Yaya Toure’s existential battle leaves him with a terrible choice

With his contract running down this summer, it’s looking more and more likely that Yaya Toure may be about to play his final games for Manchester City in the coming week or so.

The arrival of Pep Guardiola last summer seemed to hint at a departure then and there, before his agent Dimitri Seluk put his foot in it by declaring ‘war’ on Pep Guardiola; comments which, unsurprisingly, resulted in Toure being frozen out of the team for a few months of the season.

His eventual arrival has, however, resulted in 27 appearances in all competitions this season.

In fairness to Guardiola, for the last few months, he has said repeatedly that the futures of all the players will be considered on a case by case basis at the end of the season: those out of contract like Jesus Navas and Gael Clichy, as well as those out of favour like Joe Hart.

That’s hardly what a news-hungry media wants to hear coming out of the club, but it is the most sensible course of action. Why upset the apple cart now, with Champions League qualification in the balance? And why not give those players a chance to prove themselves in the final few games?

The only reason to assume that Yaya Toure won’t be offered a new deal, then, is the paper talk. And yet, the most recent whispers do seem to come at a time when there have been a series of speculative stories about the futures of City’s old guard, lending it all with a certain amount of extra credibility. The Daily Mail suggests that City are talking to the Ivorian about a new deal, though the story does hint that personal terms are a stumbling block and that West Ham are an interested party. The Mirror, on the other hand, thinks that he won’t be offered a new deal at all.

That’s all on the back of other stories suggesting that Jesus Navas and even Gael Clichy could be offered new deals to stay at the club next season – presumably as second choice full-backs.

There are still open questions about the situation, then. Firstly, around what City should do with these players – who to get rid of and who to keep. And secondly, around what’s best for the players in question.

For Toure, who perhaps saw his return to the team precipitated mostly by City’s mid-season injury crisis and Ilkay Gundogan’s long-term layoff. His attitude and commitment – things which have been questioned in the past – came to the fore; but he performed admirably and helped the cause. And yet, what did we expect? Toure is one of the players of his generation, hideously overlooked and thought of as overhyped for much of his time in England. That’s despite crucial contributions to pretty much every major trophy Manchester City have won in the 21st century.

That means the question of his future is a jarring presentation of his abilities, on the one hand, and his inevitable decline on the other. When people reminisce about the greatest footballers of all time, they often talk about their ability to play the game at their own speed; to slow it down or speed it up at will. Toure is still one of those players, playing at exactly his own speed and not a stride slower or faster – his strength, vision and his ability on the ball do the rest. It would be unsurprising if he still had more to give at the highest level, even if it was with a reduced role.

Meanwhile, leaving City would be at least some sort of acceptance of his fall from the top. For the last few seasons, he has looked like an ageing beast battling vainly against his eventual decline. Everyone can see that his ability to play as a box-to-box midfielder is on the wane, and often that leaves his teammates short in defence. Manuel Pellegrini described Toure as an attacking midfielder, but that means having a defensive midfielder alongside him – without that, his defensive work rate was called into question. It may have had more to do with mobility than desire.

This year, since his return in November when he scored both City’s goals in a 2-1 win at Selhurst Park against Crystal Palace, he seems to have accepted a slightly deeper role helping to control the game behind David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne.

Perhaps that amounts to an acceptance of his declining physical abilities – though maybe it’s also just the role he has to play in a Guardiola team, where he sees more of the ball and has to sprint back less. But if he does seriously think that his abilities are on the wane, maybe a move is the best option. Instead of becoming a secondary player at City, he could be a ‘statement signing’ at a club like West Ham – a team who see themselves as on the cusp of challenging the elite of English football, with a new stadium, new training ground and money to spend.

And yet, Toure has already been a part of one ‘project’, bringing a team from the bourgeois into the realm of the aristocracy. He has the titles and the prestige to prove it, and you wonder why, on the day he turns 34, he’d think of trying to do that again. Especially under much more difficult circumstances.

There is undoubtedly more to come from a man who has won the league in four different countries. But perhaps it’s a choice between a lesser role and a lesser club. And for a man who has spent the last two years seemingly battling in rage against his own dwindling powers, that must be a terrible choice.