Yaya Toure has always played like he’s participating in a charity match. This is his best and most frustrating quality. He stalks the pitch in a warm-up jog. He holds off straining opponents like a father holds off a pesky six-year old. He scores thirty-yard goals with the nonchalance of clearing a pesky dog from beneath his feet.
The frustrating part: that thing called defense. Toure doesn’t do it, to an almost comical degree. In the past two years, commentators have called his lack of effort “lazy,” “selfish,” “lackadaisical.” Whatever the adjective, Toure’s defensive absence leaves City chronically exposed to runs and passes that cut open their midfield line. While he may win a loose ball or two in the midfield, he functions more like a construction worker posing as a traffic controller posing as someone who’s actually doing something to control traffic. He jests at making spaces safe. This season in particular, Toure has begun to let even the slowest midfielders glide past him en route to attacking advantage. For a team with Champions League goals – never mind league ones – such defensive porousness hurts too much. It certainly, if indirectly, concedes goals.
Throughout his career, however, Toure has relied on a habit or tactic that makes almost any doubter think he is capable of more, that he deserves more time on the pitch. He plays most of the match at charity speed, and then, usually around the eightieth minute, once he’s warm and his opponent spent, he decides to try. Or try harder.
Especially late in the game, Toure has re-defined the surging midfield run. Built like an eight-hundred meter runner carrying twenty extra pounds of power, he combines an extra gear with extra leverage. He has a unique and devastating blend of power and grace, explosion and precision. He sheds defenders. In the final ten minutes of any match, he is often the best and most dangerous player on the field, unquestionably one of the best players in the world.
But what happens when he no longer has the kick for the home stretch, both for any match and for the season as a whole? Manchester City is looking at this scenario right now. Although Toure has created a few late goals for City this season – like his lefty pass into upper ninety against Arsenal – his surging heroics look increasingly hard for him, and hard to find. Toure doesn’t attempt surges or they fizzle out. No matter how much he tries to save his energy, sprinter legs have been worn down by marathon miles.
Also, unfortunately for City and Toure, the first eighty minutes of matches matter.
Against top clubs, Toure and Fernandinho, a player who also has an instinct to push forward that can unbalance a midfield, don’t offer enough collective coverage. But Pellegrini seems reluctant to admit this. He has at times tried to protect Toure and Fernandinho with an extra defensive midfielder, namely Fernando. But Toure’s diminishing energy and range don’t justify such an unhinging of defensive responsibility. And so far, Fernando – brought to City for his defensive prowess – has struggled to show that he can provide adequate cover for either Toure or Fernandinho alone.
Save another new signing, which looks more and more necessary in the long term to revitalize an aging midfield, Pellegrini has one other option to try in the short term: new signing Fabian Delph. Despite frequent injuries, Delph has shown glimpses of a midfielder with the discipline to play soundly on either the attacking or defensive sides of midfield. He certainly doesn’t have the same attacking toolbox as Toure, but he could give City the midfield energy they need to feed their world-class front four without getting burned on the other side of the ball.
It will be sad to see Toure go. By almost any measure, he has been the best midfielder in the Premier League over the past four seasons. But in the unblinking and unsentimental world of world-class soccer, he belongs on the bench, for at least the first seventy-nine minutes of the game. Okay, maybe just sixty, or for a game here and there while he recovers. He’s still Yaya Toure.