A few years ago, there was no question that Pablo Zabaleta earned his status as one of the world’s finest right backs.
The Argentine had solidified himself at Manchester City as a complete outside force, capable of being an offensive weapon going forward, while still maintaining his primary duties required of a top defender. If he wasn’t in the class of (the now retired) Philip Lahm or Dani Alves, then the Argentine certainly was right below them.
Although he wasn’t a dynamic goal scoring producer like Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero or Yaya Toure, Zabaleta can make a claim to being the greatest Manchester City player ever in the Sheikh Mansour Era. He was there from the start of the takeover by the Abu Dhabi ruling family, and deservedly earned City Player of the Year in 2012-13. It’s why, in his final game at the Etihad Stadium, the club gave him a shirt “Zabaleta 333”, representing the amount of games he played at Manchester City, and made him a lifetime season ticket holder.
But last season under Pep Guardiola saw the decline of Zabaleta, as his vaunted pace diminished and concentration issues defensively became the norm for him. With Bacary Sagna and even Fernandinho preferred by Guardiola in his position towards the tail end of the season, Zabaleta’s days at City were numbered. Still, the San Lorenzo developed product is still capable of being a solid choice right back in a top 5 UEFA league. And to West Ham’s credit, with his contract up at the Etihad, the Davids and Slaven Bilic were able to secure him on a free transfer in a 2-year-deal.
Current team placement
With the talented but still young and injury prone Sam Byram as his made competition, Zabaleta will provide the young Englishman with the competition for the starting spot that Alvaro Arbeloa was suppose to do last season.
With a desire to prove that he still has much left in his tank, the 32-year-old Zabaleta starts as first choice ahead of Byram to begin the season.
Goals for the season
Still, it will be vital for Zabaleta to not further decline at the rate he did last campaign. He was well off the pace when the conclusion of the 2016-17 season hit, and was not a factor at all in his final days at City.
With his desire to play in the 2018 World Cup added to his motivation, a healthy, solid campaign of him showing how he was as formidable at right back as they come is the ambitions. His young countryman Manuel Lanzini will help, as Zabaleta already seems very comfortable at the club by taunting longtime City teammate Joe Hart in practice.
Pablo Zabaleta with a screamer vs Joe Hart in West Ham training.— Football Vines (@FootballVines) July 22, 2017
"Welcome to West Ham my friend" pic.twitter.com/5aNGKTYcWA
At the very least, Zabaleta’s arrival will make Byram better, both in giving him advice and providing him a great challenge to be the #1 right back. Arbeloa was able to bestow key wisdom to the talented 23-year-old but couldn’t come close to pushing him for a starting spot.
No question, Zabaleta will give Byram both of those jobs, as he is already becoming a vocal, leading presence at the club. The departed Ashley Fletcher would be the first to confirm that:
Pablo Zabaleta just absolutely tore into Ashley Fletcher for not finishing a chance. He's demanding perfection. #WHUFC— Sam Inkersole (@Sam_InkersoleTM) July 26, 2017