When Pablo Zabaleta said his farewells at the Etihad Stadium after his final appearance for Manchester City in May, the club honoured him with a gift of a lifetime season ticket at the club.
He will not be taking up his seat on Sunday. Instead, Zabaleta will be in the West Ham team looking to end his former club’s 12-game Premier League winning streak.
The 32-year-old right-back can be certain of a warm welcome. But why exactly is the Argentine so adored by the City supporters?
Here, we pick out five reasons why Zabaleta’s impact was so great and identify the traits that made him a Manchester City legend…
Zabaleta did not quite make the 10-year mark that traditionally leads to the award of a testimonial at a club, but he witnessed more changes in his nine-year stay at City than most players would see in two careers. The side he joined in August 2008 was a very different one from the team that would go on to conquer the Premier League.
City had finished ninth the previous season and he made his debut for Mark Hughes’ side in a 3-1 home defeat to Chelsea. Micah Richards, Richard Dunne and Michael Ball made up the back four. Jo and Robinho were the forwards. There were three more managers and many more team-mates after that but the ever-consistent Zabaleta remained a constant.
Asked to pick a highlight of his time at City, Zabaleta’s first answer was a revealing one in that it was not the moment that Sergio Aguero crashed the ball into the net to win the Premier League title. “I would say the first time we beat United at Wembley in the semi-final of the FA Cup in 2011,” he said. It set City on the way to ending their 35-year wait for a major trophy.
Two Premier League winners’ medals followed and two League Cup triumphs too – the 2016 Wembley win over Liverpool proving his final piece of silverware in City blue. But it is his role in that iconic 3-2 win over QPR that can never be forgotten – he even scored the opening goal that day. “The fans had waited so long and we did it in a City way,” he said.
Zabaleta’s goal in that game highlights the fact that he did more than just hang around. He was a major factor in the club’s success and for some time the best right-back in the country. In the 2012/13 season, he was named in the PFA Premier League team of the year, while also picking up the Manchester City player of the year award in a squad full of star names.
His overlapping – and underlapping – runs were a feature of City’s play, with his generosity notable. His was often the dummy run to buy space for others. “Probably one of my best seasons was when I was overlapping all the time and making runs,” he recalled recently. In the 2013/14 season, he provided six assists – twice as many as any defender elsewhere.
Of course, Zabaleta’s primary responsibility was to defend and he did that better than just about anyone in the Premier League with his tenacity in the tackle one of his strongest qualities. Chelsea’s Eden Hazard once cited Zabaleta as his toughest opponent because of his relentlessness – never giving the winger an inch.
Since his arrival in England, Zabaleta has made no fewer than 836 tackles – more than any other defender during that time. It is a tally he continues to add to for West Ham as well. So far this season Zabaleta has already made 44 tackles – the most by any Premier League defender. The pace is not what it once was but the determination is as strong as ever.
That determination, of course, has always been part of Zabaleta’s appeal. He was a leader for City and an example to others on and off the field. His mentality helped to foster a new culture at the club. “Always [at] the big clubs, it depends on the quality of the human beings,” said Pep Guardiola when paying tribute to the player amid the farewells.
Zabaleta’s quality – as a player and a person – was never in question. He can be sure of another ovation when he returns to the Etihad Stadium with West Ham for Super Sunday.