Two common stereotypes cloud our heads when talking about great centerbacks. First, we think of firemen. A bell rings and a dashing, handsome Carles Puyol glides down a pole, jumps into a truck, and then axes down a door to deliver the sliding tackle that saves the day. The centerback is the team’s EMT, the man who arrives in the nick of time to snuff out danger. Second, we think of butchers. We respect (and sometimes fear) a rugged behemoth with sharp elbows who hacks down forwards, a Pepe that pushes and claws and wrestles others into submission.
Yet Vincent Kompany defies both these stereotypes. And he just may be the best centerback in the world today.
Kompany is a centerback of contradictions. At somewhere between 6’4” and 6’5” he should cover long distances with ease but struggle to accelerate. However, the creator gave him the right proportions of leg and midriff to both sprint and run marathons. The result is that his legs have the length of a spear but move with the quickness of a dagger. When left on an island defensively, he hovers over the grass, tip-toeing on each blade as he shadows a forward and waits for a moment of hesitation to nick the ball off him. If “nickability” was a proper characteristic and stat, he’d be impossible to get around on FIFA. He combines the lateral movement of crab with the hip-swiveling of a ballerina. You would never want to challenge him to a Zumba dance-off: you would lose miserably.
Unlike other centerbacks, he’s not a butcher — he’s a chef. His studs stay down in most tackles. In fact, you rarely see him lunge and he almost never slides. Some centerbacks treat the 18-yard-box like a moshpit. They end the game with grass stains and sometimes blood all over their kit. Kompany, in contrast, is an immaculately dressed composer. He defends like a spider, luring a forward into his web and then waiting to step between the player and ball. And once he gets his huge frame in the way, he becomes the immovable object. Yet even that is rare — Kompany’s mind works so fast he usually has passed the ball to a teammate before the recently robbed forward can react.
Unlike even your favorite centerback, Vincent Kompany is not a fireman — he’s a smoke detector. For all his physical gifts, the greatest one is his brain. Kompany’s clever reading of the game is his best asset, and that’s why his excellence is so utterly unquantifiable. How do you praise the prevention of a problem snuffed out in its genesis? Kompany rarely keeps an opposing player onside, instead barking orders at the outside backs to push further up the pitch. He’d be a master minesweeper because he never puts a foot wrong.
The only time Kompany fits the 20th-century stereotype of a centerback is on corner kicks. He seldom forays forward during the run of play, but relishes the chance at an offensive header. Opposing teams try to mark him. And fail. Zonal marking. Big-man-to-big-man. Nothing works. At 6’4” or 6’5” and easily over 200 pounds with a great read on a ball’s flight, your best options are: serendipity, chance and luck. On a rare occasion, he may screw a header wide. However, as against Manchester United, if he gets his head to ball, expect a laser-guided bullet to the side-netting.
Yet no defender defends alone. And that’s what’s most impressive about Kompany: he has excelled alongside players like Joleon Lescott and Martin Demichelis who do not stir the blood with their talents. Lescott’s decision-making was always suspect and Demichelis is trapped in an aging body, but both played well when defending alongside Kompany. How could they not? His frequent muscle injuries are a concern, but also shine light on how much he means to City. They feel his absence all over the pitch.
Thus, Kompany is not your father’s centerback. Don’t expect to see him don a fireman’s hat or get blood on his shirt. But that doesn’t make him any less great.
—Elliott writes about soccer at Futfanatico.com. He is the author of An Illustrated Guide to Soccer & Spanish, available on iTunes.