Yaya Toure’s goal against Aston Villa was his first since he scored against the same opposition in the penultimate game of last season at the Etihad, signaling a return to form for the marauding Ivorian. In truth, reports of his footballing demise are greatly exaggerated; indeed, after a summer that brought the tragic news of the death of his younger brother, a dismal World Cup for Ivory Coast and a distinct lack of baked goods, it is only natural that the midfielder has taken some time to get back into the Premier League groove. Criticizing last season’s standout midfielder after six games is pointless, and Manuel Pellegrini and City know that the Ivorian has a big role to play in their defense of the title and consequent foray into Europe’s elite.
However, at 31, it is unlikely that the midfielder will ever hit the strides of last season once again, and it makes sense for the City hierarchy to identify possible targets to be brought in, in the near future. He still has a few seasons in him (Frank Lampard is 36 and popping goals in all over the place for the Citizens), but with Toure seemingly disenchanted with life in the Premier League, its highly likely that City will dip into the market next summer looking for a long term replacement. With two of the frontrunners identified to be Everton’s Ross Barkley and Juventus’ dynamic Frenchman Pogba, we take a look at who might prove to be a suitable replacement at the heart of the City midfield.
Age and Homegrown Status
It is a well known fact that City possess an aging squad, with the highest average age in the Premier League at 28.9, just ahead of QPR and Everton, two years older than this season’s primary title challengers Chelsea (26.9). A few of their recent signings look to have been taken with a view to correct this – Stevan Jovetic and Eliaquim Mangala are both 23, a few years off their peak – and either Barkley (20) or Pogba (21) would be an ideal signing for a club looking to freshen things up with quality, young talent. Their homegrown status also makes them attractive options; with FFP imposing squad restrictions on City’s Champions League squad, they would struggle to bring in foreign talent without selling a player first.
Positioning and Style of Play
Toure generally plays for City as the more attacking player in a midfield pivot; this sometimes exposes his partner to counter attacks since he doesn’t naturally track back, but his box-to-box dynamism and combination play with David Silva in front of him is vital to most of City’s forays going forward.
Barkley usually plays in a more advanced attacking role at Goodison Park, ahead of players like Gareth Barry and James McCarthy, but is also effective when deployed from the deeper central position that we saw a few times last season, when an injury crisis saw Barry play at left-back. One of the best dribblers in the league, Barkley averaged 1.7 successful dribbles per game last year, the highest ranked central midfielder for that attribute. He doesn’t quite yet have the commanding presence of Toure, but he isn’t afraid to take the ball forward and run at defenders. He’s also an extremely accurate passer, finishing the season with 86% accuracy, which is harder to achieve given his advanced position; at the heart of midfield, Toure has a lot more passing options than Barkley further up the field.
What is worrying, however, is his lack of an end product. He only scored 6 goals last season at an accuracy of 38%; to put it in context, City’s primary attacking midfielder Silva scored 7 (@ 45%), and he is notoriously reluctant to take shots at goal. He also failed to register a single assist last season, which is astonishing for an advanced midfielder. This suggests a lack of comfort when closed down by defenders after a mazy dribble, which is why he can be more effective in a deeper withdrawn role (a position he played at for Everton’s academy); the extra time on the ball will improve his decision making and offer more avenues for his passing game, while also allowing him to burst forward in attack and keep his side moving at a high tempo. He does have somewhat of a sketchy injury history that has hampered his development in the past, and with City having had their fair share of nightmarish experiences with injury prone English talent, they might opt not to pursue him given the inevitable “English premium” they will have to pay Everton; however, at just 20, Barkley has the potential to be one of the finest English midfielders and City could do a lot worse than the midfielder from Liverpool.
In Paul Pogba, City might just have found the only young midfielder in the world with the potential to replace their aging Ivorian talisman. A mainstay in his Juventus and national team at just the age of 21, Pogba regularly offers glimpses of the same mix of pace, power and technical brilliance as Toure combined with a greater defensive discipline. He has, on occasion, even usurped Andrea Pirlo from his trademark ‘regista’ role at the Bianconeri; his playmaking abilities are exemplified in a deep lying role in front of a back four he protects decisively and he has a similar build to Toure; both are 6’2” and weigh about the same, combining their dominant, physical midfield presence with a turn of pace and level of technical skill not generally associated with bulky midfielders. He is impressive defensively as well, averaging just over 1 interception per game, while simultaneously creating chances for his forwards. He only scored 7 goals last season, but that was because he isn’t a vital attacking piece in Juventus’ traditional 4-3-3, instead responsible for killing off opposition attacks and then initiating a counter via diagonal passes or dribbling forward at the opposition defense.
However, there is room for improvement in terms of his decision making on the ball; he finished last season with a pass accuracy of just 83%, while a majority of his shots(61%) were taken from outside the area with an accuracy of 42%. While these sometimes led to spectacular goals last season, it tended to waste their numbers going forward, and adding goals to his already impressive resume will make him a massive threat to opposition teams. Like Barkley, he can be well-suited to playing alongside a more defensive minded partner in a midfield duo, giving him the license to run forward and provide the spark that Toure so often provides City.
Both Barkley and Pogba would represent excellent buys with massive potential for the future, but City’s decision could be influenced by FFP restrictions and Yaya Toure’s situation at the club. Pogba however, looks a better fit in this City system with a playing style that more closely resembles Toure’s, but City will know they won’t be the only ones with eyes on the young Frenchman, and it may take sufficient financial muscle to extract him from the home of the Italian champions next summer.
All stats courtesy Squawka,WhoScored and Opta.