In an exclusive extract from Football 2.0 by Grant Wahl, the Manchester City defender explains how his attacking instincts were honed at his first club, Anderlecht.
THE best advice that Kompany ever received was also the worst advice. When he was a youth player in Belgium, he says, one of his coaches told him, “You’re a big defender. Stick to what you’re good at.” In essence, that coach – Kompany says he was one of the exceptions at his club, Anderlecht – didn’t expect him to become technically gifted on the ball. “And that just did it for me,” says Kompany, snapping his fingers. “[I wanted] people to be surprised to see my skills, that I could do things that a striker does. I was obsessed by it, and I kept working until they said, ‘Vince is really good when he plays from the back!’ They used the words ‘elegant’ and ‘flair’. I was never as good as some of the most gifted players, but I was better than anyone in my position for a long time.”
The youth system at Anderlecht was modelled on the famed Ajax academy in the Netherlands. The emphasis was on producing ball-playing defenders, and Kompany’s obsession with passing and technical skills paid off. The ball stayed on the ground. Kompany’s youth teams almost never played in the air. “We weren’t allowed to kick the ball all the way upfield, so you kind of evolved into the player you needed to be. You took a lot of risk, but that’s what they asked for,” he says.
“I was always a defender and defensive midfielder. The way we grew up at Anderlecht, it was interchangeable in the sense that the defender was asked to break the lines with the ball. And in that case, the defensive midfielder would become the defender. Everything was based around being a ball-playing defender.” When you watch video with Kompany and he wins a ball in the defensive half before launching into a 60-yard run downfield with it, the temptation is to compare him to Franz Beckenbauer, the legendary German defender. But Kompany often smiles and calls it “going Anderlecht”.
Kompany grew up studying other graceful defenders and defensive midfielders with good ball skills. “I used to be a big fan of Marcel Desailly,” Kompany says. “He played as a defensive midfielder at Milan and Marseille, and then he moved back to central defender. At Chelsea and his national team he was always between two positions, so there are a lot of similarities. I was also a great admirer of Patrick Vieira. But I never really identified with another player because I was cheeky in my head, thinking I needed to be better. But I liked the all-around presence that they had on the pitch.”
In some ways, Anderlecht’s insistence on its youth teams keeping the ball on the ground is similar – in effect, if not in intention – to the rules adopted by US Soccer in 2015 that eliminate heading the ball by children age 10 and younger and limit the amount of heading in practice from the ages of 11 to 13. Although US Soccer cited a desire to prevent head injuries in young players, a number of former US senior national team players criticised the rule, arguing that youngsters wouldn’t be able to learn the correct technique of heading. Yet Kompany’s own experience suggests otherwise. “It’s funny. One of the strongest parts of my game today is heading,” Kompany says, “and that only really developed when I started playing at the professional level. In the youth teams all we did was passing.”
The ability to deliver the right pass – whether it’s short to the side, a diagonal arrow upfield on a dime, or something in between – is a fundamental skill for the modern centre-back. Man City have put together clips and divided them into four categories: distribution, aerial duels, proactive defending, and goals. In the distribution footage Kompany regularly completes lengthy passes with just the right weight, direction, and distance. “The biggest pass for a defender is a pass forward,” Kompany says, as the video shows him unspooling a ball from the back, over the midfield, to forward Wilfried Bony. “If you break a line, you can actually take out three or four players at a time. But you have to be really careful. If I’m a defender, that’s the ball I’m trying to intercept. You have to know when to pick your pass. When I was younger, I would just try to [make long passes] all the time. Now I’ll [mix in] a side pass every now and then.”