Four-time Premier League winner returned to his boyhood club as player-manager last summer, but Manchester City have struggled in his absence while Anderlecht are yet to reap the benefits
Friday 21 February 2020 21:14, UK
"It's the most passionate yet rational decision I've ever made."
After 360 appearances for Manchester City, Vincent Kompany opened his heart to the club's supporters to explain his decision to call time on his 11-year stay at the Etihad.
In an emotional letter, he wrote about what City had come to mean to him after four league titles. Pep Guardiola knew then that the biggest challenge in keeping Liverpool at bay this season would be in finding an adequate replacement for a man who had been front and centre in City's history of success.
Indeed, City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak said: "There have been many important contributors to Manchester City's renaissance, but arguably none are more important than Vincent Kompany.
"He defines the essence of the club. For a decade he has been the lifeblood, the soul, and beating heart of a supremely talented squad."
Last month, the Football Writers' Association paid tribute to Kompany. Man City's visit to Leicester City this Saturday, live on Sky Sports, offers a reminder of just how inspirational Kompany was as he dragged his former club kicking and screaming over the line for a fourth time.
"Where do you want your statue, Vincent Kompany?" asked Gary Neville after City's Captain Marvel stepped out of the defence and unleashed that bolt from the blue to fire them to within one win of the title.
It was his first goal of the season; his first-ever from 37 shots attempted from outside the box in his Premier League career, the last and most important of his 20 strikes in City colours. There was still the matter 20 minutes to see things out, and the trip to Brighton on the final day, but there and then, the title was City's.
It was also the perfect way for Kompany to bow out at the Etihad, with FA Cup success then experienced for a second time just for good measure. A previous encounter with Leicester had suggested he was in decline; it was November of the 2017/18 season, and the centre-back was fortunate to escape being sent off during City's 2-0 win at the King Power Stadium.
Referee Graham Scott brandished a yellow card after he scythed down Jamie Vardy in a clumsy challenge. A calf injury had meant it was his first appearance since the previous August, but only John Stones' recovery run prevented him from seeing red.
Two years later, and Kompany was a special guest for Sky Sports watching Liverpool beat City 3-1 at Anfield, leading Roy Keane to declare the title race was "done". Speaking from the heart, the Belgian refused to share that sentiment.
"A team as demanding as Liverpool means that none of the other competitions they are in can be put to one side," he said. "They showed how strong they are today, but I think there's another team as well where the puzzle is quite interesting and that's Man City. The competition will be there right until the end, in my opinion."
Kompany modestly claimed that City were in no need of signing a centre-back in January, but the numbers suggest otherwise.
Manchester City are 22 points behind Liverpool after 26 games. Jurgen Klopp's relentless march towards the Premier League title has seen his side make top-flight history - no side in the English top tier has ever enjoyed such a chasm over the chasing pack.
City have now lost six games in the Premier League this season; their joint-most in a single campaign under manager Guardiola, equalling the six in the 2016/17 campaign. As they fell to a 2-0 loss at Tottenham this month, Kompany was some 234 miles away helping his side to just their eighth league win of the season, a narrow 1-0 victory over Royal Excel Mouscron.
In many ways, Franky Vercauteren - the man who was appointed as head coach in early October in a bid to curb the club's dismal form - has had to contend with the same issues that have undermined City's quest for a third straight Premier League title.
Guardiola would sympathise with an Anderlecht squad beset by injuries in key areas that have derailed attempts to inject momentum into a mediocre campaign. The win over Mouscron was only the third time Anderlecht had managed back-to-back victories in the league this season, but they are yet to string together three in a row, ending any hopes of securing a first league title since 2017.
This was again highlighted as Kompany was forced to sit out the trip to Gent a fortnight ago, a creditable 1-1 draw. On Anderlecht's previous trip to the Ghelamco Arena, on May 19, it was the same day the club announced the imminent return of their prodigal son.
In the away end, fans chanted his name despite the side succumbing to defeat. A banner was unfurled proclaiming "Vince = magic" while one supporter waved a shirt with Kompany's old No 27 on the back.
This time, Vercauteren compared the Anderlecht training ground to an infirmary, with a scan confirming that Kompany would join the newly-capped Belgium international Elias Cobbaut, Yari Verschaeren, Nacer Chadli, Pieter Gerkens and Kemar Roofe in the treatment room.
"His season has been a real rollercoaster," RTBF Belgian football journalist Antoine Hick told Sky Sports. "He came back to the club as a legend, after conquering the Premier League, and people were hoping that he could put Anderlecht back on track.
"Unfortunately, it wasn't that easy. On the pitch, he had to deal with some injuries that have led him to miss 14 out of the first 25 games. Whenever he's on the pitch and in great shape, he's way too good for the Belgian Pro League, there is no doubt.
"Team-mates and opponents keep on repeating it: Kompany still has the level to play at a much higher level. Unfortunately, his body, as often in his career, has been fragile."
Age has perhaps caught up with his legs, suggesting it was not so much City's decision to let him go but rather their failure to land a replacement that has blighted their season. That said, Kompany has never been graced with blistering pace, and his leadership qualities would certainly have made a crucial difference in the dressing room and on a daily basis.
Fernandinho, an unsung hero and vital cog in City's midfield engine room was seen as an option in defence, but it has deprived the team of its best anchorman.
Writing in his column for the Sunday Times in December, Sky Sports pundit Graeme Souness wrote: "It was a disastrous decision by Guardiola to allow Kompany to walk away.
"Back in December 2018, City knew he was in the last year of his contract. I don't know whether the offer from Anderlecht came late on in the season but the club took its eye off the ball by not pinning their Belgian captain down for another year."
Kompany has gone from dining at the top table to being tasked with dragging Anderlecht out of the Belgian Pro League's mid-table. Resources and relevance at City and Anderlecht are at opposite ends of overall footballing spectrum.
Researchers from the CIES Football Observatory, a group within the Switzerland-based International Centre for Sports Studies, showed earlier this season that City have spent £850m on their current squad.
Despite Anderlecht's undeniable standing in Belgian football with 34 domestic titles, their pedigree and pulling power in Brussels, Kompany arrived at a club set to embark on a campaign without European football for the first time in 56 years and with unrest off the pitch.
Mismanagement had meant his homecoming could not have come at a more challenging time, and fans reacted in disbelief to the sporting director Michael Verschueren and then technical director Frank Arnesen managing to pull off the coup of the summer.
"Off the pitch, he's had a great impact," Hick continued. "His younger team-mates are considering him as a big brother and trying to learn from his experience abroad. The Anderlecht front office can thank Kompany.
"Throughout the last few years, every coach was booed if the team didn't win two or three times a row. I remember Rene Weiler, a previous coach, who had led Anderlecht to the title but who was booed by the very demanding supporters after a few disappointing results.
"For Kompany it wasn't the case. The supporters are much more patient because they believe in the 'long-term vision of the Messiah of Anderlecht'. He has an aura that kind of prevents him of being criticised, despite those disappointing results.
"He talked to many of his former team-mates in an attempt to convince them to come to Anderlecht. Unfortunately, most of them didn't accept the challenge, perhaps considering that Anderlecht was a big step down in their respective careers.
"Robin van Persie and Yaya Toure were among the big names approached by Kompany only for the invite to be declined. But still, without Kompany, Samir Nasri or Nacer Chadli would never have signed for Anderlecht. Chadli has brought an improvement on the pitch, but I wouldn't say the same for Nasri who has constantly been injured this season."
Anderlecht have four remaining games in the regular season but the 2-0 defeat at Mechelen last weekend makes their chances of reaching the Championship Playoffs slim - they are currently four points off the top six. It is something they have never failed to achieve since the system was introduced in 2009.
Hick added: "By signing with Anderlecht, Kompany has opened the last chapter of his playing career. He may play two or three more seasons in Brussels, but I wouldn't be surprised if he stops his career pretty soon.
"Signing with Anderlecht at this point of his career was a smart transition move. It will facilitate what he moves into once he retires. He could easily become a member of the coaching staff or even step up into boardroom level at Anderlecht.
"Kompany is only 33 but he started his career really young, when he was 17. He has been on the pitches for 17 years now. Soon, Kompany the player will become Kompany the businessman."
City, meanwhile, still have plenty to play for, with their quest for a first Champions League title set to resume. Guardiola remains fully committed and is currently contracted until 2021, but until Kompany's replacement is found, it is hard to picture how any rebuild can take shape.