Pablo Zabaleta is pretty great, you guys
Manchester City, for a big team with piles of cash, are an oddly likeable team. And Pable Zabaleta might be the most appealing player of the lot.
For a fossil fuel-driven vanity project with more money than Scrooge McDuck and ambitions of global domination, Manchester City have got a surprising number of quite likeable footballers. There’s the unimpeachably adorable David Silva, all soft-shoed elegance. There’s the engagingly terrifying Aleksandr Kolarov, with his depth charge of a left foot and his festive cheer. And there’s James Milner, who may not be particularly interesting but who has the air of an undemonstrative yet competent cribbage partner, which is all anybody can ever ask from another human being.
More than any of those, though, there’s Pablo Zabaleta, one of the most generally admirable footballers in the Premier League. On Wednesday night, as Manchester City disappointed an entire nation by failing to fall flat on their faces against Roma, it was Zabaleta who scored the second, performance-capping goal. And he did so in the most Zabaleta manner possible: first he sprinted seventy yards in the 86th minute, then he tackled the thing into the net.
It’s quite a good position, full back, for anybody who wants to come over well as a footballer. Getting anywhere near the peak of the profession requires several attributes as a bare minimum, all of which are thoroughly appealing: a deranged work rate; the ability to charge up and down the wing at speed; a knack for a crunching tackle. Then there’s the curious footballing ritual that dictates any square ball out to the full back from a midfield muddle must, simply must, be met with a ripple of applause. By Pavlovian association the full back becomes associated with clapping and approval, with safety and escape. Unless they then fluff the pass back to the goalkeeper.
Cast your eye down any Premier League squad and it’s frequently one of the full backs that’s picked up something approaching cult status from their own fans. Rafael da Silva at Manchester United, Branislav Ivanovic at Chelsea, that weird crush half of Arsenal’s fanbase developed on Carl Jenkinson, before Arsene Wenger broke their hearts by lending him to Sam Allardyce. Jon Flanagan ended last season being hailed as the Red Cafu by Liverpool fans, much to the apparent amusement of the real Cafu.
But if it helps that Zabaleta is a full back, then it also helps that he’s a seriously good full back. Meatily effective in defence, ever-willing in attack, utterly tireless, he’s kept his place as City’s first choice despite their snaffling of Bacary Sagna from Arsenal. We should also acknowledge his unique contribution to the field of protesting unjust yellow cards: first he holds his hand out in front of him, then, while stalking away from the referee and bellowing his disagreement to the unjust universe, he slashes it back over his head, as though he’s removing an invisible wizard’s hat. He probably isn’t, mind.
There’s an assumption, and not always an unjust one, that any player who ends up at a club like Manchester City — your Chelseas, your PSGs, your Monacos and so forths and so ons — has arrived with one eye on their bank balance and the other eye also on their bank balance. That what enchants them about the club isn’t the history, or the character, or any of the other acceptable reasons to play for a football team, but simply the filthy lucre.
Yet there’s a laziness at the heart of it, one that fails to take account of the fact that footballers are not a monolithic block of identical personality types. One man’s payday is another man’s bigger stage; one man’s cashpoint is another’s cause. While Zabaleta evades this charge on a technicality — he arrived the day before the takeover — he also evades it because he clearly and obviously cares. Deeply. Appropriately. So much so, in fact, that he was able to kiss the badge after scoring his goal in midweek and not look like an opportunistic clown setting himself up for a minor betrayal. That takes something.
Whether that’s because inflatable bananas strike a real chord with his soul, or because he’s a professional who takes pride in his work, or because he really, really hates Francesco Totti … it doesn’t really matter. It’s his almost aggressive lack of superclub glamour that really shines through, the way he runs at cross-purposes to the way these projects are supposed to go. The polar opposite to whatever instinct it was that led to “Guys, let’s buy Kaka!”; the yang to Garry Cook’s risible yin. Glamour signings are all very well, but there are times when nothing but a gritty full back will stir the soul.