Not many teams in the world possess as many stars as Man City. Not many sides can proudly claim to have big names in every position like Man City. They have England’s No.1 goalkeeper, Joe Hart, between the sticks. The likes of Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta feature in defence, while David Silva and Jesus Navas support Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo upfront. In midfield, to connect every piece together, the big gun is Yaya “The Monster” Toure.
He truly is a monster. Standing over 6 feet tall, with unmatched speed, power and stamina, he can storm past opponents at will, he can shield the ball and duel with two or three, he can challenge in the air; he also has a good shot in him. His never-ending energy helps him run around during 90 minutes without tiring. He is the engine in the engine room.
He made his name at Barcelona and Manchester City. When playing under Mancini, the Italian manager played him in a box-to-box role with Nigel de Jong or Gareth Barry covering behind, or just directly behind the striker. Those were his best days – he easily bossed the midfield, expressed his attacking prowess, especially when he charged powerfully into the box and scored goals with his opponents unable to do anything but just watch in awe.
Muscular power alone doesn’t make the name for the younger Toure. He manages to stay calm in difficult situations, and despite not fitting in the “playmaker” category, Toure still displays his considerable influence. For example, in the last match against Chelsea, even when under pressure from Matic and Luiz, he managed to complete 73 over 80 passes, created 3 chances and missed a sitter. Yaya Toure is probably City’s biggest attacking asset.
However, it has to be stressed that: although physicality plays an important part in football, it is not everything. Football is not about clashing and clattering – it is far different from jousting. The player in the football pitch has to cover space very well – in fact, the tactical battle in football is about creating and exploiting pockets of space. In modern football, with the influence of “football philosophers” such as Sacchi, Bielsa, Guardiola, team shape, compactness and zonal defending are more important than ever – all serve the purpose of defending spaces.
This season, Manuel Pellegrini used a 4-4-2 formation for Man City, with two out-and-out striker playing forward. However, all of City’s strikers do not possess hard work ethic like, for example, Villa and Costa of Atletico Madrid. Therefore the central midfielders have to bear more responsibity in defending, covering space in front of the back four as well as helping each other out. And that is where Yaya Toure’s current game falls short.
It is not because his physicality has waned – quite the contrary. He is at his peak. But the glaring truth is: Toure doesn’t play well. He does not help his partner when City need to defend in transition, does not retreat back to his position, leaves a large space behind for his teammates to cover while he…walks back of just stands there ball-watching. Fernandinho isn’t the most ideal player to sweep up behind, but he has energy to compensate. But when the Brazillian is out injured and Javi Garcia hasn’t gained trust from the manager, his replacement, the Argentine veteran Demichelis, had a bad game against Chelsea because he no longer had the mobility to bail the team out. Times after times, Willian and Hazard waltzed in front of (and through) the City defence when Toure just stood there observing. Sure, he still tackled and hassled his opponents, but football is not jousting or wrestling – taking up good positions in defence and attack is the most important thing, and Toure failed to do that.
He was supposed to track back and assist his central midfield partner – after all, his physicality is one of the finest in the world! And more worryingly for Man City, that wasn’t the first time Toure failed to complete his share of duty. Against teams like Hull City, especially on the home ground, City could get away with the result, since they had firepower and teams were unable to expose their weakness. However, when facing a top-class team like Bayern Munich, Manchester City were ripped apart, with the likes of Alaba, Ribery and Kroos repeatedly exploited the empty half-space area – Toure’s creation – and sailed towards Hart’s goal. Of course Pellegrini’s straightforward 4-4-2 didn’t help (since teams playing like this have only 2 central midfielders, 2 centre forwards do not actively defend, so the chance of being dragged out of position is much higher), but one might expect the Ivorian to work his socks off rather than be caught ball-watching many times.
City’s dilemma doesn’t stop there. It is certain that against Barcelona – a team that features world-class players like Messi, Iniesta, Fabregas, all of them love attacking half-space – City will have to add another midfielder to shore up the area (Milner most likely), but their forwards work best in a duo. Sergio Aguero links up well with both Negredo and Dzeko, and the young star Stevan Jovetic showed his spark against Chelsea after being out of action for a long time. If Aguero cannot recover in time for the clash against Barca, Pellegrini should consider Jovetic: the Montenegronian can play at either wing, play as a front man or after the striker, which will certainly help the Chilean change his side’s formation seamlessly from 4-5-1 to 4-4-2 without making a substitution.
Regardless, the Toure puzzle has to be solved quickly. Pushing him forward like Mancini did may be a good short-term solution. But the problem probably lies in his mentality. And the City manager doesn’t have much time. They may keep having good results against lesser teams in the Premier League, but when facing much stronger sides in England as well as in Europe, City may not stand a chance.