Man City Focus – Has Micah Richards stagnated?

The greatest compliment paid to Micah Richards may also turn out to be his most damning indictment. A raw teenager whose imposing performances alongside Richard Dunne had formed the crux of Manchester City’s obdurate start to the 2006-07 season, the then 18-year-old had been named in England’s squad for the first time.

Rationalising his selection, Steve McClaren proclaimed Richards to be anew breed of player. He is big, strong, athletic, very quick and has got a fantastic leap on him.” The Wetherby-born defender, in other words, possessed every conceivable physical attribute required to develop into a top-class defender.

Yet even at the time the quote was given, something seemed quite remiss. Ought not the prototype modern footballer that McClaren was eulogising demonstrate some semblance of technical capability too? What of the ability to control a ball, to pick a pass over long and short distance, or even the sleight of foot and ingenuity of mind to dance that unexpected feint or play the unforeseen pass? From a more pragmatic point of view, the neglect to mention an ability to anticipate danger – indeed, to be mentally aware and acute enough to pick the right defensive position to make that crucial interception and nip danger in the bud – was also conspicuous by its absence.

The Micah Richards that had McClaren salivating was an athlete: rapid, strong and reactive; a diamond in need of a little polishing.

Nearly six years have passed since Richards’ ascension to the national team. He has rarely featured in it since. On the one hand, one may suspect that Fabio Capello’s sheer bloody-minded obtuseness is largely to blame. Capello’s reign as England manager saw Richards gradual removal from the centre of defence to right-back.

Where once his sprinter’s physique heightened his ability to make improbable last-ditch interventions, it was soon used to more pro-active effect. Particularly under the auspices of Roberto Mancini, his rampaging runs from deep saw Richards often become an auxiliary attacker as City attempted to overwhelm defensive opponents through weight of numbers. Unsubtle he may have been, but during the first half of the 2011-12 season his blockbusting runs forward were every bit as crucial a feature of the Citizens’ attacks as David Silva and Sergio Aguero’s ingenuity.

Still Capello refused to budge. Aged 18, the weaknesses to his game perceived as idiosyncrasies to be coaxed out with age. As Richards reached his 20s, those creases were expected to be ironed out. Capello believed they had not.

And now Mancini demonstrably believes the same. As the 2011-12 Premier League season reached its nerve-shredding climax, Richards’ influence slowly, inexorably waned. Pablo Zabaleta may lack Richards’ spectacular physical attributes, but there is an assurance in possession, a versatility and composure to the Argentine which still seems to be bereft of the Englishman.

Richards, suffice to say, is at a quandary. Is he able to refine the concentration, the positional sense and technique demanded of all top-level footballers? Or will he forever be constrained by his former England manager’s blinkered idea of what constitutes a “new breed of player”?

Richards has seen Michael Johnson, Nedum Onuoha and Stephen Ireland stagnate and eventually exit through the back door having earned rave reviews. The time has come for the defender to evolve. A failure to do so may ensure he is the next once Bright Young Thing to depart.

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