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Pablo Zabaleta talks Manchester derby, Guardiola, Aguero, Arteta and more

| 11.12.2020

It’s the first Manchester derby of the season this Saturday, as Man City head to Old Trafford to take on Man Utd.

After grabbing a few words with ex-Man Utd defender Wes Brown earlier this week, it’s only right to get the view from the other half of Manchester, from former hero Pablo Zabaleta.

Speaking to us ahead of his Manchester United versus Manchester City Ladbrokes 5-A-Side selection, we caught up with the former right-back to get his take on everything from City and the big derby, Pep Guardiola and Sergio Aguero, to Mikel Arteta and David Moyes’ run at West Ham…

On Man United v Man City

“I think when you normally see Derby Day coming up, you are looking forward to playing in one of the greatest games of the season. But what makes the derby special is the fans, because it’s the one game fans will always want to win, so it must be very weird to play these kinds of games behind closed doors. I know fans are gradually being allowed back inside stadiums but it’s not the same as a full house.

“So for me, as a Man City player, it was very special to go to Old Trafford and play in front of their home fans because we wanted to win the game to make our fans happy, but also we just wanted to upset Manchester United fans. For me, as a player, that was one of the most special parts of the game.

“I was on the bench for the 6-1 win at Old Trafford. Obviously I wish I was playing, but it was one of the greatest games to watch from the side. Sitting on the bench, watching the team beating Manchester United 6-1 at Old Trafford, looking at the United fans leaving the stadium with 15 minutes left. That was some feeling that’s very difficult to explain with words. I’ll never forget it. It was a very special game to be a part of. And then of course in the dressing room it was such a great atmosphere. We were so happy.

“It came in a moment where Sir Alex Ferguson used to call us the ‘noisy neighbours’ and there wasn’t much difference between the two teams at the time. It was always difficult to go to United and get a result, so that was the moment that the ‘noisy neighbours’ were like ‘no, no. We are Man City, and we’re here to fight you for trophies and to change the history of our club’. It was a terrific day for everyone.

“Both teams are in good form at the moment, there’s one point between them and both will want to reduce the gap at the top of the league, so of course I’m expecting a very tight game.

“I don’t think United have been great defensively. Of course they have won games, and Edinson Cavani has been very good for them in the last few games. They’ve got some quality players offensively in Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes so Man City must be aware of those players on Saturday. They have quality up-front and they can score goals.

“But when you look at Ole Gunnar’s Solskjaer, he always sets his teams up to attack. So I hope that Riyad Mahrez, Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus, Kevin De Bruyne, whoever plays at the weekend, can turn up and hurt Man United defensively. They’ve not been solid defensively.

“Maybe United might go with five at the back because they know how offensive a team City are. They could maybe leave Rashford up-front on his own, or another fast player who might be able to counter, which is something City defenders will need to be aware of.

“Aaron Wan-Bissaka always seems to have the best game of his life when he plays against Sterling, but United have conceded so many goals in the last few games and they’ve not been solid, so let’s hope Man City can really hurt them.

“I don’t like to give score predictions because I’m superstitious, but Man City will win. That’s it.”

On the current gap between Man City & Man United

“In terms of quality on paper, for me Manchester City are a better team than Manchester United.

“When you look at United and a player like Paul Pogba, he’s a great player but he’s not been as good for Man United as he has been for France. It feels like something is wrong there. His agent comes out all the time talking about his situation, he never seems happy. You know, they’ve spent big money on him and there was a big expectation that came with that. But his performances have not been at the standard or level that people expected.

“Marcus Rashford is a very good player. Harry Maguire, similar to Pogba, they spent a lot of money on him, but he’s not been good enough. Even off the field he’s had some problems. Aaron Wan-Bissaka has been OK.

“For me Bruno Fernandes is the only player who is making the difference for them. But when you look at Manchester City, you’ve got Riyad Mahrez, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Ruben Dias, all of these have made a difference and have been in great form. Mahrez got a hat-trick recently, Sterling seems to score in every game, De Bruyne is always coming up with assists. Rodri has also been very good.

“In terms of quality both teams are really good, but Man City have been more consistent. But the reality at the minute is that Man United are a point ahead of City.”

On Man City’s season so far

“Man City started the season very low. When you look at the team, I think they went into their opening game of the season against Wolves having not played any pre-season games. They finished in the Champions League in the middle of August and had a month to prepare for the next season, so they only had a couple of weeks rest before coming back to start training for the new campaign.

“In England when you have a very long season with so many games, you need at least five weeks of rest; proper rest, both physically and mentality so you’re fresh and ready to go for the next season.

“So it was great that they managed to beat Wolves in their first game. Then obviously they struggled performance-wise, they struggled for consistency and dropped points against Leicester and Leeds, then West Ham.

“But now they’re just six points off the top of the league with a game in hand over Tottenham and Liverpool with so many games to go. It seems like the team are now playing so much better.

On where Man City could strengthen

“I don’t know if Man City can really strengthen much more. In midfield they can play Rodri, Fernandinho, although he is 35, but they can’t go in January and bring in a player to strengthen that midfield area. With Ilkay Gundogan, Rodri and Fernandinho they are OK.

“Maybe looking ahead to the summer transfer window we will have to see what happens with Fernandinho’s contract. If he goes then yes, they will need to look at some replacements. I don’t think there are any issues right now that need addressing next month, though. They have plenty of options in defence, midfield and up-front. The squad depth is fine.

“If you look at who might come in and replace Fernandinho, it all depends on what the manager wants. When you look at that area of the pitch, and the kind of player that could come in, I’m thinking maybe Declan Rice. He’s doing a great job at West Ham and has a great international future ahead of him with England.

“But it’s very difficult for every team; not just Manchester City. Many teams are looking to bring in holding midfielders and they’re hard to find. We’ll see. Maybe Fernandinho is happy in Manchester. I know that Pep loves him, and playing him as a holding midfielder means he doesn’t really need pace.

“If you’re a centre-back or a full-back, obviously pace is really important. But a player like Fernandinho is physically very strong, his tackling is great, his distribution, tactically he’s very clever, maybe he can continue to do the job with Rodri and Gundogan playing alongside him in midfield.”

On his ideal Man City back four

“I think Kyle Walker is a great player; he’s been in great form recently. Ruben Dias seems very confident. Aymeric Laporte and Nathan Ake have been injured so John Stones has come in and kept his place, and Benjamin Mendy has also spent time out injured. If you can get him fit he’s a very powerful player. You must not forget about Joao Cancelo, though. He’s been really good playing from that left-hand side.

“I think the best back four would be Walker, Ruben Dias, Laporte and Cancelo. Ake, Stones and Mendy all have the quality to play and start, and it’s such a good problem to have when you’re a team like Man City playing so many games in quick succession. Pep Guardiola needs different names, different options to choose from every game and he’s got that in defence. You need to rest players as much as possible because it is such a demanding time of the season.”

On life after Sergio Aguero

“It will be very difficult to replace Sergio. He’s one of many players who has been at the club for a long time, and he’s seen a lot of former teammates leave, and you have to understand that as you get older, the club needs to bring in young blood and you need to plan as a club for the long-term. But emotionally Sergio is one of those players that the fans just love. When you look at what he has done for the club, it’s easy to see why he’s so loved.

“He’s still only 32. If he can keep himself fit, there is no better striker than Sergio. It would be very, very difficult to replace a player like him. Maybe you can go and look at a younger player, a number nine like Erling Haaland he will cost so much money, for sure. Sergio is still 32, he’s not that old. I’m sure he’s still got another two good years to give to Manchester City. If he’s on the pitch, you know he’s likely to score. Players are scared of him. When you look at the way Man City play, they’re always in control of possession, and Sergio will always have three or four chances in a game and more often than not he’ll take one or two of them.

“Hopefully he can have a good run of games now and build some confidence and continue to score goals for the club. If you can’t replace him, then don’t.

“He’s on his last year of his contract, so it would be good to find some good form and stay at the club for a few more years.

“We also cannot forget about Gabriel Jesus, another top international player. He’s a great name to have alongside Sergio. What really impressed me about Gabriel Jesus when he first came to City, was how comfortable he was in leaving Brazil and moving to another country at such a young age. Meeting new players, living in a new culture, nothing seemed to phase him.

“He always seems very hungry for success. Of course when he came he knew that Sergio was at the club and it was going to be very tough for him to earn that spot. But he’s still there and he’s proven on many occasions that when Aguero isn’t around he can step in and score goals – important goals, too. He’s an international player for Brazil so he’s not a bad name to have at all.

“He will become a top player. He probably does still need to mature, but it’s something he is starting to show. For a team like Manchester City to have both Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero available to them is really important.”

On 2013/14 squad versus current squad

“I was very lucky to play alongside wonderful players like Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure. I have played with a prime Yaya Toure. That is something that feels unreal to say. When he was at his best, he was an absolute joy to watch. Physically he was a beast and technically he was amazing. It’s the same thing with Kompany, and David Silva. I cannot forget Edin Dzeko, Carlos Tevez and Samir Nasri.

“When Pep came to the club he brought that style which was amazing football, and he had that season where he reached 100 points for the first time ever, and he was amazing to watch.

“But I have to say for me, the season we won the league with Manuel Pellegrini in 2013/14, that team also played fantastic football.

“I came to City in 2008 when the big money first came into the club. The big names were starting to come but of course we needed to create a winning mentality. Roberto Mancini made some great signings, David Silva, Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero, all of who stayed at the club for many, many years. They were a different class. They took the club to a different level. Mancini was the person who built the core of the team, and then Pellegrini took that team and played a really good style of football in 2014 when we won the title, fighting with Liverpool until the very end.

“Then of course, Pep won a treble. I think all of the managers have been brilliant. The most important thing is that they have always brought so much commitment and all did such a fantastic job.

On Man City in the Champions League

“Man City are always going to be favourites to win the Champions League when you look at the squad they’ve got. I’m always positive and I really hope that at some point soon the club can at least reach a final.

“It’s been a tough few years in Europe for City, especially when you think about the amount of investment that’s gone into improving the players every year. It’s a difficult competition to go and win. They’ve been very close, and of course a few years ago we lost against Real Madrid in the semi-final.

“But City were so much better than everyone in their group. It wasn’t the toughest group to get out of when you compare it to Man United’s. That was probably the group of death.

“I think we all knew Man City were going to progress fairly easily with no real problems and that’s what they’ve done. They didn’t lose a game and they only conceded one goal.

“To win a Champions League involves many things. You need a bit of luck in games and you need to avoid injuries to key players. You may have a fully fit squad right now, but by the time the next round of fixtures comes around, you might have problems with injuries so you do need that luck.

“But when you look at Man City, they do have a really strong team and I’m going to be positive in saying they can win the Champions League this year.”

On Man United’s season

“It was a big blow for Man United to fall out of the Champions League at the group stage. But you have to say they were in a very tough group. That game against PSG at home was key for them, they couldn’t afford to lose it but they did.

“We now need to see how they respond psychologically to that. I’ve been in situations with Man City where we’ve exited the Champions League in the group stages and then we focused more on the domestic competitions, and the Premier League was our priority.

“Maybe playing Man City this weekend is the best thing for United after losing in the Champions League. It’s a chance for them to say to their fans that they’re still alive and fighting. They can prove to themselves that they are a strong team with strong characters and we’ve forgotten about what’s happened in the week and are fully focused on the next match.

“But maybe it could go the opposite way. Psychologically maybe they’ve seen it as a blow and now they have to go and play Man City at the weekend in a tricky game and the fans will be upset if they don’t win. They might be thinking that defeat against Man City means their fans might be saying ‘Ole out’ because when you are at a top club, you cannot lose two games in a row, especially such big games like RB Leipzig and your local rivals.

“Now Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has a couple of days to prepare his side and it’s all about motivating the group again, demanding passion and fighting spirit from your players. Beat Man City and their fans will be happy again, and it’s something they can then build on.

“Of course Ole is under pressure. Of course he is. When you are managing a top side you’re always going to be a top side. Manchester United is a team which has always won trophies over the years and if you don’t win those trophies as a manager, for sure you will be under pressure.

“Man United need to now focus on their domestic competitions. If they win the League Cup or the FA Cup, it’s not enough for a club like United. They have to try and win the Premier League. That will be their main target for sure. A Champions League spot is really important of course, and there are six or seven teams who will be fighting for them. But for a club like Man United, fans demand to win trophies. That is the mentality of the club. They need to win the Premier League.

On Arsenal & Arteta

“I think Mikel Arteta knew it was always going to be a big challenge to go and take over as Arsenal manager. He’s been there as a player but as a manager he has so much responsibility on his shoulders. He won the FA Cup early on and it was the perfect start for him.

“This season though, things aren’t going right for him at the minute, unfortunately. I know Mikel from my time at Man City when he was working under Pep Guardiola. Obviously he’s been working with one of the best managers in the world. He’s got the right personality, the right culture.

“But as a manager results are everything, and when you aren’t getting results you are going to be under pressure. Arsenal at the minute aren’t doing the best in the Premier League. In the Europa League they’re doing fine, but fans aren’t happy seeing their team so close to the bottom of the table. Arsenal fans have grown used to seeing their team involved with the top clubs in the Premier League. They are a massive club.

“But it seems like the problem is to do with the mentality of the club. When you look at teams like Chelsea, they have spent £250m in the summer going for the best players. They’ve brought in players who have improved their squad and they’ve had to spend big to do it. For me, it always seems like Arsenal are signing players who are not world class players, and it’s why it is proving so difficult for them to challenge for big trophies. OK then won an FA Cup, and under Unai Emery they made a Europa League final, but if you asked Arsenal fans if they are happy with that, I’m not so sure. I’m absolutely convinced that Arsenal fans want the team to challenge for big trophies, playing in the Champions League every year and challenging for the Premier League. This is what Arsenal fans have got used to in the past, and so they expect the club now to do the same thing. But when money is not being well spent, or if you’re not spending enough money on world class players, it’s going to be very difficult.

“But for me, it is pivotal that Mikel is at that club as their manager. I believe in him, and I just think the club needs to back him. Sometimes it takes time for a new manager to implement his ideas and to get the players to buy into what he’s trying to do. But you don’t always get that time in football and you have to win. You have to find a way to get results at any costs. And if you’re not getting results, you see managers getting sacked. It’s not only for Mikel, it’s across every team in every division.

“If you look on social media after Arsenal lose two or three games, their fans want their manager out. But who do you bring in? It’s very difficult. Fans don’t have patience. They want to see their team winning every weekend. But to Arsenal fans I would say this: Arteta is the right man. It’s just a matter of time, and hopefully in January the board can give him some money to bring in two or three top names. That’s the only way they’re going to get to where the likes of Chelsea, Man City and Liverpool are. When you look at Liverpool, they spend £50m on a goalkeeper, £80m on a defender, but you don’t see this at Arsenal. OK, they gave a new contract to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but he’s not the only one; he can’t do it on his own. Alongside him he needs top players to increase creativity and ultimately score more goals.

“I’m not saying they have bad players. When you look at their squad, they have lots of good players, who all play at an international level, but their players are not at the level of the likes of Liverpool.

On how many teams are in this year’s title race

“At the moment it seems like Jose Mourinho has found a way to get his Tottenham players to believe that they can challenge for big things this season. Of course there’s still a long way to go and we’ll see if Spurs can maintain that consistency, but when you look at the team they have, there’s no reason why they can’t be up there. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg has been a fantastic signing for them. He gives them the balance that allows players like Heung-min Son, Harry Kane and Lucas Moura to counter-attack, which is something that Mourinho has always liked.

“As well as Spurs, you’d have to say Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea will be up there in a title race. Maybe Manchester United and Leicester, maybe there are six teams that can challenge for the title.”

On David Moyes & West Ham

“I’m so pleased for David Moyes and the players at West Ham. He came in a few years ago when I was in my first season at the club after Slaven Bilic got sacked. He came in and did a job, but then he got sacked and Manuel Pellegrini came in. Then it was exactly the same thing; Pellegrini was sacked and the club felt that Moyes was the right man to keep the team in the Premier League. He did the job and the club finally backed him and he’s proven now that he was the right man for the club.

“I’m very pleased for him, he’s a good manager and a very nice man. He’s always been good with me. In my last season when I left, he was good to me. The team are playing good football and he’s turned the team into a really hard team to beat. They used to concede so many goals and now they look solid defensively. He’s made a few good singings, bringing in Jarrod Bowen, Sofiane Boufal and Tomas Soucek and they’re doing really well for the team, so I’m very happy for the club right now.

“It’s such a tough league to succeed in, when you look past the big six, you’ve got Southampton, Everton, Wolves, Aston Villa, even Leeds. When you look at all of those sides, it just shows how difficult a division the Premier League is. We’re talking about the best league in the world. But if West Ham can maintain their consistency for the duration of the season, then a top eight finish would be fantastic for the club.”

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