Yaya Toure has been one of the greatest midfielders of the Premier League era, and the Ivorian insists he can still perform in England.
The Ivory Coast international turned 35 on the final day of the season and has already said his goodbyes to Manchester City, where he spent eight trophy-laden years winning three titles, three League Cups and an FA Cup. But even the manner of his departure suggests that Toure still has plenty left to offer and why Premier League clubs should be looking at taking him on.
He was one of six senior players out of contract at the end of last summer but was the only one to convince manager Pep Guardiola to give him an extra 12 months. The former Barcelona and Monaco player had made 31 appearances in Guardiola’s first season despite an enforced two-month break away from the first team after comments from his controversial agent Dimitri Seluk.
This season, Toure has been much more of a bit-part player, but there’s certainly no disgrace in not being able to force your way into the side of the record-breaking champions. Fernandinho has excelled in the holding midfield role, barely putting a foot wrong all season, and Toure didn’t make a Premier League start until his emotional farewell appearance against Brighton in May after the title had already been won.
But the four-time African Player of the Year has remained in good shape all season, making four starts on the way to City’s Carabao Cup success, and has no plans to hang up his boots just yet.
“Of course, I want to stay in England,” he said before his final appearance. “I have maybe one or two years more to play. To go to China or Abu Dhabi, it looks for myself to get more money. Of course, people are going to be happy to get more money, but that’s not my point of view.”
A number of Premier League clubs are interested in Toure, and there are plenty of reasons why he would be worth taking a chance on.
His desire to play is still firmly there, and Toure lost weight to show he was fit enough to figure into Guardiola’s plans for the past two seasons.
And his quality remains. Toure has been one of the best midfielders in the world over the past decade, and his intelligence and quick thinking remain even if his legs have slowed a little.
Against Brighton he made 117 passes — second only to Vincent Kompany, and he may have beaten him had he not been taken off with five minutes remaining to receive a standing ovation. All with a 93.2 percent accuracy. He played in a slightly deeper role alongside Fernandinho as City tried to break down a typically defensive opponent, and it could now be his best position, although he’s offered so much flexibility throughout his career.
Former boss Roberto Mancini would have liked a team full of Toures during the 2011-12 title-winning season, when he would use him as a defensive midfielder and then free him up with a more attacking role late on in tight games. The Italian’s successor, Manuel Pellegrini, pushed him forward even more during his title season of 2013-14 and was rewarded with 20 goals. Chelsea’s Frank Lampard is the only other midfielder to reach that landmark in a single season, but it’s possibly even a more remarkable feat considering Toure was used as a centre-half in a Champions League final with Barca a year before his switch to the Etihad Stadium.
That versatility and experience will be big attractions for anyone interested in him as well as his impact on the dressing room. Amid all the threats to leave and controversies such as “cake-gate,” Toure has remained one of the most popular figures in the first team.
His appearances on the stage for the Premier League trophy presentation drew a delighted response from his teammates, who surrounded him, slapping him on the back of the head affectionately as they sung one of a number of anthems sung to him by the fans. Indeed, the players got so carried away that the trophy was elbowed off its pedestal by Oleksandr Zinchenko as he joined in the celebration. And at the trophy parade, David Silva, who has been with Toure for the past eight years, sent a message to fans and notably praised his teammate for being such a big part of their years together.
There have been many central midfielders who have had an impact beyond their 35th birthday. Perhaps the best example is Lampard, who was jettisoned by Chelsea at the same age. He was snapped up by New York City FC before being sent on loan to City for half a season. His impact was so great that he ended up staying until the end of the campaign and memorably scored against his former club. Toure didn’t score in his final season with City, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him score one more goal at the Etihad before he finally he hangs up the boots for good.
Jonathan is ESPN FC’s Manchester City correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @jonnysmiffy.