Of all the adjectives used to describe Yaya Toure, “unique” is surely the most accurate. There simply isn’t another midfielder in the Premier League who offers the same combination of height, strength and ability to run with the ball and take players on. On his day he’s unplayable—a truly special player.
Toure moved to Manchester from Barcelona during the summer of 2010 in a deal worth £24 million (via BBC Sport). Pigeonholed as a defensive midfielder after his restricted role at the Camp Nou, he has shown since he moved to City that he has far more to his game than he was able to demonstrate in La Liga.
There he was asked to sit deep, break up attacks, play simple balls to the likes of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, and generally do the leg work in order for the attacking players to shine. It was an incredibly narrow remit for a player with such an obvious array of qualities.
He was eventually usurped by the emerging Sergio Busquets, an out-an-out defensive midfielder and a native of Catalonia who had risen through Barcelona’s youth set-up. The former City boss, Roberto Mancini, who had made his interest clear months before, wasted no time in bringing him to City once the transfer window opened.
Under Mancini, everything changed. Suddenly he had licence to run at the heart of the defence with his pace and power. He was central to City’s attacks, becoming a box-to-box midfielder and exerting influence all over the pitch—a far cry from being a small cog in the glittering Barcelona wheel.
Throughout his City career, Toure has proven he is a big-game player. His goals in the semi-final and final of the FA Cup in 2011 saw City end their 35-year wait for major silverware. The following season, he scored two goals at Newcastle to leave City needing just a win on the final day to clinch their first title in 44 years, which they duly did in a memorable game against QPR.
He has 80 caps for the Ivory Coast, scoring 16 times, has appeared in two World Cups, and has been named African Footballer of the Year twice.
Despite this, Toure divides opinion amongst the City fans. Criticism of him ranges from inconsistent and unfit, to lazy and uninterested. The truth is, there are times when he doesn’t reach his full potential, but a Yaya Toure at 70 percent is better than the majority of midfielders in Europe. And when he does perform at the top of his game, he's very difficult to stop.
This season, he’s been consistently excellent. He’s scored six goals in all competitions, has a 91-percent pass completion rate and has just scooped the Etihad Player of the Month award for September. His performance in the 4-1 win over Manchester United was one of his best—the latest evidence of his big-game credentials—and he has arguably been City’s best player over the first 10 games.
His partnership with Fernandinho is improving all the time. Whereas at first there appeared to be some confusion over who should sit and who should go forward, their understanding is blossoming. The Brazilian is taking on the defensive role, while Toure is given freedom to pick the ball up and attack. It’s working nicely, and those two could establish themselves as the best midfield pairing in the league if Fernandinho’s influence continues to grow.
Against Manchester United, they completely dominated Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini. They were stronger in the tackle, quicker to the ball and more urgent when moving the ball. It was in the middle of the park where the derby was won.
Manuel Pellegrini seems to have recognised quickly that Toure is far too good going forward to be asked to play the holding role. He’s one of City’s most important players and must be allowed to reach his optimum performance, and that means a Yaya Toure free to influence the attacking side of City’s game. He has the ability to completely dominate games, and so far this season he's been doing it regularly.
If City are to win silverware this season and play the kind of high-intensity, attacking football Pellegrini desires, Toure's form will almost certainly be key.