Expecting Manchester City to be patient with Eliaquim Mangala 4

EM3_Big

Eliaquim Mangala’s transfer to Manchester City seemed to take an age, and the French defender’s move was reported to be imminent long before it was actually completed.  Regardless, he’s now a City player and the English club are believed to have paid somewhere in between £30m and £40m for him, depending on which paper you read.

On the basis that I don’t really watch any Portuguese football and I have only ever seen Mangala play in continental competition, it’s taken quite a while to accumulate enough knowledge to write anything about him, and a lot of what follows is based on theory rather than fact - so take it with a pinch of salt.

If you spend enough time watching footage of Mangala play, you can entirely understand why Manchester City have been chasing him for such a long time.  As a physical specimen, he’s ideally suited to being a modern centre-back: he has enough size to be an aerial presence, he has the speed to get himself out of trouble as and when he needs to, and he possesses the technical ability to suit any side whose preference it is to build from the back.

Because City have spent so much money on him, Mangala is going to have a target on his back.  Everybody - rival fans, pundits, journalists - seems to enjoy it when a big signing struggles at a wealthy club, and so Manuel Pellegrini has a duty to be quite careful with his newest squad member.

Mangala is a very instinctive player and, whilst obviously rooted in discipline, a lot of his defending is predicated on split-second decision-making.  You’ll notice that he frequently steps out of the backline in an attempt to win or intercept the ball, and stylistically he’s very aggressive.  Because of his acceleration and general athletic ability, he frequently backs himself not only in his pursuit of the ball but also when he’s in possession and carrying it up the pitch.

You have to be careful with a defender like this.  His price-tag is reflective of what he could be in this division rather than what he already is.  If a foreign player is instinctive and is quite reliant on his physical attributes, then he will tend to be quite susceptible to the pace of the Premier League.  That’s not to say that Mangala isn’t suited to a more physically-demanding competition, just that a lot of his instincts will have to be re-booted before he thrives within it.  English football houses a different type of athlete to the Portuguese Super Liga, and so Mangala might need to find a new equilibrium between those instincts and a more tactical-based understanding of the game.

There’s a chemistry issue in-play, too.  Vincent Kompany is Manuel Pellegrini’s captain and first-choice centre-halve, therefore he will be the player Mangala is expected to form a partnership with.  At the moment, that combination would probably be very unbalanced.  An under-appreciated part of Kompany’s game is his ability to step-out of defence and deliver possession into the midfield, and the Belgian is - like Mangala - a relatively aggressive centre-back.  Generally, partnerships in that area of the pitch tend to prosper when built around opposing skill-sets, and having two players with similar traits can be problematic - the trend, at least, is to combine a more active centre-back with a more passive one.

In time, maybe he and Kompany will become one of the most cohesive partnerships in the league - there’s no reason to believe otherwise - but these two are not naturally suited to playing with one another and so it’s prudent to expect some trial and error in the early days.  Instant chemistry is not a realistic expectation.

The way to view Mangala right now is as a set of relatively raw attributes which need to be tailored to Premier League life.  He will make mistakes and he will face criticism on the basis that his transfer-fee implies that he’s a fully-formed player, but if City get this right and persevere with him during his inevitable learning curve they could have a colossus of a player within two years.

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