The results don’t lie. Yaya Toure has been absent from Manchester City’s line up in 5 of the last 6 matches. City have failed to win all 5. Though 2 of those 5 matches were against top-end rivals Arsenal and Chelsea, the other 3 were against bottom-half Burnley, Hull City and Everton. It’s difficult to think of another team, with aspirations of being one of the best in Europe, to be so exposed by the removal of a single player. Toure, one could argue, isn’t even City’s best player; Sergio Aguero would have the most vocal claim to that mantle. City’s most influential? Well, David Silva is largely their attacking fulcrum, and when Vincent Kompany plays well, so usually does the entire defence. But it’s Toure whose absence lands the heavier blow, seems to have the most demonstrable negative effect.
The Ivory Coast aren’t worried about Chelsea extending their lead at the top of the Premier League to 7 points. Nor, for that matter, does Toure right now, triumphant as he is lifting the African Cup of Nations. The perennial under-achievers beat Ghana in a penalty shoot-out after a thud-and-blunder affair that had ended 0-0 after extra time. The shoot-out itself was a marathon, with Elephants keeper Boubacar Barry sealing the championship by saving and scoring the last two penalties. Since their last AFCON victory in 1992, the Ivory Coast have made a habit of going into a tournament favourites, then either imploding spectacularly, or falling just short. They have been the finalists in 3 of the last 6 finals, yet only on Sunday did they manage to drag themselves over the line. A “Golden Generation” wasted? Perhaps, but that matters little now, in the equally golden glow of victory.
It is – if not, in some way, actually the catalyst for the Ivory Coast victory – at least a little melancholic that the nation’s most iconic player, Didier Drogba, was excluded from tasting the sweet nectar of continental success. But does Drogba care (hint: surely, he does)? He lined up against Aston Villa for Chelsea, and though his performance gave great indication as to why he had been left in England, rather than travelling to Equatorial Guinea, Drogba formed one part of the collective surge that pulled the league leaders further away from Manchester City. His own nectar of victory might well come at the end of the Premier League season. At that point, for Toure, the boot will be on the other foot.
A stark surveyor of the problem might suggest that City should be offered no sympathy for failing to cope with Toure’s absence. For a club so flushed with funds, and one that has so liberally sprayed said funds around in the last handful of seasons, the inability to cope with the removal of a single player is simply not good enough. At this point, with well over a billion pounds spent on player transfers since 2008, squad shortage cannot be a valid excuse for Manuel Pellegrini. But, on the other hand, perhaps there simply is no replacing Toure. Fernandinho, with whom Toure usually forms a perfectly balanced partnership, is a steady, reliable defensive shield. This is crucial because when Toure decides to wake from his heavy-legged, heaving slumber at some particular moment in any given match, he lurches forward, as if the pitch has suddenly tipped on an angle, and burns past seemingly more nimble players with a sort of superhuman ease. This leaves large gaps that Fernandinho is very well equipped to fill. The problem is, is this is where Fernandinho’s skills end, for the most part. Without Toure there to rev the engine for City, the centre of the park becomes a wholly momentum-less place. Fernandinho occasionally drifts forward to shoot, but driving runs are very much not his forte. Fernando, who tends to partner Fernandinho when Toure is absent, is little more than an occasionally gaffe-prone defensive midfielder. His contributions rarely extend past the halfway line.
It’s this lack of drive from the deep midfield that makes City lethargic, listless and lank. Toure forms the very centre of City’s spine, the section responsible for the most vigorous endeavour. His driving runs, even when (especially when) they end in an impossibly subtle pass, rather than the traditional thunderbastard, are so important, not only for City’s goalscoring, but for their general collective energy. The metronomic leg-pumpery of James Milner can only inspire up to a point. To have a rumbling, elemental force like Toure standing at your back, sending concussive shock-waves washing forwards from midfield, is a compelling effect that cannot be recreated by some ersatz version.
The irresistible might of Toure could not be paired less comfortably with the lilted melodies of Joni Mitchell, but her words are apt here; early in the season, when many were bemoaning Toure’s stilted performances (some even calling for him to be dropped), City indeed did not know what they had till it was gone. And while Toure is in paradise in Equatorial Guinea, his club are struggling horribly without him. If not for Milner’s sumptuous, very Toure-like, free kick to equalise against Hull in the final moments, the gap to first place would be even greater. In that penalty shoot-out that decided the AFCON final, City felt a pang of yearning each time a new taker was required, and the match was extended. Every passing minute without their Ivorian juggernaut is unbearable.
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