Thursday, April 18, 2013


There can be few sights that Premier League players find more disagreeable than that of Yaya Touré in full flight, ball at or near his feet, nostrils flared and the mad glazed eyes of a big man in a hurry, bearing straight towards them in a cloud of dust and whirring limbs. As David Luiz will testify, it fair makes your hair shrivel up. All things being equal, City fans will have the pleasure of seeing this giant human form scaring opponents witless for another four years. By then he will be 33 and it is hard to see him keeping up his current on-pitch lifestyle much beyond that.

Touré snugly fits the modern template of African Midfielders:Destination Europe. The theory goes that, once the mobile wardrobe qualities of Pape Bouba Diop and his ilk had been recognised by British and continental European coaches, all slamming doors and rattling coat hangers, this was all the clubs wanted or expected from African clubs and their bulging academies. Bring me a wardrobe, came the cry. Michael Essien carried the torch for African powerhouses under Mourinho at Chelsea. Now Yaya Touré is possibly the best example of the genre.

Built like a container ship with wings, the Beast of Bondoukou has been called a buffalo in ballet shoes, his giant frame concealing a nifty turn of speed and a pair of twinkling feet that Margot Fonteyn would have been proud of, if a little aghast that they were twelve sizes too big for her sheer pink tights.

Touré combines speed, power and technique. He dominates the central areas of the field and eats up lengths of football pitch like a labrador chasing a rubber ball. It was not always thus. Played predominantly defensively for Barcelona, he became underused in Catalonia, despite a heroic display at centre back against Manchester United in the Champions League final at Wembley in 2009. With Dani Alves, Eric Abidal and, most importantly, Mexican stopper Rafael Marquez all out of the final, Touré was drafted in to shore up the defence. He was, by general agreement, immense in that game, blotting out the United attack, which in the second half included latter day team mate Carlos Tevez. Touré´s versatility was clear for all to see at this point, even if his best position in the team was still a moot point for the Ivorian.

Touré attacks Michael Carrick in Barcelona's colours
Earlier in his career, by the limpid waters of Monte Carlo, he had fallen out with Monaco's Romanian coach Laszlo Bolöni over where he should be employed to the greatest effect. Touré saw himself as an all-action midfielder, Bolöni wished to play him further back to soak up pressure. This identity crisis continued at Barcelona, where he played more than 100 games in the blaugrana shirt, mostly as a defensive midfielder and occasionally, as in the afore-mentioned Champions League final, even further back than that.   

His move to City saw him start in a midfield that already contained the solidity of Gareth Barry and Nigel de Jong. Early sightings of him by the City faithful were generally positive, but suggested little of just what was about to be unleashed on English defences the land over. As he found his feet, we were quickly to become aware that City's £24 million had secured a rare beast: Touré seemed equally at home engaged in the impossibly hectic melée of Premier League midfield scrambles or further forward taking possession into the danger zones at the pointy end of the pitch. The goals he scored did not just involve finding the target, but demolishing it. His runs from deep seemed to build up so much
In the distinctive colours of AS Monaco
momentum, only a simpleton with a death wish would choose to get in the way. He often arrived at the edge of the box with two or three defenders floating in his slipstream or hanging off his shoulders like streamers at a particularly windy wedding. He was a force of nature, the like of which we had not seen before.

He has since cemented his place in City folklore with a semi-final and final winner in the club's incredible journey to FA Cup success in 2009, breaking a 35 year-hoodoo on trophy wins in the process. As City's squad building has evolved from sweetshop syndrome to a far more measured organic construction, Yaya's presence has become ever more pronounced, to the point where he became Roberto Mancini's game changer. The removal of forwards to be replaced by utility blockers and runners was at the time greeted with doubt from those City-watchers, who failed to grasp what was being enacted. As exiting striker gave way to a Lescott or a Kolarov, Yaya was released from his den and given the freedom to roam. A season or so after these substitutions began to become a feature, he is recognised as the foremost purveyor of this art in world football. However, as Zonal Marking's Michael Cox suggested in his Life's A Pitch column, this versatility can sometimes act as a double-edged sword.

The common refrain about Touré is that he is irreplaceable in Man City’s midfield. There’s a large degree of truth to this – which other midfielder in Europe is versatile enough to play such a variety of roles? (...) There are two ways to look at this. One is that Touré is unique, and retaining him is vital to Man City’s development over the next few years. The other is more complex – if no one else in Europe has a midfielder like him, is a player in that mould necessary?
"You won't be smiling when you hear where I'm playing you!"
Perhaps at least part of the conundrum is called Gareth Barry.This is a player who has been as influential as any in City's increasingly successful campaigns. With Barry mopping, tidying and dusting, Touré has been free to rearrange the furniture of Premier League defences. Much derided by the national press, Barry has been man of the match on many occasions and does his unheralded work seamlessly and selflessly. The bigger the game, the better he does it. Witness recent outings at old Trafford and Wembley, where he was excellent in both matches. With the unflinchingly steady Barry alongside, Yaya's role looks perfectly clear. Barry mops up, Touré receives and charges. they seem perfect for each other and, when paired with nimble, skillful team-mates like Silva and Nasri, the effect can be mesmerising.

Too often this season, the effect has been less than mesmerising, however. Could it be that Barry creates a new conundrum? His is a clear and vital role, but can City go higher with this sort of player in the side? The question is as painful as it is cruel, but reaching the European zenith requires tough decisions. In the title winning season, Mancini's midfield of choice was clearly Barry-Yaya-Nasri-Silva, with De Jong and Milner the first options to call on. This season, with Nasri's form and application questioned and Silva's influence fluctuating, there has been more chopping and changing in the engine room. De Jong's steady presence as a capable fill-in has gone and neither Rodwell nor Garcia have been able to step in and do the same calibre job.Whether original targets from last summer Busquets, de Rossi and Javi Martinez would have been better suited we will never know.

Solutions please. Too late.

The question for Mancini this summer is how to best harness the power of Yaya Touré, whilst avoiding blunting other areas of the midfield. Is another season of Barry's effective scuttling worth opting for or is this the right time to look for a high quality player to sit in the hole in front of the back four? Whilst all the talk this summer will be about multi million pound strikers, it may be a less heralded position doing the dirty work that proves the most difficult one and the most important one to fill adequately.

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