth produced a solid display in a 4-1 Manchester derby win, but it wasn’t all sweetness and light. He’d almost put through his own goal at Stoke, but for a great save by Hart, and there were some high-profile incidents in City defeats just around the corner.
At Aston Villa, the Serbian gave away a needless free kick on the edge of the box that led to the second equaliser, before he and Kompany combined to miss a header on a long ball that sent Andreas Weimann clean through. Neither defender challenged for the ball and, as a result, neither covered the other. That was compounded by Hart’s desire to rush out and make it a simple finish for the forward.
It’s no secret Hart’s form was on the slide during the back end of 2013 and the majority of the blame for the next big error of the season must fall with the goalkeeper. With the score at 1-1 at Stamford Bridge and with City having only just marginally been the better side, both teams seemed content with a point. However, Chelsea took all three.
Fernando Torres continued to chase a ball over the top and it was a simple task for Nastasic to deal with it. In the perfect situation, Hart would had come off his line to give himself a good starting position and the young Serbian would nod it back to him. Instead, the goalkeeper came to clear it and the defender headed it straight past him.
Torres might have been the shadow of the player he was at Liverpool, but he was never going to miss that chance. He scored, Jose Mourinho celebrated in front of Pellegrini and Hart was dropped.
While it remains a goalkeeping error – especially for giving his defenders a late shout and very little warning that he was coming for the ball – some of the blame must fall to Nastasic. In stoppage time of the match, the easiest decision to make is to avoid all risks. Heading it back could cause a problem; heading it out of play should see it safe. He took the risk and it backfired.
It can’t have helped him having a goalkeeper making regular mistakes behind him but, knowing the form the number one was showing, Nastasic could have chosen to take no chances. At that time, Hart’s goalkeeping was at best erratic and unpredictable.
Perhaps it was around this time that Pellegrini began to lose faith in the young defender. He certainly wasn’t hitting the heights of his debut year, but the manager didn’t act drastically. He was back in the starting line-up with Lescott still on the bench the following week, as Norwich came to the Etihad.
It might have looked like things were picking up for the Serbian, as he scored his first City goal in the 7-0 victory. Typical of how things were going for him, though, closer inspector revealed it was in fact an own goal and it was subsequently taken off him.
By this stage of Pellegrini’s tenure at the club it had become clear the type of central defender he liked. Lescott wasn’t being used because he simply didn’t fit the manager’s style of play; he was the least comfortable in possession of the ball, so perhaps that was the sole reason why Nastasic was being picked. After all, as soon as both Demichelis and Kompany were fit, they were the first choice and there was no looking back.
On New Year’s Day, Nastasic lined up alongside the Belgian for City’s trip to Swansea – where Wilfried Bony gave the pairing a very rough time. It was an eventual 3-2 win for the visitors, but it was hard fought, and Nastasic was seriously lacking in confidence.
Soon after, the Serbian was relegated to City’s second eleven and has since featured in six more matches – only two of which were in the Premier League. His last proper game for the Blues saw them lose a second time that season to Chelsea. After the start of February, Nastasic only featured in a heavily-rotated side in the Community Shield at the beginning of 2014-15.
It was probably the final nail in his coffin that that makeshift defence lost 3-0 to a strong Arsenal side, with him looking a little lost as the Blues came under pressure. The confidence he’d been showing just over a year earlier had all but fizzled into nothing.
He was that far from the manager’s thinking that, by mid-October, Pellegrini told a press conference: “I think that we have four centre backs: Kompany, Demichelis, Mangala, Boyata.” When he was prompted by one of the journalists, he then added that he “forgot Nastasic, also.”
He’d fallen behind Dedryck Boyata, who many believed had only been signed on a new contract because he fulfilled the one spot necessary in the Champions League squad for a homegrown player that came through the club’s own youth setup.
City’s pursuit of Eliaquim Mangala was a sign that Nastasic had little in the way of a future at the club. The Frenchman has talent and potential, perhaps more than his Serbian teammate, but it’s understandable that the fans wonder what happened to the latter to see him fall so severely from grace.
A series of injuries throughout 2013-14 didn’t help his cause, especially with the mystery surrounding one of his longer absences – and maybe it was just that Pellegrini had had enough. He’d not seen the form that Mancini did, he’d not seen a run of fitness that was there the year before, and, while the potential was there, he wanted someone who was his man and who he could rely on – not someone he couldn’t quite work out.
The fans are aware of what Nastasic can do – during the great centre-back shortage of December 2014, it showed as the Serbian’s standing with the supporters was almost God-like. He’s good, but he’s by no means as good as some were making out.
I, perhaps more than anyone, will miss the Serbian at City. I like his style, I like his potential and ability, and, what’s more, I fancy the pants off him. But if the manager has no confidence in him, then there can’t be a place for him in the squad.
Mangala will be a great player and the signs are that Nastasic could be that too – but after the events of last season, he was never going to be that at City.
Written by David Mooney