Manchester City fans have rarely been so sharply divided. The future of Yaya Toure has been one of the most pored over issues of recent seasons. Does the Ivorian have anything left to give to City?
Toure, 32, is a player undoubtedly and understandably on the decline. Two seasons ago, he scored 20 Premier League goals from central midfield as City won their second league title in three seasons. Now, with his side in fourth place and struggling for consistency, his influence has reduced.
However, the anti-Toure stance some City fans have taken has been baffling. Reasoned debate over which role suits him best now he is well into his 30s is fine, but all too often those who are no longer big fans of the player resort to extreme positions, calling for him to be dropped to the bench and barely used.
Toure’s performances in recent weeks have shown that to be a premature assertion. No longer can he produce his optimum when asked to play three times in a week, but used more sensibly, he still possesses superb quality.
His passing has always been unerringly accurate, and it remains so. No one in the City team matches him in terms of range and technique. It’s an underrated facet of the game, but take it away, and City look less accomplished.
Against Dynamo Kiev in the UEFA Champions League and then in the League Cup final a few days later, he was superb, dragging City forward with powerful runs and generally looking to dictate the game with his metronomic passing. It was wonderful to see him so influential after a period where he appeared to be struggling for freshness and form.
He scored the winning penalty in the final—the latest in a long line of famous Toure moments at Wembley that now sits alongside his winners in the FA Cup semi-final and final in 2011 and his 30-yard bending equaliser in the 2014 League Cup final against Sunderland. His big-game credentials remain in tact.
His increased performance level was highlighted even more acutely in the following game at Liverpool. Toure missed it with an ankle knock, and City missed him badly. You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.
And on Saturday against Aston Villa, back to full fitness, he was once again pulling the strings from midfield. He scored the opener, a first-time finish into the bottom corner, and ran Villa ragged. It’s been a good few weeks for Toure.
But to say it’s been indicative of his season as a whole would be disingenuous. At times, he struggled, seemingly unable to work out his best role in the side.
Start him high up the pitch and he has less defensive responsibility, which—in theory—suits him, but you lose his passing from deep. Start him deep in a two-man midfield, and his lack of defensive sensibility is exposed. It’s a conundrum that wasn’t on the agenda when he was younger and fitter and could play the role of two men.
It begs the question: What will Pep Guardiola, the incoming City boss, do with him next season?
The obvious answer is sell him. Guardiola has already done that once when the pair worked together at Barcelona.
Toure, who played centre-half for the former Barcelona head coach in the 2009 Champions League final, was ushered out of the door, with City swooping to sign him for £24 million in 2010.
It was at City he developed into a unique attack-minded central midfielder, having been largely used as an out-and-out defensive midfield player at the Camp Nou.
There’s also the intensity issue. Guardiola’s sides press high and hard. The accusations that Toure is lazy are wide of the mark and perhaps the result of his languid running style, but he isn’t exactly the hardest-working player at the club, either. It’s further evidence the incoming head coach may look to shift him on.
Clearly, though, this is a player who—despite his physical decline—still possesses bags of quality. He can’t play back-to-back games too often and still maintain his best level, but if Guardiola’s backroom team can put together a plan for how to use him appropriately, he could still bring something to the setup for a while longer yet.
“I love the midfield players,” Guardiola is reported as saying by James Robson at the Manchester Evening News. “I would like to have a thousand midfield players in my squad, in my team, because I believe the midfield players are intelligent understand the game.
“They understand back and they understand forward.
“You can win the games with good defenders and good strikers, but to play good, you need midfield players.”
Those comments suggest Guardiola’s expected overhaul will be most keenly felt in the midfield area. He likes energy and pace, but he also likes players who embrace possession and want the ball. Perhaps there is a role for Toure.
If there isn’t, what does the future hold?
Toure will have plenty of options. City have clubs in New York and Melbourne, and it would hardly be a surprise if they launched one in cash-rich China this summer.
They will want to keep his registration within the City Football Group (CFG), so that an ambassadorial role can be assumed at some stage after his playing days are over. His standing in Africa means he is the ideal candidate to represent the club in that part of the world.
It’s a difficult one to call. Guardiola is very much his own man, unpredictable in terms of his decision-making. Does a squad role beckon for Toure? Is the exit door being opened? Or—and this wouldn’t be a big surprise at all—will he be moved the centre-back? City have struggled for consistency in that area for a number of seasons and the answer may be right under their nose.
Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and will be following the club from a Manchester base throughout the 2015/16 season. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow him on Twitter @RobPollard_.