JASON BURT ON MANGALA
Eliaquim Mangala shrugs off infamous TV slur and tells Jason Burt how he has become vital to City’s cause
For a player who is so self-aware – and who can be so self-critical – Eliaquim Mangala has faced brutal analysis since he joined Manchester City. It culminated in this comment from the striker-turned-BBC-pundit Chris Sutton: “You cannot give somebody a brain and that’s Mangala’s problem. He can run, he’s strong – but defending is all about decision-making.”
Asked about the criticism, Mangala says: “I think everyone has the right to make a comment, that’s what football is all about. But there is a line that you go up to. I think it’s fair to criticise people’s performances on the field but if you refer to stuff that’s not to do with on-field activity then, maybe, it’s a lack of respect. When a lack of respect is shown then it goes beyond the normal situation. That makes it different.”
Mangala knows criticism goes with the territory. He plays for City, he plays for his country, he cost £42 million. He expects it. He accepts it and does not complain about it and deals with it thoughtfully. “Because people expect more when you play for Manchester City, when you play for a top team and when your price is expensive,” Mangala says.
“But that does not mean you don’t have respect for the player. It’s fine to criticise the performance but there is that limit. And that’s it. Everybody has to respect what we do. Criticise for the performance. No problem.”
Mangala’s response, as he sits inside City’s training ground ahead of tomorrow’s eagerly-anticipated Champions League semi-final first leg at home to Real Madrid, is not said in irritation either. He is clearly and honestly – in perfect English, having mastered the language within two years of being signed from Porto, only occasionally lapsing into French – stating his case.
Just as he has done with his recent performances, not least in the quarter-final second leg when he played so commandingly to shut out the Paris St-Germain strikeforce of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani and Ángel di María, and help earn City a clean sheet and passage into the last four of Europe’s most prestigious competition. It felt like a big moment for him, a coming of age as a central defender, as well as for the club.
Mangala took to social media after the PSG match. “We did it! Amazing feeling! Already focused on the next game but thank you @chrissutton09 for the motivation tonight”, he tweeted. There was hashtag ‘cleansheet’ and a smiling face and there are plenty of smiles from Mangala during this interview as he explains the otherwise serious business of trying to be the best defender he can be.
“It is very important to get a clean sheet,” he says. “It’s like a striker scoring a goal. The first thing – avoid conceding. Don’t concede. My job is to defend my goalkeeper. I can say it’s my life on the pitch and I play for that. OK, I know Joe [Hart] is there but first I have to help make sure he has to make as few saves as possible. I have to protect him.”
Mangala, like a number of leading players, such as Romelu Lukaku, also uses a specialised company – in addition to the video analysis provided by City – to send him bespoke details of how he has performed.
“I have a programme,” he explains. “They send me clips – clips of my performances analysing specific things that I do, incidents.
“When I see my clips, I am focusing on my positions; what I am doing, what’s to my left, right, in front of me, how I deal with counterattacks. There are so many things. Of course, it’s what you see after you have time. You can press the pause button. Stop the video and I can see.
“There are so many actions that can happen in football that you need to anticipate. So, I can say to myself, ‘Ah, I know this action because it happened then and then’. I can see what I did wrong and right and games later I can remember, analyse and deal with it. It’s important to do that after every game.”
He watches every game again. “Sometimes I watch them twice,” Mangala explains. “I analyse what I have to do and I am the first to criticise myself. So, I don’t have a problem with other people criticising me.”
The insight into the preparation and work he does is all the more interesting in that the scrutiny he has faced – not least from analysts such as Sutton – has centred on his reading of the game, concentration and decision-making.
Interestingly, though, Opta statistics show that Mangala’s passcompletion rate of 87.76 per cent is the sixth-best of defenders in the Premier League.
Injury free and in an impressive vein of form, Mangala, 25, believes the best is yet to come and may
even still be a couple of years off for him. “It’s good for me, physically and mentally, but I think for a defender the best moment is between 28 and 32 years old because of experience,” he says.
“You have learnt the position and are able to tell players to come here, cover there and maybe not to be so involved in the physical side of it. Twenty-five – I am lucky because I started young. I am lucky because I have played for big teams as a defender. Most defenders in big teams are older.”
Having started his career in Belgium with Standard Liege, where he made his debut aged 17, and having played in Portugal, Mangala readily accepts that the Premier League is “totally different”; something of a culture shock, in fact, even for a physically powerful player such as him. “For example, if you compare the game we played against PSG to the one we played against Newcastle [1-1 draw at St James’ Park] on Tuesday – the intensity,” Mangala says.
“Against Newcastle, I have never jumped in a game so much in my life. Jumped for headers, challenges. Every time. Against PSG it was more tactical and it was very different. Against Newcastle it was: fight, challenge, fight. In the Champions League, you have to concentrate more because it is more tactical. With one mistake you can lose the game. In the Premier League you can maybe make more mistakes because there are more challenges, more energy, the ball comes back more often. But you have to be ready to go from the first minute to the last minute to fight, fight, fight [he punches the palm of his hand].
“I enjoy it, it’s exciting to be involved in this kind of game as well. You have to adapt, you have to decide very quickly and the referee is also not the same. Play on! You think, ‘Oh, that’s not a foul?’ But you get used to it.”
And he has got used to it. After a difficult first season, when he accepts the criticism of him was largely justified, after being out for long periods this campaign through injury, Mangala is fit and thriving.
“I had a few physical problems that stopped me a bit from improving,” he says. “But now I feel confident and I think people can see that out on the pitch. The truth is always out on the pitch. I feel free, I feel confident and I want to help the team to win more games.” City have not done enough of that this season, however. It could still end in glory, with this Champions League campaign, but it has been disappointing as well in the league, even if they won the Capital One Cup.
“The Premier League this season has been very strange,” Mangala says. “You think some teams will be champions and then you see what Leicester, Tottenham and West Ham have done. They have been brilliant. But we have had so many key injuries at the same time and it’s been very hard.
“We have not had the same team all season, which is also because we have had so many games. It meant we could not play properly in the FA Cup because we had to play the Champions League and, normally, the FA Cup is very important for our team.
“For some games, also, we have not done so well. To win something we have to be more consistent – especially in the Premier League. We can’t just start well and then not continue that with one good game, one game not. There have been games when other teams have been better than us. We admit that and it happens. But we have not been as good as we have wanted to be. We have tried but we can do better. Now we have to be focused on our goal.”
That starts with tomorrow’s tie against Real Madrid which Mangala calls the “biggest game I will have been involved in”. “We get excited,” he says of the players – not just the supporters – as he relishes the tie. “First, it’s like a dream. When you are young, you see the players on the TV. Players in the semi-final and final of the Champions League and you think, ‘Maybe one day I’m going to be involved in this kind of game’. And now this is a reality. So, it’s a good moment for me.
“It’s emotional as well. It’s very exciting to play in the semi-final because there are so many players who never get the chance to do that in their careers. I’m very happy to say I will have been involved in a semi-final of the Champions League.
“I am here to help Manchester City be involved in this particular kind of game and now, in my second season, it’s a chance for us to reach the final.”
It is also a chance for City to confirm their status among Europe’s elite. “It’s historic for the club,” Mangala says. “For a few years, the team has tried to arrive and be among the big teams – Real Madrid, Bayern Munich. To be among these kind of opponents at this stage says we are one of the big four teams in Europe.
“We can prove ourselves. We are good enough to say we deserve to be where we are. So, it’s important now that we play for each other, as we always try to do. You have to have the spirit as a team if you want to fight to play against other big teams. Against PSG we played like a big team with big players. A big team. It was an important moment.”
Mangala, who was born in Paris, is well aware of the comparison between Abu Dhabiowned City and Qatari-owned PSG and their relative ambition. “Their project was a little later [than City’s] but they have not managed to get past the quarterfinals,” he says.
“The comparison was always made that we had started before but had never got to the quarterfinal and now we are in the semifinal. So, now we have just three games to win the Champions League.
“And that is the ambition. If it does not happen this season it will happen eventually. If we play like we played against PSG then we can beat many teams … and Real Madrid are a big team with lots of big players who are used to playing in the semi-finals and in the final. They are very, very good on the counter-attack with the three forwards – Cristiano, Benzema and Bale. So, we have to be ready with the same spirit. As a team, we are very strong.”
Mangala is now a key player in the heart of City’s defence. “My first motivation is my personal motivation,” he says. “Then I play for my family and people who support me. And then I want to win. I live to win. That’s my philosophy. Every time I go to training. Every time I am in the gym and when I am out on the pitch. It’s the same thing. I am ambitious.”
‘I have a programme – they send me clips of my performances analysing things I do. Sometimes I watch a game twice’
Tower of strength: Eliaquim Mangala keeps Zlatan Ibrahimovic under wraps