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Yaya Touré and the much-needed death of City’s two-man Midfield

Manchester City’s run of poor form since the turn of the year has caused critics to target many of their players. A player that has stood out more recently than others in a negative sense in Yaya Toure. The Ivorian’s issues seemed to have culminated and have turn him in to the core of problems in City’s midifield. Here is Zac MacPhee with more on the matter.*

*This article was written prior to the West Ham game.

Yaya Toure Manuel Pellegrini 2015

On January 9th, Manchester City sat joint-top in the table having scored and conceded the same amount of goals as Chelsea and primed for another second-half title push. That week though, Yaya Touré left City for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations – a tournament the Ivory Coast, captained by Yaya, would eventually win en route to finally fulfilling the potential of the country’s so-called “Golden Generation.”

With Yaya away, City struggled in his absence and that struggle has now seemed to have become a custom at the club. In the space of five weeks, City won just one of their five Premier League matches (a 4-1 win away to Stoke City), picking up just six of a possible 15 points. The low point of that stretch came in a 2-0 home defeat to Championship side, Middleborough – a defeat that knocked City out of the FA Cup.

Upon Yaya’s (as well as City new boy, Wilfried Bony) personally triumphant return from the Africa Cup of Nations, Manchester City found themselves in an uncomfortable position in the league, seven points adrift of the leaders Chelsea, while a comfortable enough five, six and seven points above United, Southampton and Arsenal respectively.

At this point, Yaya was being hailed as the returning savior, the player who could make all of City’s problems go away; after all, the problems, we were told, were a result of his absence. In a rather nice turn of events, his return coincided with a 5-0 demolition of Newcastle United in a game that appeared to mark the season’s turning point.

That win came just three days before City’s home leg Champions League match against Barcelona, and was supposed to signal City’s return to their high-flying, goal-scoring best.  The problem of course, is that Leo Messi arrived at The Etihad and delivered a nut-megging virtuoso performance that saw City lose 2-1 – again, this time without their suspended captain, Yaya Touré.

Since that game, City have lost four of their last six Premier League matches, highlighted by last Sunday’s 4-2 loss at Old Trafford (that really wasn’t as close as the score line might suggest), and now find themselves in an uncomfortable battle for 4th. In what is surely the worst stretch of Pellegrini’s City career (and possibly the worst stretch since Sheikh Mansour bought the club in 2008), City have seen United and Arsenal, both playing brilliant attacking football, move ahead of them in the table.

Meanwhile, City’s AFCON winning midfielder turned savior, has quickly found himself under fire, both from pundits and fans alike. In January of 2014, on BBC’s Match of the Day, Didi Hamann criticized Yaya Touré for being a “liability” to City’s team. That criticism, which is now being echoed far and wide, came at a curious time, as City had won their game (a 3-2 win away to Swansea City) and Yaya was in the midst of his best season at the club, scoring an incredible 24 goals and providing 12 assists in all competitions.

This year though, as the goals have dried up (just ten in all competitions to date) and the assists have shrunk down to one, Didi Hamann’s criticism has become a battle cry. Head to just about any Manchester City forum or message board and you’ll see it everywhere: he’s slow and lazy and uninterested in defending. I’ve written elsewhere that Yaya’s defensive deficiencies (of which there are many) are a rather necessary evil that the manager and fans must put up with, if the club are to accept his offensive contribution, which comes in an incredibly unique skill-set. But when that offensive contribution slips as far as it has this season – not to mention the shift in attitude and interest that began during summer’s cake-gate – those defensive deficiencies become much more difficult to ignore.

With just five matches remaining, City find themselves in a perilous league position, knowing Pellegrini must find a way to fix the recurring issues that, if not a direct result, are at least attributable to Yaya Touré’s midfield performances; most notably, is it still practical, or even useful, to play the Ivorian in a two-man midfield?

The magic that came through last year’s 4-4-2 has rarely been replicated in the 2014-15 campaign, instead, providing the catalyst for a plethora of defensive disasters, largely due to Fernandinho’s (entirely understandable) inability to provide enough cover on the now frequent occurrence that Yaya abandons his defensive responsibilities.

When Fernando was bought in the summer, many thought it represented a shift in City’s tactical set-up, namely, away from a 4-4-2 and towards a three man midfield. In theory, Fernando would serve as City’s midfield base, shielding the centre-backs and making the simple passes that transition City into attack. That would allow Fernandinho the opportunity to play less as a defensive holder/destroyer/Yaya-protector, and more as a box-to-box midfielder, a role many think he’d excel in.

In this setup, with Fernando and Fernandinho behind him, Yaya would be afforded the tactical freedom he needs if he’s to avoid the current criticism that labels him a “defensive liability.” He could play in one of two positions in this system, either sitting directly beneath the striker, a position that would require him to press the opponents holding midfielder or one of its two centre-backs, or he could play as the furthest midfielder in a midfield triangle that would function more as a 4-3-3 than a 4-2-3-1.

The final option, if Yaya’s not to be deployed as an attacking midfielder, is to play him at the base of the midfield; thereby allowing him to dictate play and set the tempo while restricting his permitted movement. While risky, it’s where most expect him to be deployed if his rumoured move to Inter Milan happens in the summer.

With just five fixtures remaining in the Premier League and desperately clinging to a small cushion in the league table, it’s now abundantly clear that more of the same might just cost City a place in next year’s Champions League – a tournament that City’s ambitious ownership desperately wants to win. Having shown little to no signs that he’s interested in, or willing to drop, his star midfielder, Pellegrini must find another way to rectify City’s poor form and with each passing game, it’s become more and more clear: the two-man midfield has become a thing of the past.

Written by Zac MacPhee

Zac MacPhee
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