There was a time when Eliaquim Mangala was the most expensive defender in the world. After winning consecutive titles with Porto, he earned himself a £32m move to Manchester City, where he was first-choice under Manuel Pellegrini. However, the managerial change at the Etihad would derail him. The arrival of Pep Guardiola saw him demoted to fourth choice before a loan spell at Everton was cut short by a serious injury.
Since, he has played in Valencia, where the injuries followed him, and consequently, his contract wasn’t renewed. Most recently, he had a front-row seat of the crisis that engulfed Saint-Étienne. He only spent six months with Les Verts, before departing in wake of their relegation to Ligue 2.
Now 31, the former most expensive defender in the world is without a club. Whilst he is using his time out of the game to devote himself to charitable work, notably with the NGO Peace and Sport, he is eager to get stuck into a new project. He may have half an eye on management, but his professional days are not over yet, as he told Get French Football News’ Luke Entwistle, in an exclusive interview.
Following the expiry of your contract at Saint-Étienne, you have been without a club. Are you looking to get back into the game?
My plan is to find a club and to find a club as quickly as possible. It’s my passion, and I’m motivated to give a lot more on the pitch. Football is where I enjoy myself. I want to be on the pitch. In terms of contacts from clubs, at the minute it is calm. Obviously, there is the World Cup coming up as well so it’s a bit of a special year. The clubs are going to see what happens until November. It’s a bit different as well because there are more and more free agents. But in terms of the World Cup, clubs will almost have another pre-season, and because of that, clubs could look to take certain players that are on the market. I’m speaking in general terms. So I have the desire, but the circumstances are particular.
You walked into a crisis situation at Saint-Étienne, where during your six months, you saw the club relegated to Ligue 2. Can you describe the feeling around the club during this turbulent time?
It was difficult. I only walked into it during the last few months, but everything was already in place. For me, despite everything, whilst there is life, there is hope so I gave everything until the end. Whether you succeed or not is another matter. A team like Saint-Étienne is French football heritage. It is a shame to get to this point. I don’t know everything that happened before. When I was at the club, despite the results, I tried to pick the team up and continue to believe and put things in place. I’m hoping to see them back in Ligue 1 as soon as possible.
In terms of personal relationships with members of staff, I didn’t have a problem. It’s true that I left because of the relegation. It ended there. Even for the supporters, you have to understand them Saint-Étienne is ‘the’ club, it’s their club. When you see their reaction afterward (relegation play-off pitch invasion), which I don’t condone, but if you put yourself in their position, you understand their disappointment. There are lots of young players at the club, and they need a certain stability to be able to rebuild, to create a solid base, and I hope they can do it.
How do you evaluate your time at Manchester City?
I was part of this transition. I was there in the [Manuel] Pellegrini era. The club showed a lot of ambition. It has been constructed over time. I was lucky to play with such important players. When you’re my age at the time, and you come to play at a high level, to play for Manchester City, to play in the Premier League, play in the Champions League, play in a semi-final as we did, these are things that allowed me to grow, to forge myself, to build my experience both as a player and on a human level. When I look at it with hindsight, as a child who wanted to play at the highest level, I achieved it. I had the chance to spend time with Pep (Guardiola), which for me in my life was a key moment because he showed me completely different things that I didn’t know about before, both in a sporting context and outside of that context.
Under Guardiola, you became fourth-choice, before ultimately going out on loan to Everton, where you suffered the unfortunate season-ending injury. With hindsight, is there an element of disappointment at how things played out at Manchester City?
Not disappointment. Why? Because when he arrived I was told I should leave, that I should find another solution. There was an offer at Inter Milan, but financially it didn’t work. At the end of the transfer window, I was still [at City]. At that point, the coach came up to me and spoke very sincerely to me. He said ‘there wasn’t any solution, and you’re here. You have a very specific profile, which in terms of my playing style, isn’t what I am looking for.’ He spoke to me very honestly. He continued, ‘but you’re here and we have four central defenders. We’re going to work together, and you’ll be ready to play every match and we have lots of matches, and so you’ll have playing time because there are characteristics that you possess and that I need, that others don’t have. You’re a very good player, it’s just that regarding the profile I’m looking for, for my style of play, you aren’t what I’m looking for.’ That was it. I don’t have any problem with that. I can’t be disappointed because the coach knows very what he wants. It’s not about my qualities, it’s about my profile.
Now, from that point, I knew I was the fourth-choice defender. There is John (Stones), Nicolas (Otamendi), and Vincent (Kompany). I didn’t play a single match in August. At the end of January, I left for Everton. Between then, I played 15 matches. It’s a huge amount of matches as fourth-choice. He said that when I start, I’ll be ready. I won’t ask mad things from you, but you’ll be ready.
You have previously posted a picture of yourself playing Football Manager with a book on Guardiola’s attacking tactics. Would you say that he has inspired you to go into management?
Yes. After having played under him, I had more of a desire to become a manager. It isn’t necessarily his playing style, because that can change, but his approach. Why do we play like that? Why make this particular movement and how are we going to do it? How will each player position themselves in relation to the other? It’s this part of it. It’s about the approach that leads things.
We talk about Pep in terms of what happens on the pitch, but there is also the mental side. Throughout the week there are his speeches, the way he approaches you to keep your feet on the ground. It’s everything, really. The way I received it really opened my eyes.
At the time, Manchester City paid a world-record fee to bring you in from Porto. Did that bring added pressure to perform, and if so, was it difficult to handle it?
Everyone handles it differently. Long before going to Manchester City, I quickly earned that there were multiple aspects to the game. There is the stuff on the pitch and then there is the business side that has evolved over time. It is true that the value was enormous, and with that came expectations. There is this subconscious side that has its influence. I tried to balance that influence by telling myself to concentrate on what I had to do.
Over the course of your career, the role of the central defender has evolved massively. In light of this, how do we evaluate defenders?
Nowadays, we ask a lot from them with the ball at their feet. Sometimes, I get the impression that the player is more evaluated by his footwork than by how he defends. It’s a balance. Football has evolved. There are enormous advantages to having a player that can play with the ball at his feet, it allows for the circulation of the ball. It’s an advantage. But that can’t be to the detriment of the primary role, which is to defend well. The evolution is positive, but it’s important that in this evolution not to lose the defensive side. It’s about adding it and not subtracting it.
Your career has been blighted by injury, but now you’re looking to get back into the game, do you feel physically ready?
[I feel] amazing! It was difficult with my knee, but that’s football, that’s life.
GFFN | Luke Entwistle