British author Simon Kuper once wrote that great football players are traditionally either warriors or artists. Manchester City’s Yaya Toure, however, defies categorization.
On the field the Ivorian has demonstrated the tactical discipline and physicality to repel opponents single-handedly. He also has unveiled the vision to create goals as well as score them, rumbling forwards like an untethered wardrobe on a downward slope, flattening all in its path.
When he swings through the door of the media room at Manchester City’s training ground, it is evident that Toure carries a rare mix of attributes off the field, too. The African footballer of the year instantly fills the modest facility with his physical presence, a first impression he proceeds to undercut with the sweetness of his demeanor and dulcet tone.
As he is miked up, I tell the midfielder I am interested in discussing his club’s Champions League round of 16 clash with his former team, Barcelona. The midfielder puffs out his cheeks, shakes his head and whispers softly:
“Anything but Barcelona. I would have preferred Bayern, Real Madrid or PSG. Anybody but Barca.”
Toure’s reticence is emotional. He spent three seasons in Catalonia, where he was a key member of the squad and started at center back during its 2009 Champions League final triumph over Manchester United.
Yet after arriving in Manchester’s blue half the following year, the Ivorian has grown to become one of the Premier League’s most dominant players.
It is a transformation he explains in a single word: “Freedom.”
“Barcelona was about discipline and trying to learn how to read the opponent and [launch] the counterattack,” Toure says. “I was mostly on the defensive side, but at Manchester City I am involved in all aspects, the offensive side as well.”
The Ivorian is clearly thriving in that unfettered environment. This season he has completed 1,581 passes (910 in the attacking half), which is a Premier League high, and his 907 touches in the defensive half lead his team. So what does he consider to be his best position?
The very question triggers a stifled chuckle. “People who know me well understand I like to go forward and want to be able to run the ball up the field,” he says. “For me, that’s who I really think I am: a player who touches the ball a lot, because when you do that, you have this importance to your team, and for me, that is what is amazing.”
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Manuel Pellegrini’s side have, for long spells of the season, been the Premier League’s most potent force, yet Toure has been quoted in the Spanish media as suggesting Real Madrid were Champions League favorites.
If there is a gap that exists between City and the likes of Carlo Ancelotti’s side, how large does he perceive it to be?
“We don’t want to put pressure on ourselves because clubs like Madrid and Barcelona have a big history,” he says. “We want to be at that level. Our goal is to become one of the big fish.”
Toure is quick to acknowledge the difference Pellegrini has made to that end. “[He has] given us confidence and worked out how to get the best out of every player.”
Samir Nasri -- a player Toure refers to as “my friend” -- is a case in point. “Last season was quite difficult for him but he was in magnificent form this year until he got injured, but you see players like [Edin] Dzeko doing well under Pellegrini,” he says.
Pellegrini and his squad now must now face up to Barcelona in a tie that forces Toure to come full circle. The player says that the 2008-09 Barca squad -- one that won a club record six trophies -- is the best he has ever been on.
“We won all the competitions that were possible for us to win. [Andres] Iniesta was unbelievable then, Xavi as well. [Lionel] Messi... [Samuel] Eto’o,” he says with relish as though momentarily lost in that time and place. “Even the players on the bench were of the highest level.”
That the current Blaugrana squad, managed by Tata Martino, has muddled through parts of this season so far gives Toure no peace of mind. He shrugs off the suggestion that this version of Barcelona appears weaker than when he wore the club's colors.
“They always compete, and the Champions League is their main target," Toure says. "But if you want to be one of the best clubs in the world, you have to show you can compete with the best.”
Crucially, the first leg of the tie is at the Etihad, where City have, Chelsea in the Premier League apart, been dominant. Does Toure believe that form could make even a team like Barcelona skittish?
“Their experience will be an equalizer,” he says. “Barcelona know how to manage these [situations] because they have been such a strong club for so long, and for us it is the first time [in the elimination round].”
Revealingly, Toure repeatedly refers to the clash as a “test.” "[Barcelona] have experience. They have chemistry. They have a strong mentality,” he says.
“What we want to do is to test ourselves because we have been so dominant at the Etihad, but against Barcelona we will have to be careful because they have a fantastic [counterattack] and the best player in the world on their team.”
I ask the City player to describe what emotions he imagines he will feel on March 12 when he returns to Camp Nou for the first time in an opponent’s colors.
“It’s going to be difficult because of what I achieved when I was in Barcelona and what the fans and the people there gave me. I think they have a lot of respect for me because it was there I learned a high level of football, won important trophies and learned how to be a professional at the highest level.
“[I have] fantastic memories, and the club has a fantastic history ... but I think I had to move on.”
He quickly elaborates. “My target now is to come to City to make history.” Then, beaming as though visualizing the thrill of victory, he says: “Competing against them, trying to win and winning will all be amazing.”
The Barcelona fans are not the only ones he savors. We discuss the emotions conjured by his signature “Yaya Toure song” booming across the Etihad.
“It makes me feel happy and motivates me to give back to the fans. They only make songs for those they love.”
The player leans forward and adds, “When I hear that song, I always want to fight, and even if I am injured, I want to keep playing because of what they do, following us everywhere. ... It makes me want to win trophies, just for them.”
The talk of winning trophies offers a natural segue to ask a player who is clearly reveling in the challenges of the present to dream about the future. Does he think his team has the confidence and ability to beat Barcelona and win the Champions League this year?
Again, that big grin. Again, a one-word answer.