Yaya Toure’s future at Manchester City was under significant threat following the announcement of Pep Guardiola’s appointment. With the Ivorian’s performances under heavy scrutiny throughout last year’s campaign, along with Guardiola deeming Toure as surplus to requirement during their time at Barcelona, the possibility of deja-vu wasn’t farfetched.
Yet, with the Christmas period vastly approaching, Toure – following a public apology to the club and fans – has returned to the first team with vigour. Two goals at Selhurst Park earned City maximum points, and a standout display in a scrappy match with Burnley has kept City on pace for a proper title challenge.
Though Toure has played an integral role in City’s success this decade, the evolution of the squad has clearly exposed his defensive deficiencies. A player of Toure’s stature, built on strength and heavy running, was always expected to experience a decline towards his early 30’s, but City were reluctant to bolster their options in midfield until Guardiola’s arrival.
Toure and Guardiola’s relationship is mysterious, but the decision to utilize a young Sergio Busquets as his sole pivot at Barcelona didn’t bode well with the media or the Ivorian’s camp. Still, where Guardiola’s Barcelona are now classified as the best club team of our generation, Toure dominated the middle of the park in English football and guided City amongst the division’s elite.
Toure, however, is a difficult player to incorporate into a cohesive side: you can’t play the Ivorian as a sole pivot because he doesn’t possess the work-rate or defensive awareness to protect the back four.
“I’m here to take decisions. Maybe I make mistakes, but I have to take decisions and I respect that all the people cannot agree with me. That happened,” the Spaniard said.
“I spoke in the last month, many times with Yaya because he was my player with Barcelona, I know him very well. So I know how he is like a player.” “As a player there is no doubt — if there was a doubt he would not be here. He is another guy to compete with our midfield players and increase our level.”
On the other hand, Toure struggled in a 4-2-3-1 during the Manuel Pellegrini era because Fernandinho was also an identical box-to-box midfielder and equally lacked the discipline to protect the centre of the pitch when required. From a statistical perspective, Toure may have appeared to be playing well – scoring 20 league goals when City won the double during the 2013/2014 campaign – but in truth, he was partially responsible for the club’s structural issues out of possession.
Likewise, Toure’s best spell at the Etihad was when he played ahead of Nigel de Jong and Gareth Barry, two ball-winners that sat ahead of the back four, therefore providing the City star freedom to push forward. Though it took City’s limitations under Pellegrini to showcase Toure’s current state as a footballer, it’s difficult to dispute that he may solely be useful in two roles.
This however isn’t an issue to Guardiola, who often doesn’t receive credit for being an astute pragmatist. The tiki-taka football played at Barcelona suited the demands of the players that grew up in La Masia, whilst adding direct players in wide positions to provide penetration.
Though Guardiola’s Bayern dominated possession in most games, the German side’s approach was the antithesis of Pep’s Barca. At Bayern, Guardiola’s side revolved around the wing play between the rampaging full-backs and wingers Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery: when the latter was unavailable, Douglas Costa eventual arrival strengthened Bayern’s dominance in wide areas.
Pep’s possession and dynamic counter-pressing guided City back to domestic prominence, shifting between a 4-1-4-1 and 4-2-3-1. David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne have been fielded as deep central midfielders, Aleksandar Kolarov as a centre-back, and full-backs positioned in half spaced to negate counter-attacks have been introduced during Guardiola’s brief stint at City thus far.
But City haven’t been flawless under Guardiola, and several draws have led many to believe the creative, yet frail offensive-minded players required another dimension to their attack. Roughly, this is where Toure’s physical stature has proved beneficial as both a no.6 and a no.10 ahead of Fernandinho and Fernando.
Toure’s production in the final third still remains significant to a City side that can be guilty of being overelaborate. Where his goals won the game at Palace, it was the nifty intricate combinations plays around the box with Nolito that created openings against a sturdy Burnley back-line.
In footballing terms, Toure is the ideal midfielder to be appreciated, and equally thrive in the Premier League. A goal-scoring, powerful specimen that is eager to carry the ball forward, yet capable of simultaneously shrugging off challenges. However, the better teams in the league now rely on heavy pressing, hard-running and defensive organization, all areas that have prevented Toure from maintaining his world-class status following Roberto Mancini’s departure.
Incidentally, Toure’s situation is fairly similar to Cesc Fabregas’ conundrum since leaving the Emirates. Moving into a free attacking role under Arsene Wenger, Fabregas didn’t develop the tactical discipline to be effective throughout midfield. At Barcelona he often played on the flank or interchanged with Lionel Messi at the main centre-forward, because his productivity from deeper positions – specifically when the opposition applied midfield pressure – concerned Guardiola of the Spaniard’s anarchic style.
“Cesc’s anarchy is good for us. He moves down the right and the left; he is physically very strong with a lot of vision and high work rate,” Guardiola said.
“We like the fact that he is so mobile, but it has to be done sensibly. In the end, there is a ball and people who move, but they should move to where they need to be. We do not have a remote control to direct them from the bench.”
Ultimately, Fabregas failed to solidify a role in the Barcelona midfield and his move to Chelsea pushed him into a double-pivot alongside Nemanja Matic. While Fabregas’ first half of Chelsea’s title-winning campaign was impressive, performance levels decreased significantly once sides began pressing the Spaniard when he received possession.
But where Guardiola’s constant tactical evolution has led to Toure’s recall, Conte simply doesn’t trust Fabregas’ lack of mobility to protect the back four or break up play in midfield. Therefore, apart from brief cameo appearances where his passing range proved crucial in the latter stages of matches, Fabregas is forced to improve his dynamism and work-rate to feature in Conte’s XI.
Conte and Guardiola are seemingly contrasting managers, but with Chelsea being the most in-form team in the league, the latter may be forced into making a few personnel decisions ahead of the Blues’ trip to the Etihad this weekend. Although Chelsea displayed signs of improvement in a 3-4-2-1 rejig following losses to Liverpool and Arsenal several weeks ago, Guardiola may aim to identify one of their few notable weaknesses in central areas.
N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic’s ball-winning skills offer a solid base in the midfield zone, but last week’s win over Spurs also showcased their susceptibility to midfield overloads. It’s also possible that Guardiola will attempt to match Chelsea for power in midfield as they also pose a slight advantage in that regard.
Guardiola is likely to prefer control through possession rather than sheer power at home, so the likelihood of Ilkay Gundogan and Fernandinho in midfield over Toure is the harsh reality the Ivorian will have to accept at the age of 33. It’s possible that Toure would be better suited in away games against physical opponents that prefer to disrupt opposed to pushing forward to attack Guardiola’s men.
More so, the Guardiola-Toure saga will be intriguing to assess over the course of the season because the added flexibility required from the former suggests Toure would have to adapt his game to solidify a role in the City XI. The days of the rampaging runs, breathtaking goals, and precise passing variations have influenced this club like no other, and though Toure’s best days may have passed, the Ivorian still holds a key role in City’s title quest.