Richard Jolly says Yaya Toure could have taken the easy option, but by forcing Pep Guardiola into a rare U-turn he has rescued his Manchester City career.
Pep Guardiola has a charming ruthlessness. His comments are sugar-coated in compliments, swathed in superlatives. He has the air of a man who agonises over every tough decision. He does not seem one of management’s natural cold-blooded killers. Yet he ended the Barcelona careers of Ronaldinho, Deco, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thierry Henry with devastating decisiveness. He exiled the Bavarian icon Bastian Schweinsteiger from Bayern Munich. He went to Manchester City and imposed his authority immediately by demoting Joe Hart.
All of which makes Yaya Toure’s return to favour all the more remarkable. The Ivorian has become City’s Renaissance man, the reject restored to the team, perhaps only the second player – after Samuel Eto’o in 2008 – to win back Guardiola’s trust after being deemed surplus to requirements.
He ought to go to Anfield on Saturday as a member of City’s starting XI. He definitely heads to Merseyside with a 100% record: he has begun six games this season and City have won all six. An influential display against Arsenal – which Guardiola branded “awesome” – and a man-of-the-match performance against Hull should secure him a place against Liverpool.
Which, considering he did not play a minute in the first 11 league games, represents a stunning turnaround. Toure’s belated apology for his preposterous agent Dimitri Seluk’s verbal assaults on Guardiola facilitated a comeback and Ilkay Gundogan’s season-ending knee injury eased a path into the side but it is nevertheless surprising that a fringe figure is threatening to assume his old centrality.
Perhaps Guardiola is showing rare pragmatism, as he did when extending Eto’o’s Barcelona career for a year, making do out of necessity. Yet the oft misunderstood Toure has also showed more principle and loyalty than many would have expected after a time when Seluk rendered him the easiest of targets. His bond with the Ukrainian remains a mystery to virtually everyone, yet whereas many agents speak for their players, Seluk is often simply sounding off. Toure has been tarnished by association, rather than the author of most of the improbable outbursts.
But one who has been accused of being a mercenary has displayed an allegiance to a club he has served superbly. He has turned down a move to China. Perhaps, after years on £250,000 a week, he can afford to, yet he did not display the greed many in his position would have exhibited. He rejected the easy way out. An often languid figure showed his ambition. He knuckled down. He slimmed down.
None has to operate as a box-to-box runner, the role Toure used to occupy and which he may again this weekend. The alternative is to field him as the deep-lying schemer, a job he excelled at during the win at Hull. His ability to pick a pass and his habit of retaining the ball equip him for such a task in most fixtures, though Liverpool away, where Roberto Firmino and Adam Lallana may buzz around and run off him, could be an exception. The faster Fernandinho could be the defensive midfielder. Toure might be deployed further forward. Like Gundogan before him, he has complicated Guardiola’s decision-making by becoming a fourth fine option – including David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne – for the central-midfield department where even the Catalan can only realistically pick three players.
But he is deservedly back in the mix. His omission from City’s Champions League squad, which Seluk claimed “humiliated” his client, should be rectified in 2017 – the only complication is that, while Gundogan can be removed from it, Gabriel Jesus also has to be added so someone else must drop out – and the final six months of his City contract could be eventful even if, Eto’o-style, he has probably only postponed his exit for a year.
But by showing a willingness to fight for his place and his legacy, he should ensure his eventual departure is with head held high. Toure has long said he came to City to make history. He has done that already, and may do so again. He has changed City. Changing Guardiola’s mind ranks among his greater feats.
His ability was not in doubt. His physicality was. Toure had come to personify Manuel Pellegrini’s ever slower team, especially with his reluctance to track back. Guardiola would probably prefer pacier midfielders, especially against Jurgen Klopp’s high-speed Liverpool, but Toure’s renewed willingness to commit to the cause makes him a viable option.
He has bucked the trend for ageing players. The emphasis on pressing, the injection of pace and the changing philosophies at the top of the division have rendered England no country for old men. Consider Toure’s contemporaries: Bastian Schweinsteiger was demoted in the summer. Wayne Rooney, John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic started the season in their respective teams. None is in them now. Among outfield players at top-six clubs, only Michael Carrick, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Bacary Sagna are older than Toure and start regularly.