As Manchester City cruised to last season’s Premier League title by obliterating every record in their path, it would be easy to claim they bought their way to the trophy. The debate as to what is the correct balance between spending and success could last an eternity but it is sometimes the least expected players who provide the success which clubs seek.
One thing for certain is that Pep Guardiola’s side found themselves in a whole heap of trouble just six games into last seasons campaign as their new £52 million left-back Benjamin Mendy suffered a knee injury causing him to be sidelined for the remainder of the season.
With no obvious cover, the Spanish tactician had a predicament to overcome and an unlikely source provided the solution.
Fabian Delph, who started his career with Leeds United as an industrious central midfielder, quickly became Guardiola’s solution. The midfielder was equally adept at bursting through opposition lines or thundering in long-range strikes and this blend of brutality and brilliance quickly attracted Premier League attention.
If scoring the League One Goal of the Season for 2008-09 wasn’t enough, following that up with a nomination for the League’s Player of the Season and winning Young Player of the Season certainly made the big clubs stand up and take note.
Leeds failure to achieve promotion to the Championship that year was a deciding factor in Delph seeking to ply his trade at a higher standard. After a series of bids, the 19-year-old eventually decided to join Aston Villa for a fee of around £8.5 million.
Premier League debuts are a dream come true for any footballer, but Delph’s didn’t go to plan. He was substituted 61 minutes into proceedings after receiving a yellow card and appeared slightly underdeveloped at that moment in time.
It took until the 2013-14 season for Englishman to establish himself as an integral cog in Villa’s midfield and he continued that momentum into the following season where he was instrumental in his team’s opening day 3-1 away win against Arsenal.
Arsene Wenger’s side was known for their dominance of possession, but on this occasion, Delph excelled at both winning and retaining the ball meaning Arsenal never had a chance to find their rhythm. The consistency with which he performed during this time earned him the Aston Villa Player of the Month for August, September and October 2013.
After years of sliding down the Premier League table heading into 2014-15 Aston Villa found themselves as serious relegation candidates, eventually finishing 17th to avoid the drop by the most minute margin.
Although Delph shone in the FA Cup, scoring the first goal as Villa beat West Bromwich Albion 2-0 in the quarter-final, the result prompted pitch invasions at full-time which left fans kissing Delph and stealing his captain’s armband.
During the semi-final at Wembley, the Englishman followed up the previous rounds performance by scoring the winner as Villa came from behind to defeat Liverpool 2-1.
Ultimately the final would end in heartbreak as Aston Villa were beaten 4-0 by a rampant Arsenal, but without Fabian Delph’s contribution, an appearance and subsequent return to England’s most exclusive venue would not have been possible.
Perhaps foreseeing the impending danger of remaining at Villa Park, Delph was linked with an £8 million switch to Manuel Pellegrini’s Manchester City, although he never arrived for his medical and issued a statement insisting he would remain as Aston Villa captain for the forthcoming 2015-16 season.
Scarcely six days passed before that decision was reversed, in spite of the Englishman appearing in advertisements for Villa’s new kit launch.
His arrival at the Etihad was understated, as was his impact on the pitch as he adapted to life at the opposite end of the table, contributing significantly fewer passes and tackles than previously as he was no longer the focus of play.
In spite of this, Delph would taste a greater level of success than he’d ever previously know, winning the League Cup and reaching the Champions League semi-final.
The following year Pep Guardiola was appointed as Pellegrini’s successor, and Delph quickly found himself on the periphery of the Spaniards plans, his game time was significantly reduced to just seven appearances in the Premier League, while City stumbled to a third-place finish.
As Guardiola plotted revenge after his only trophyless season in management, Delph appeared increasingly out of favour at the Etihad, just as fellow countrymen Jack Rodwell and Scott Sinclair had done previously.
The issue might have been the fact Delph’s dynamic brand of box-to-box football in the centre of midfield is scarcely Guardiola’s cup of tea; with the Spaniard preferring technicians who not only have sublime vision but the passing range to unlock defences from the half space.
All of that meant that Delph could expect little playing time unless he miraculously managed to dislodge the duo of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne, a monumental task for even the most experienced professional.
Fernandinho may be an exception to Guardiola’s evangelical rules as his play can appear similar to that of Fabian Delph’s, although the Brazilian has an intelligence to his game few midfield pivots can match, his spatial awareness and ability to tactically foul to prevent counter attacks is second to none.
Manchester City’s combination of excellence in midfield formed an indispensable unit that no other player in the squad was likely to displace.
Then just six games into the season Delph got some luck, admittedly at Benjamin Mendy’s expense.
The French wing-back; recently acquired from Monaco, suffered an injury to his anterior cruciate ligament keeping him out for almost the entirety of the remainder of the season. Suddenly after an unbeaten start, Guardiola had a significant dilemma to contend with when City arrived in London to face Chelsea a week later.
The likely replacement for Mendy would have been Danilo, as the versatile Brazilian can cover across the back four competently, despite this Guardiola had a different plan.
He chose instead to deploy Fabian Delph in the role at left back, and the decision paid off as City won the game 1-0 courtesy of a De Bruyne piledriver. Delph’s industry down the left channel and calmness in possession ensured the position wasn’t an area of weakness the champions Chelsea could exploit.
After that display, the England international remained as a first team regular, in total he made 20 appearances at left-back, as City rectified the previous seasons Premier League struggles to become undisputed champions of England.
Delph’s adaption to his new position was instantaneous, averaging just over two tackles per game with a success rate of 74%, it’s worth noting that in ten more appearances Kyle Walker made only one more tackle, with a 66% success rate.
Walker had an outstanding season as was rewarded with a place in the PFA Team of the Year; this goes to show how well Delph acclimatised to a position he had only previously played in once.
As well as defensive solidity Delph dramatically increased his passing statistics, his pass success rate was an enormous 93%, and his average rose from 32 per game the previous campaign to 73 in Manchester City’s title-winning season. These were not just safe backwards or sideways motions either, as the Englishman contributed a key pass every other game.
To summarise, after Mendy’s injury, left-back could have been an area of vulnerability for the Sky Blues last season, but Delph sensed his opportunity to reignite his career at the Etihad and grasped it with both hands. His reward, a first Premier League title, followed by a ticket on the plane to Russia, and despite not frequently featuring for the Three Lions he was part of a squad that surpassed English expectations.
2017-18 was Fabian Delph’s best season to date, in the face of adversity he triumphed on every conceivable level, combining the interests of himself and the team.
Mendy’s return to full fitness cast doubts over Delph’s starting place for the coming season, but at the very least Guardiola knows he will not be searching for cover at left back in the remainder of the transfer window.