Wednesday felt like a big moment in the slow decline of Yaya Toure. Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini has substituted him before, but never when the team were chasing the game and in need of a goal.
For all the criticism Toure has faced over the past couple of seasons, his capacity to conjure goals has never been in doubt. Even last month at Arsenal he almost inspired a fightback with a stunning goal.
But in the Capital One Cup semi-final against Everton, it was the introduction of Kevin De Bruyne after 66 minutes that turned the game; within 10 minutes, the Belgian had scored one and set one up.
The applause at the substitution was almost certainly in response to De Bruyne coming on rather than Toure going off, but the apparent lack of concern in the crowd at the departure of their captain was telling.
It had not been a good night for Toure. Pellegrini, rarely a man for tactical experimentation, had started with a midfield diamond with Toure at its base, a role that demands great tactical discipline. That is not something with which Toure is blessed—and that has become increasingly obvious as his stamina has left him.
Ross Barkley’s goal, accelerating through the area Toure had vacated, wasn’t necessarily his fault—he had moved to his right to cover—but it wasn’t the only time he left space in front of the back four.
He used to get away with having a role that required him to do some defending because he had the energy to get up and down the pitch. These days it feels as though he plays in patches, strolling through periods of games and then exploding in others.
Toure is 32. It’s understandable his body is slowing down, but the problem seems to be his unwillingness to accept that and modify the parameters of his game accordingly. He cannot be the box-to-box player of old, and that means he must either become a creator, playing higher up the pitch, or curtail his attacking instincts and learn to sit.
The realisation that he is ageing perhaps explains other changes in him over the past three years or so. There was a time when he was notable for being easy-going, always happy to speak to the press and a certainty to stop in the mixed zone.
For a long time at the Africa Cup of Nations, one of the Toure brothers was the fall-back option if you couldn’t find anybody else to speak to—not fall-back because they weren’t excellent players; fall-back because they spoke so often that their interviews lost a little value.
But then Toure became increasingly ratty. He spoke to the press less and less. There were rumblings about his contract. Then came the infamous announcement from Toure’s agent Dimitry Seluk in May 2014 that Toure was unhappy that City hadn’t done sufficient to mark his birthday. That sounded ridiculous even before a video was leaked showing City giving him a cake and singing “Happy Birthday” to him.
Later that summer, Seluk was at it again, insisting that Toure would have finished higher than third in the PFA and FWA Footballer of the Year awards and 12th in the Ballon d’Or that year had it not been for racism. “If he was white, 100 percent he would have won one of those top awards,” he told the Times.
Well, perhaps. But nobody surely thinks that even at his peak he was better than Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo?
And as well as Toure played when City won the league, nobody could be blamed for voting for Luis Suarez or Steven Gerrard, particularly given the vote was taken before the end of the season, when the football world was enraptured by Liverpool’s unexpected title charge.
Some around Toure insist Seluk is a loose cannon who should not necessarily be taken as an accurate representation of Toure’s thinking. But this year, Toure did his own complaining after failing to land a fifth successive African Player of the Year, losing out to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Speaking to French radio station RFI, he said:
I’m very, very disappointed. It’s sad to see Africa react this way, that they don’t think African achievements are important. I think this is what brings shame to Africa, because to act in that way is indecent. But what can we do about it? Us Africans, we don’t show that Africa is important in our eyes. We favour more what’s abroad than our own continent. That is pathetic.
It’s true that Toure had captained Cote d’Ivoire to the Cup of Nations in February 2015, ending a drought that had lasted for 23 years and, at last, giving the so-called golden generation a trophy.
Perhaps if Toure had performed like Diego Maradona at the World Cup in 1986, dragging his side over the line, he’d have had a case. But he didn’t. Toure had, at best, an average tournament. And besides, he wasn’t making the same case for the primacy of the Cup of Nations when he was named Player of the Year in 2012 after Zambia had won the trophy, or when he was named Player of the Year in 2013 after Nigeria’s success.
“I’ll give an example,” Toure went on. “Messi won all the trophies but it’s Cristiano Ronaldo who won the award [Ballon d’Or 2014]. What would you say? It’s unfair.” But nobody said that. There was a widespread acceptance that Messi had had, by his standards, a disappointing season, while Ronaldo had shone.
There’s an inherent silliness about individual awards in football anyway, but if they have any purpose, it’s surely to reward those who have played well but perhaps haven’t had the recognition team success brings.
When Toure made his comments, the tendency was to see them as being disrespectful to Aubameyang. They were, of course, but there is a wider point. Toure has had a great career. He’s won six league titles in four countries. He’s won the Champions League with Barcelona. He captained Cote d’Ivoire to the Cup of Nations. He’s won CAF’s African Player of the Year award four times. Why on earth did he care about a fifth?
Perhaps, having won it four years running, he sees a failure to win it as emblematic of a diminution of his powers. He is raging desperately against the fading of his powers. Which is a shame because he would probably be better off accepting he lacks the energy of old and adapting his game accordingly.