By Ben Stebbings       @Stebbiino  

Where is the real Yaya Toure, the one-time Manchester megalith who has become a catch-all scapegoat for City’s myriad of problems.

Yaya Toure hasn’t reached the Felix Baumgartner eclipsing heights of last season. That much is plain to see.

At times he’s appeared languid, disinterested, a colossal non-entity around which City’s lesser stars orbit in the vain hope that some of the awe-inspiring magnificence that so often characterised the midfielder’s previous years, will once again manifest itself and, in doing so, stabilise the club’s juddering mess of a season’s end.

It hasn’t manifested itself though. And City remain in free fall saved only by the grace of Sergio and an increasingly depleting points cushion.

Already the club has racked up more losses than last year (7 to 6), more draws (7 to 5) and have six games left to plunder 37 more goals while conceding just 2 to match last season’s impressive goal difference of +65.

For many Toure, while far from being the sum total of City’s problems, has become a living, breathing embodiment of them, and should be the first asset thrown overboard in the inevitably desperate cull of City’s squad that is sure to arise at the end of the campaign.

It is easy to castigate the Ivorian; his hilarious pre-season birthday ire made him a magnet for mockery (“None of them shook his hand on his birthday. It’s really sick.” Of course, the traditional celebratory, birthday handshake, how could City have been so callous), his astronomical wage still induces nausea in many a mouth, and at times this season his displays have put the ‘coast’ into Ivory Coast.

But beneath his laughably bad public relations that also included fruitless attempts to force his way out of Eastlands (or to orchestrate yet another wage increase, depending on whose take you agree with) and agent-led allegations of racism due to Toure being overlooked for domestic and world Player of the Year awards, is a superstar in decline.

The midfield general will be 32 in May and his box-to-box dynamism and the destructive mettle that for so long skittled Premier League defences, has been inconsistent, subdued and, most damningly of all, somewhat ineffective.

The powers we once held to be unmistakably Yaya Toure, now come sporadically or too late in the game or with the hidden caveat that feats of mastery early on will limit any potential acts of valour later in the match.

However, it has become increasingly hard to pinpoint the exact nature of this decline. Despite accusations of lethargy, it hasn’t been a physical reduction; Toure has actually covered more distance this season than last (the figure per game averages at 10.1km, a small rise on 2013-2014’s 9.9km), has attempted a similar amount of sprints per game (23.4 this season compared to 25.9) and has maintained a steady average of two defensive actions (interceptions, blocks, clearances) per game. The work-rate is evidently still there.

Charges of defensive indiscipline seem similarly ill-conceived to level at a player who, besides the ever-injured Aguero, is City’s most potent attacking weapon. Fernandinho and Fernando were brought in over the previous two seasons with the chief mandate of allowing the Ivorian freedom to roam and the critics that are currently in full voice seemed strangely muted last year when this same defensive indifference resulted in 20 goals, 9 assists and a Premier League winner’s medal.

Toure’s game has deteriorated, of that there is no doubt, but to focus on his defensive shortcomings is to fundamentally misunderstand the role he has been given since Manuel Pellegrini joined the club.

What has been lacking this season in the midfielder’s game is efficacy in the final third or, to put it more succinctly, goals. Toure currently has 8 goals in 24 appearances with a shot accuracy percentage of 41% compared to last season’s phenomenal 20 in 35 and 54%. This is the sort of drop-off that is the difference between winning and losing big games.

But what accounts for such a decline?

Part of it can perhaps be attributed to teams being able to successfully counter the player’s strengths – Phil Neville expertly (an oxymoron if ever there was one) showed how Manchester United flooded the midfield on Sunday, crowding Toure out of the game, and Liverpool’s 2-1 win in March relied on raw pace and precise movement, as their forwards ran between the lines and stretched the hapless Ivorian to breaking point – but this is not the full reason.

The midfielder’s fundamental attacking instincts – those incisive passes, that space-wielding movement, those blunderbuss free-kicks he suddenly added to his game out of nowhere – seem to have been curbed from within. Many pundits put this down as evidence of a lack of commitment to the City cause, a signal that Toure’s mind has long since left the Etihad and is playing golf in Spain with Carlos Tevez, but it seems unusual that disinterest would reveal itself through the basic attacking facets of the midfielder’s game while having no discernible effect on his stamina, work ethic or forays forward.

Alternatively, it could be posited that like a sneaky photographer creeping into Kolo’s bathroom, the African Player of the Year is suffering from mental fatigue. A haggard, footballing burn-out resulting from (and here it comes) one World Cup (plus qualifiers), three (three!) African Cup of Nations tournaments (also plus qualifiers) and 121 games for Manchester City in just over three years. During this time he has carried the weight of a nation and a football club on his shoulders, so often the man his team mates looked to when things went awry, so often the man tasked with grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck and making something happen, so often the vessel through which dreams were dashed and realised in equal measure.

In those three years, he has led City’s march to two Premier League titles, lost an FA Cup final and categorically failed to make an impact on the Champions League latter stages. He became a symbol for all that is wrong with football (to the tune of £240,00 a week) and was perhaps unfairly overlooked domestically when the Player of the Year awards were handed out (especially when you consider the FWA once gave their gong to Scott Parker…drink that in…).

He lost an African Cup of Nations final on penalties and won one on penalties. He watched a generation hailed as his nation’s best ever (the word ‘golden’ may have been mentioned), fail in their last shot at making an impression at the World Cup.

He also lost a brother to cancer last year.

These pressures, glories, disappointments and losses have an effect. Unlike on-pitch performance, mental wear and tear can not be measured, but it would be foolish to think it does not make a difference.

This is speculative, admittedly. Perhaps Toure is as refreshed and invigorated as he has ever been, but even if he wasn’t, given what he represents to so many people (both the positive and many negative connotations of Yaya Toure the footballer) would it make any difference? Fans would point expectantly at the many zeros that feature on his wage slip and usher him back onto the pitch.

This is not an article in defence of Yaya Toure, nor is it designed to generate sympathy for a multimillionaire whose public outbursts can, at best, be described as divisive. But it does seek to address the possibility that maybe the money lining the midfield maestro’s pockets bares no relation to his drop-off in form and should not be held against him as it so often is in analysis of his performances. Sometimes problems cannot be reduced to a player’s supposed negative attitude or rectified by putting a proverbial shift in; sometimes they lie deeper.

Whatever happens from now until the end of the season, Toure is doomed to be criticised, verbally tarred and feathered and shipped off to some foreign shore with the phrases like ‘silly money’, ‘defensively irresponsible’ and ‘lazy performance’ still ringing in his ears.

Whether next year a fully refreshed Toure with a change of scenery can remind us of what we are missing out on is a question for another column. Regardless of on-field performance, with a move abroad bringing with it liberation from the confines of his domestic image and all that comes with it, there is the hope that maybe Yaya Toure can get a chance to just be Yaya Toure again. If only for a moment.

One thought on “In search of the £45 million man: the dilemma at the heart of Manchester City’s problems this season

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