Maybe Arsene Wenger was right all along. The Arsenal coach had Yaya Toure on trial at Arsenal in 2003 and thought his best position was playing behind a center forward. That was where he scored for the Gunners back then in a friendly match against Barnet; and from a similar position this weekend, he scored two goals that swung the title race decisively Manchester City¹s way.
City had been struggling to find a way past Newcastle's obdurate defense and just after the hour-mark, coach Roberto Mancini made the decisive switch: taking off Samir Nasri for Nigel de Jong, which allowed Toure the license to push forward and, ultimately, score two goals to leave City one win from a first league title since 1968.
More than anyone else, Toure represents City's recent superiority over Manchester United: it was he who scored the FA Cup semifinal winning goal against United last season, and the goal in the final against Stoke City, which kick-started City's quest for trophies.
His is the type of midfield presence that United have lacked this season, not just for his goals (nine in all competitions, compared to 18 across United's combined midfield) but his physique, off which his opponents bounce, and those driving powerful runs forward which leave defenders in his wake. After one such burst in City's recent 2-1 win over Chelsea, Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville marveled at how Toure's run dragged at least four Chelsea players toward him, leaving Sergio Aguero free to shoot on goal:
"It's like wipeout," said Neville.
Arsenal is not the only club ruing a missed opportunity with Toure. The Gunners missed out first time around because of work permit issues, but Paris Saint-Germain also wanted him. The French side was only prepared to pay Beveren, his Belgian club, in installments, while Metalurg Donetsk in Ukraine, paid up front.
It's also worth wondering how Barcelona now feels about selling Toure to City for £24 million ($38.7M) two years ago (admittedly, Toure may not be naturally suited to its tiki-taka style but one of Barcelona's very few faults is its lack of Plan B). His first year in Spain was under Frank Rijkaard, the dog-days of Ronaldinho's partying in a squad riven by splits and ill-discipline. Pep Guardiola's arrival in summer 2008 changed all that, and Toure was a key player in that historic first campaign.
Barcelona won all six competitions it entered -- La Liga, Copa del Rey (Toure scored in the 4-1 final win over Athletic Bilbao), Spanish SuperCup, the Champions League, Uefa SuperCup and World Club Cup -- and Toure played 40 games. "I was one of the main components: Xavi and I would never go off," he told L'Equipe newspaper.
The following season, 2009-10, was a different story. Sergio Busquets was emerging from La Masia, and he was fast-tracked into the side at Toure's expense. Toure handled it badly: he was aggressive toward Guardiola and admitted to shedding tears of frustration at his situation. "I didn't understand it, I had given my body and soul and all of a sudden, with no word I was pushed aside," he said. " Pep spent a whole year without talking to me."
When Xavi was injured toward the end of that season, Toure was brought back into the fold, and played the final eight games of another title-winning campaign. But by then it was too late and Mancini had already convinced Toure that he was wanted at City, while a reported weekly salary of over £200,000 ($323,000) proved it.
His status as a serial winner from Barcelona suited the City coach. "I think I was an important player for him to build a team, and to attract other big names," he said. "Mancini needed that." It makes sense: David Silva and Mario Balotelli were among the new faces to follow that summer. After Sunday's win, Mancini admitted: "He is experienced, he won trophies at Barcelona, he is a fantastic player, he can play in different positions." Toure's impact with those FA Cup goals repaid much of City's investment, but this season he has been even more influential.
Mancini has used him differently, cleverly this season, starting him deep-lying in place of De Jong and then effectively using him as an impact player when City needs a second-half goal (or, as against United last week, to protect a lead with his threat on the break). It worked, quite spectacularly, with a crucial long-range equalizer against Stoke. He also has seven assists for the season.
The "what if?" game is a futile one, but in 2006, Arsenal wanted Toure again. Kolo Toure, his brother, was at the Gunners and the pair wanted to play with each other for the first time since turning out for local Adjame side The Inconditionnels in Ivory Coast in 1995. Toure had to wait another four years to join Kolo, who by 2010 was at City.
"The most impressive thing about him is his technique despite his size," Kolo told RMC after Toure had signed. "He has a lot of finesse and ease of touch when he has the ball at his feet, that I don't quite have. His weakness is his lack of self-composure and I'm not sure he's going to be able to put up with me shouting at him for a whole match!" (That last problem, Mancini has solved by only starting Kolo for eight league games this season.)
Toure did not make it among the six nominees for PFA Player of the Year, but more than any other player, he has driven City to the brink of this title.
It must grate Arsenal fans that the player who grew up in the Abidjan academy under Jean-Marc Guilllou, whom he describes as "Wenger's spiritual father," who practiced barefoot so he could control the ball better, who stayed late every night on his own at Sol Beni Centre when he was 13 to improve his technique, never made the move to the Emirates.
"I had always wanted to go to Arsenal, and that is like the missed opportunity of my career," Toure admitted to L'Equipe in January. If it still bothers him, it must be even more frustrating for Wenger.
Ben Lyttleton has written about French football for various publications. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.