MANCHESTER, England (AP) It has been one of the great sights of English soccer in recent years, Yaya Toure picking up possession in central midfield for Manchester City, rampaging upfield and scattering opponents in his path.
Those days appear to have gone.
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Toure is now found sitting in front of City’s defense, reading the game, dictating its tempo, picking off opposition passes, and starting attacks rather than finishing them.
His reinvention over the last three months as a holding midfielder — and one of Pep Guardiola‘s most integral players — is one of the stories of City’s season and has coincided with an upturn in the team’s fortunes. It’s as much a tale of the 33-year-old Toure’s enduring quality and hunger as circumstance and opportunism.
The former Ivory Coast captain started the season ostracized by Guardiola, who was unhappy at both Toure’s fitness levels and the criticism coming from the player’s outspoken agent, Dimitri Seluk.
Toure was even omitted from City’s squad for the Champions League group stage but he knuckled down, lost about 14 pounds, and waited for his chance. That came when one fellow midfielder (Fernandinho) was hit with a four-match ban and another (Ilkay Gundogan) sustained a season-ending knee injury.
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Toure, looking lean and fit, started a Premier League game against Watford on Dec. 14 and has played every match since, excelling as the team’s deep-lying midfielder and no longer the box-to-box player that City fans have been used to seeing.
Such is his change in status and importance that he was one of the few players rested by Guardiola for the FA Cup match at Huddersfield on Saturday ahead of City’s match against Monaco in the last 16 of the Champions League on Tuesday.
“He has been unbelievable since the game he came back,” City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne said on Monday. “Last year, he wasn’t that sharp. Give him credit for coming back and doing very well.”
Guardiola has settled on a central-midfield trio of Toure, as the protector of the defense, and De Bruyne and David Silva as the playmakers, and it is proving an ideal mix. City has conceded only one goal in its last five games, and its previously shaky defense kept five clean sheets in its last six away games.
Toure has said he feels like a kid again under Guardiola.
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“He is so important for his personality,” Guardiola said on Monday of Toure. “He is part of the history of the club. He helped the club to be where it is. He is back with us and playing at a high level.”
Monaco will be a big test for Toure. The French league leader has scored more goals than any other team in Europe’s top five leagues this season, and is lethal on the counterattack thanks to ultra-fast transition play involving forwards Bernardo Silva, Kylian Mbappe, and Valere Germain.
Toure will be tasked with stopping them from getting at City’s backline, and that’s no easy job. The games in which he struggled since his return have been the losses to Liverpool and Everton, who played a high-energy and up-tempo style.
Monaco will be a level up from that.
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“As a spectator, it is so nice to watch them. I am really impressed how good they are; physically strong, the full backs play like wingers, the wingers play like attacking midfielders … a complete team,” Guardiola said on Monday, describing their attackers as “killers in the box.”
Yet these are exactly the sort of games in which Guardiola will lean on the experienced Toure, a Champions League winner under the Spanish coach at Barcelona in 2009.
In those days, he also played as a holding midfielder and it is in that position that he’s set to end his career.
“I judge players on whether they are able to go to Anfield, Old Trafford, the Nou Camp, or Madrid or Turin and if they are able to react,” Guardiola has said. “There is no doubt about Yaya with that.”