Vincent Kompany: the articulate outlier who rose to Manchester City legend

Vincent Kompany: the articulate outlier who rose to Manchester City legend

When Vincent Kompany arrived in England, he made his intentions for his new club, Manchester City, perfectly clear. At the first time of asking, he publicly declared that he was going to make his time in the Premier League a success and that he could see his new side dominating English football for the foreseeable future.

It was a testament to the stature of the man and his confidence. This version of Vincent Kompany in 2008 was a defender with unfulfilled potential who had been sold at a loss by Hamburg, and the Belgian’s talk about his club’s great future was before the vast investment made by the royals of Abu Dhabi. 

For Kompany to speak so confidently in his first appearance in front of the English media, and for him to keep his word a decade later, shows the man he was and the one he has grown into. On the face of it, his time at Manchester City is nothing short of legendary. Undeniably one of the best players of the Sheikh Mansour era and the captain who has been an integral part of all their title-winning campaigns, as well as the several cup successes they have enjoyed thus far, he is an eternal City icon. But beyond all the triumphs and important individual contributions, knowing the man behind the legend is compelling.

It’s no wonder that Kompany is the way he is today, for his experiences have shaped him to be this way. Belgium was, and still is, an important destination for immigrants of various West African nations, and Kompany’s story is no different. Born to a Congolese father and a Belgian mother in Brussels, he started his career at its most prominent side, Anderlecht. Raised in Uccle, a municipality known for its arts having given the world prominent sculptors and architects, Kompany would become the area’s first great sportsperson.

From the early stages of his career, he was picking up rave reviews for his performances for Anderlecht, going on to win the Belgian Golden and Ebony Shoes. Incredibly, the awards were won in 2004 at the age of just 18, which, to put into perspective, is just a year after Kompany made his senior debut for the purple of Anderlecht. It was evident at a young age that Kompany had a bright career ahead of him, but he’d keep his feet on the ground and remain in Belgium for the time being, valuing minutes ahead of money.

His subsequent growth on the pitch was exceptional. He was improving so drastically that he would go on to become Belgium’s youngest player in 43 years, also having the crème de la crème of European football coming to watch him in action. 

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Alongside Juventus and Bayern Munich, the majority of interest came from England where Arsenal, a Chelsea and Manchester United would want a first-hand experience of the youngster. The latter even sent their chief scout, Martin Ferguson, brother of head coach Alex, on multiple occasions. But a well-devised plan saw Anderlecht keep hold of their gem and rack up games in the most important domestic and international competitions, allowing themselves to get the best out of their budding star.

The resistance would end in 2006, however. Hamburg, who were enjoying title aspirations in the Bundesliga, would seal a club-record deal for the defender, with great things expected for both parties. But that hope suffered a hit in his first season as an Achilles injury would rule him out for much of the campaign. Despite the Die Rothosen faithful believing in their man, the player’s development would also be hindered by the manager’s decision to field him in defensive midfield, a role he could play well but which negated many of his biggest assets. To add to it all, a fallout with the hierarchy over his participation in the Olympic Games of 2008 would spell the end of his time in Germany.

A move of great potential didn’t bear fruit in the way the player and club would’ve liked. Despite that, there were still many who stood by him – his selection for the national team’s participation at the Olympics proves that. He just needed a new start, one without baggage and where he could stay for a prolonged period.

Touted from a very young age, he would now have the chance to meet the expectations of old on the blue side of Manchester. With a takeover from the Middle East looming large, it seemed certain that the future would be bright as the royals from the United Arab Emirates looked to end the dominance of their neighbours, Manchester United. 

Kompany would make his debut for the club just a few days after signing against West Ham and would enjoy a steady first season at the club, finishing in 10th in the league and reaching the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup. However, in Manchester, just like in Hamburg, being deployed in the wrong position affected his consistency. Under the tutelage of Mark Hughes, Kompany was often played in midfield.

When Hughes was sacked early in the following campaign, in came Roberto Mancini – schooled in the defensive world of calcio – and Kompany was finally sent to the back line for good. From there, the stars aligned for player, manager and club. The ambitious investment by the owners combined with the incredible tactical nous of the manager was an excellent combination. The 2009/10 season was even better for City as they finished fifth, narrowly missing out on Champions League football, but the building blocks for the club’s subsequent era of success were laid. 

In the close season, City would invest heavily in their squad, bringing in the likes of Yaya Touré, David Silva and Aleksandar Kolarov from top European rivals. If there was any season that defined City’s ambitions for the long-term, it was this. Two performances from Kompany stood out in the first half of the campaign and allowed him to stake a claim as the Premier League’s best defender.

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The first came in the second month of the season in a crucial home game against defending champions, Chelsea, where a 1-0 win would state City’s title aspirations. It was a Carlos Tevez goal that secured the game for the Citizens, but Kompany’s pairing at the back with Kolo Touré was unbreakable, even for an attack consisting of Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba.

The next big performance was against neighbours and title rivals Manchester United. Once again Kompany was strong, and once again City would gain an important point. By now the club was growing in stature by the week, and the Belgian was seen as a leader for years to come. How right the fans were.

For every challenge he won he would bring out a boyish charm, fisting in delight as he revelled in the joy of doing what he did best, before regaining his composure and focus and leading his team was aplomb. He was the ultimate leader – grounded, intelligent and consistent. Next would come the silverware.

The early season games against Chelsea and United were statements, but City would make an even bigger impact in the cup competitions. The club was progressing smoothly in the FA Cup and had a semi-final date at Wembley, once again against their neighbours. The following 90 minutes were historic as a solitary Yaya Touré goal would send City into the final in what was, arguably, one of their greatest wins in recent years. It was eclipsed in the final itself as another Touré goal would down Stoke, with Kompany, Mancini, Mansour and co going on to win the club’s first trophy in 35 years.

At the end of the season, Kompany was lauded the world over, lifting the Players’ and Fans’ Player of the Season awards and winning a spot in the PFA Team of the Year. If people were sleeping on City’s success and Kompany’s fine growth over the last two years, the 2010/11 campaign would wake them up, but the steamroller didn’t stop there. The club wanted to become one of Europe’s elite, but to get to that level, they first had to become England’s best. 

In the 2011/12 campaign, Kompany was given the armband on a permanent basis, replacing the controversial, if undoubtedly talented, Carlos Tevez. City would start the season strongly, winning 12 of their first 14 games, drawing the other two and establishing a firm lead at the top. One game, however, set them apart and indicated a power shift in their great footballing city. The Manchester derby at Old Trafford was sure to be feisty, but what transpired at Old Trafford shocked the world. 

Both United and City entered the game in excellent form. However, form mattered little as the team in blue would run riot, scoring six times to lay waste to Sir Alex Ferguson’s “noisy neighbours” jibe.

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If that derby was satisfying for the team, the one at the Etihad the following April would be even better for Kompany and the club. After their strong start to the season, City would slow, with United’s experience driving them ahead. As the season’s end approached, the Red Devils racked up an eight-point lead at the top of the table with six games left to play. It seemed certain that Ferguson’s men would pick up their 20th top-flight title and City would have to reel in despair. However, just like their mid-season collapse, United suffered from complacency and by the time the derby came around again, their lead was trimmed to just three points. 

With a better goal difference, the Citizens knew that a win would take them to the top of the league with just two games left to play. It was their captain who struck on the cusp of half-time, and City would hold on from there. This was by far the most important goal Kompany had scored in his career and the celebrations matched it. All they had to do now was not slip up. The following week, they would go on and beat Newcastle away, meaning that they needed just one win at home against struggling Queens Park Rangers to lift their first league title in 44 years. 

Everyone knows the story from here. Sergio Agüero’s dramatic 94th-minute winner would end City’s league drought. In a season where the title races when down to the wire all over Europe, the one in England was the most dramatic, with Kompany’s contribution to nothing short of heroic, marshalling his defence with stout leadership and brilliant positioning, anticipation and covering.

It appeared as though sustained City dominance was on the cards. However, the next season would represent a failure. In Europe, where the focus now shifted, they would finish bottom of their group and get knocked out for the second successive season. In the Premier League, they would finish 13 points behind Manchester United, while in the FA Cup, they would lose to Wigan in the final. This triad of negative results led to the inevitable sacking of Mancini.

In came Chilean Mauricio Pellegrini, but for Kompany, he was now leading on two fronts. While City were only getting better, his national team was doing the same. Much like himself, there were thousands of other children of immigrants in Belgium and, luckily for the national team, they were a bunch of good footballers. The likes of Romelu Lukaku, Christian Benteke and Moussa Dembélé carried similar like their captain and, merged with the mercurial talents of Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, formed a formidable outfit.

At club level, Pellegrini’s City were embedded in the title race, this time with Liverpool and Chelsea. Kompany was again at his best, with key performances coming in both Manchester derbies, one of which was a 4-1 win and the other a 3-0 away success. They were pushed all the way to the end, with the title only clinched on the final day against West Ham, Kompany scoring once in a 2-0 success. That season, they also added the League Cup, a tournament City would steamroll towards, scoring 22 times in six games. 

At international level, Kompany would become the first Belgian captain to lead his team at the World Cup finals in 12 years. The tournament would prove to be a successful outing, the Rode Duivels topping their group and going all the way to the quarter-finals, falling just short against eventual runners-up, Argentina.

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It has been a fine year for the player. Sadly, though, 2014 would prove to be the final year in which Kompany would play regularly without the debilitating effects of injury. Between 2010 and the 2014, he would play 166 times for his club and earn 38 national caps, but that number would significantly reduce over the next few years. 

The next two seasons bore little fruit for player and club. Although they reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2015/16, they were far off domestically and, the season after that, under Pep Guardiola, was one of transition. The international scene wasn’t all that great either. After missing much of the 2015/16 and 2016/17 seasons, Kompany would also sit out Euro 2016 in France. From the successes between 2010 and 2014, Kompany was forced to become a bit-part player. 

City had to compensate for their ailing talisman, and to replace him they brought in the likes of Eliaquim Mangala, Nicolás Otamendi, John Stones and Aymeric Laporte. Even in Guardiola’s historic title-winning campaign in 2017/18, where they shattered so many records, Kompany didn’t feature as much as he would’ve liked. However, the League Cup brought some relief, as his goal in the final against Arsenal allowed him to lift the trophy for the second time in his career at Wembley. The World Cup in Russia was great too, as an incredible Belgian generation reached their potential and finished third, with Kompany a key figure. 

In his time away from the pitch due to injury he missed nothing, remaining a key figure in the City changing room and inspiring his teammates through his articulate choice of words. It’s no coincidence that some of the game’s best players – the likes of De Bruyne, Silva and Sergio Agüero – are often in praise of his methods. The local community is also important to Kompany, He’s frequently seen visiting schools and hospitals, interacting with his legions of fans and gifting lessons in the art of humility, leadership and hard work.

An eternal learner, his life goes well beyond football. While recovering from injury, he completed an MBA at the Manchester Business School and graduated in 2018, while in previous years he has also contributed to helping poverty-stricken areas in Congo and Brussels. In 2013, he purchased a third tier team in Belgium, FC Bleid, with the intention of allowing all social classes to enjoy the sport.

It’s a shame that injuries have impacted the recent history of Kompany the footballer, who has often been missed in the City line-up, especially in tight games. At his peak between 2010 and 2014, he was comfortably one of the world’s best defenders, combining both an excellent ability to read the game and cover his back line with an unflinching desire to get the best out of those around him.

Manchester City recently took steps to etch their recent legends into history by naming training pitches at the Etihad Campus after two icons at the club, Joe Hart and Yaya Touré. There is no doubt that there will be more for Vincent Kompany, whose journey with City finally ended in 2019 after he chose to return to Anderlecht as player-manager.

By Karan Tejwani @karan_tejwani26

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