As the 2008 summer transfer window slammed shut, Manchester City shocked the world by announcing that they had signed Robinho for more than £30million. However, it was two days before that they had made a signing whose long-term impact on the club was to be far greater.
At a fifth of the price Pablo Zabaleta represented a genuine bargain. The multi-talented Argentinean defender had just returned from the Beijing Olympics with a gold medal and opted to leave La Liga side Espanyol and sign for City ahead of Juventus. Five years on, is “P-Zabs” the best right back in the Premier League?
Zabaleta swiftly established himself in the side, eventually seeing off the challenge of Micah Richards for the right back role and, alongside Joe Hart and Vincent Kompany, represent the only members of the starting XI from his debut season at the Etihad who remain regulars: a fine testament to the 28-year-old’s ability.
Although his longevity is admirable, it is by no means his greatest asset. While originally viewed as a utility defender, who could even play in midfield, Zabaleta over the last 12 months has come into his own as a right-sided defender who is as comfortable going forward as he is defending; his deceptive pace and outstanding fitness levels mean he is able to work at both ends of the pitch.
While most accept that he is the leading right back in the Premier League at the moment, this is a position of considerable strength throughout the league, and it would be remiss not to consider at least other contenders.
Seamus Coleman has hit the form of his life in Everton’s marvellous start to the season. While he always seemed a sound defensive option in David Moyes’ miserly Everton side, this season he has added a whole new attacking element to his game. His five league goals speak to an improvement both in his finishing and presence in the final third, and he has flourished under Roberto Martinez.
Bacary Sagna has only recently stamped his name on the No.2 shirt at Arsenal, but his delivery from the right is an aspect of his game that has improved dramatically. It has not yet produced the assists that it should, predominantly due to the recent dip in form of Olivier Giroud, but his ability to create chances provides Arsenal with a rare directness 30 yards from goal, and he has only been skinned six times in 16 league starts this season. (For comparison, Zabaleta has seen 20 go by him in the league, and Coleman 11.)
However, the dynamism that Zabaleta injects on the right hand side of City is truly unparalleled; he has contributed five assists in the league already this season, several produced by that signature underlap run into the box of which he has become a master.
In a truly attacking City side, he is often the one striding back to cover, especially late in games, when his legs seem to gain strength where others falter.
There are a number of emerging talents at right back who deserve a mention: Newcastle’s Mathieu Debuchy, Swansea’s Angel Rangel, and both Nathaniel Clyne and Calum Chambers at Southampton have shown much ability at times. However, Zabaleta’s consistency over a prolonged period of time meant that, at least for the moment, he is up there to be shot at.