So it looks like Pablo Zabaleta will be a City player for another season.
I, for one, am thrilled about it. The very thought of such an iconic player pulling on another shirt in Italy, which looked pretty nailed on at the start of the summer, filled me with a real sadness. The only joy which could have been derived from that scenario would’ve been seeing him rediscover his form somewhere else and at least seeing him enjoy his football again. Thankfully he looks set to stay at City, but I think a move away from his traditional right-back role could be vital to his future at the club.
There’s no getting away from the fact that Zaba endured a pretty torrid season last year. The Argentine started injured and never really got himself fit for the duration. Injury ended his campaign early and saw him miss the ultimately doomed Copa America in the United States. It was one of his most disappointing showings in a City shirt, further punctuated by the incredible highs of the few seasons where he was at his peak. It really did look like he was out the door.
It’s probably time to accept that the marauding, all action, ageless Zabaleta of the past is probably gone. Injuries have taken their toll on his body, he’s certainly lost at least a yard of pace. You can see in him the frustration that his legs won’t carry him like a dynamo along that right touchline like they used to. Bacary Sagna seems fairly nailed on now to hold down the right full-back position, picking up where he left off from last year. The Frenchman’s consistency is his greatest asset.
Guardiola clearly has taken a fancy to Pablo Maffeo, the youngster greatly benefiting from his year in Girona. He’s got the energy and youthfulness, coupled with fresh legs that allow him to play in the style demanded by the Catalan of his full-backs. Maffeo is also helped vastly by being comfortable with the tactical demands of Guardiola’s default 4-3-3 position, knowing when to push up as the centre-backs split, having adopted a similar formation when playing under Patrick Vieira in the Elite Development Squad.
With that competition I can’t see the Argentine getting too much of a look in at right-back anymore. But Guardiola reinventing players heading towards the end of their careers is nothing new. In fact, it’s pretty much expected of him now. And it could be the lifeline for our beloved Argentine.
Let’s be honest, most of us thought Pep had gone a bit made when he turned arguably one of the finest right-backs the game has ever seen in Philip Lahm into a central midfielder. Guardiola famously said that Lahm was one of the most tactically astute players he’s ever worked with, and that when struggling with who, among his plethora of stars at Bayern, could run his midfield from deep among the best in the game. So it’s a path already trodden, a top-class full-back of advancing years moving in to anchor the midfield. Personally I could see Zabaleta excelling in this role. His aggression and leadership qualities, coupled with his defensive work rate could work quite nicely alongside the craft of new signing İlkay Gündoğan and the endless energy of Fernandinho.
In the big games he could provide the dynamism that Fernando occasionally lacks, calling on the attacking prowess that at one point marked him as the best right-back in the Premier League. Being asked to play a slightly less marauding role would help him keep pace with the game and with energetic players pressing high further up the pitch, you’d expect there would be much less chasing back towards goal than under Pellegrini’s occasionally haphazard high line. He may fall short slightly if the game calls for pinged diagonals, being nowhere near the same quality of Xabi Alonso in that regard, but few are.
The other option is perhaps a move into central defence. Much has been made of the lack of ball-playing central defenders Pep has at his disposal. With Vincent Kompany out injured, Aleksandar Kolarov has been employed in pre-season on the left of the defence, which let’s be honest, is pretty desperate stuff. Zabaleta is much more accomplished defensively, with his short passing a real strong point. His reading of the game is great, and there would hopefully less need for rash, last ditch tackling than has been needed in the past.
If Zabaleta were to move centrally, he would be an extremely quick and mobile centre-back, compared to others in the position. His ability to bring the ball out from the back, recycling possession and joining in with the attack could end up being a revelation. There wouldn’t be as great a demand on his legs and it would allow him to use his reading of the game and organisational skills to keep the back line in check. Perhaps he’s a little short to play centrally, but that certainly hasn’t held countryman Javier Mascherano back.
The bottom line is though, wherever Zabaleta ends up, be it in the team or out of it, he’s still a vital part of City. He’s a genuine link to the fans, a complete warrior on the pitch. He’ll spend the next year imparting vital experience and knowledge to the youngsters breaking through, or helping his new coach understand the demands of the Premier League. He provides a vital link with the South American and Spanish players and their other teammates. Zabaleta bandaged, bloodied and bruised, is synonymous with leaving nothing on the pitch, giving everything for the cause; he’s City through and through and the club is much better off having him around.
Written by Josh Stead
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