A diminished Yaya Touré would cost the Premier League one of its most devastating talents

Before the billionaires came, plenty of neutrals had a soft spot for Manchester City, who had a kind of bumbling charisma, especially when compared with the globalized corporate overlords from across town. Now City’s the Willy Loman of the English Premier League: liked, but not well-liked. It inspires admiration more than affection.

The chief emotion City’s currently provoking is puzzlement, because the team is playing worse than last season, and although it’s won the past three Manchester derbies, it’s United that looks the more confident team heading into Sunday’s match at the Etihad Stadium. Vulnerable as Louis van Gaal’s side has been, the red half of Manchester senses this weekend is a chance to reassert themselves.

A big reason for that in different form — and possible indifference — of Yaya Touré. The City midfielder is getting more attention for not playing well now than he did during a 2013-14 when he was busy producing one of the greatest seasons from a midfielder in EPL history. Maybe that’s because last year he looked so imperious, so effortlessly good, that it feels inconceivable that he should decline in the space of one summer; improbable that he can’t do whatever he wants on the field, whenever he wants.

His best performances aren’t impelled by the sense of desperation, of straining against limits, that make Steven Gerrard’s so dramatic, so resonant with media and fans. Or maybe the lack of regard is because he’s African – which is what he seems to believe.

He finished third behind Luis Suárez and Gerrard for the 2014 Football Writers’ Association player of the year award. The Liverpool players had a more seductive, sentimental story as they hauled the underdogs to the brink of the club’s first league title since 1989-90. City? Well, they had the best team and the most money, so there’s cold logic to its success, not romance. The only intrigue comes when such a talented roster is underperforming. Like now.
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Touré’s scored three goals in the past four Manchester derbies, though this season he’s only found the net twice, once against a second-tier club. At this stage last year, he’d scored six times (and went on to score 24 in all competitions). Twenty came in the Premier League – which is four more than Gerrard’s best tally. Frank Lampard scored 22 in 2009-10, but Touré is a far more mobile and powerful player than his current teammate ever was at his peak.

Yet Lampard currently looks more sprightly. Moments like Touré’s timely and spectacular goal against Aston Villa this month have been sporadic. Last season it felt like he could summon brilliance at will, slicing through defenses like a combine harvester mows through a cornfield, or sending missiles dipping over the wall like his foot was a catapult. And despite this individualism, he was a harmonious fit with the team as a whole.

Touré arrived in Manchester from Catalonia in 2010 as a defensive midfielder and proved to be a complete player, capable of scoring a variety of goals: free kicks, shots from distance, dribbles, and expert close-range finishes. It’s hard to believe that in 2009-10 he was on occasion kept out of the Barcelona lineup by Sergio Busquets.

Now he has been criticized for shirking his defensive duties (including in a newspaper column by Paul Scholes, the worst tackler in Premier League history. Scholes also called him “a bit bored.”). He looked sluggish in City’s 1-0 Champions League loss to Bayern Munich in September, which had seemed like a great opportunity to assert himself against an elite European team.

It’s still early in the season, too soon to draw any definitive conclusions. But it wouldn’t seem ridiculous to replace him with James Milner in midfield and station him closer to the strikers, where his lack of defensive gumption wouldn’t matter so much.

He’s a doubt for Sunday: he came off with a groin problem in City’s 2-0 Capital One Cup loss to Newcastle, which left Manuel Pellegrini’s team with a record of two wins and two defeats in their past six games. With David Silva also out through injury, it’s hard to see who’s going to consistently ferry the ball from midfield to attack.
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Possible reasons for Touré’s slide? He’s now 31 played in the World Cup last summer, is coming off a 2013-14 when he made 48 appearances for his club. He’s also in a title-winning side that generally seems less hungry than last year.

Speaking of hunger: there was the bizarre birthday spat in May, when his agent, Dmitry Seluk, complained to the BBC that City weren’t sprinkling him with enough anniversary sugar: “He got a cake but when it was Roberto Carlos’s birthday, the president of Anzhi gave him a Bugatti … I don’t expect City to present Yaya with a Bugatti, we only asked that they shook his hand and said: ‘We congratulate you.’ It is the minimum they must do when it is his birthday and the squad is all together.

“Money is not important. He has enough money. The most important thing is a human relationship and maybe this is his opportunity for Yaya to find that. If City don’t respect him, then, easy, Yaya will leave. No problem.”

Via Twitter, Touré then sent mixed messages, appearing to make light of the comments then saying they were “true.” Given that Touré is 15 years too old to get upset if no one makes a fuss about his birthday, it all seemed like a ham-fisted, badly misjudged attempt by his agent to publicly engineer discord – either to get his client a new contract, or get him a transfer (to PSG, perhaps). As it would be ridiculous to claim that Touré deserves a pay rise – he’s on $350,000 a week – the only tactic he could use to agitate for a move is that it’s all about love, not money.

But this is patently ludicrous; how many sports teams would knowingly disrespect one of their key players and biggest stars? The exceptionally talented are mollycoddled like newborn babies.

“He didn’t have any problem with commitment to the club. He had a lot of different things in his private life but he didn’t want to go anywhere,” Pellegrini told reporters after the Villa game, hinting that the death of Touré’s 28-year-old brother, Ibrahim (also a footballer) from cancer last June during the World Cup had badly affected him. Which is only natural.

Touré told France Football in June that he was disappointed in City, and himself, for not insisting that he stayed home to spend time with his dying brother straight after the EPL campaign rather than flying to Abu Dhabi for a tour.

Whatever the reasons – and again, it’s still early – it feels like this season is in danger of being wasted. That Touré might only be decent, instead of devastating, and the EPL might lose one of its most outstanding talents and never quite realize what it had. After the previous campaign, that ought to leave us feeling saddened and a little baffled.