When you think about the first season Manchester City won the league, it’s easy to forget everything except the last game. The last few seconds of the last game, even. The only thing to rival Michael Thomas for the greatest way of winning a league is possibly the only thing you need to remember about that title win.
Being a football fan is about moments, split seconds that you can wistfully reminisce about, silently, with loved ones, with strangers. You’ll accept a season of drudgery for one unforgettable moment, whatever that is. For Chelsea fans, Fernando Torres should be worth the £50million and years of frustration just for the goal in Barcelona. Aguerooooooooo was the ultimate moment, but City fans had another player capable of things like that.
It’s often been said that David Silva is probably the best player City have bought in the Sheikh Mansour era, but Yaya Toure might be the most important. Silva has offered consistent brilliance since he arrived in 2010, but Toure has moments. Silva could run a game, but Toure could decide them. Perhaps the most significant of those came in the penultimate game of the 2011/12 season.
That year City were ploughing towards the title, their expensive talents finally coalescing into a championship team, but a spring meltdown which saw them win one game in five, culminating in that shambolic defeat to Arsenal, seemed to have donated the league to United. Roberto Mancini conceded it was all over. If this was a presidential race, he would have been asking for Sir Alex Ferguson’s phone number.
With little to lose, City then smashed West Brom 4-0, took Norwich 6-1, flexed Wolves aside then came up against United, with new hope as Ferguson’s side were fresh from their own nascent bottle-job in which they lost to Wigan then threw away a 4-1 lead at home to Everton. Vincent Kompany’s header meant the title was back in City’s hands.
But that might have been the problem. Pressure had returned, as if there to collect some sort of ephemeral debt, hammering at the door of a team that, at the time, had the faint whiff of chokers. Wins against Newcastle and QPR would see them champions. That’s where Toure comes in.
Toure was an unusual player because he could make an ostensibly defensive substitution into an attacking one. For much of that season City essentially played 4-4-2, Toure usually alongside either Gareth Barry or Nigel de Jong in the middle. But when Roberto Mancini needed something special, for his ‘moments’ player to provide one, he could remove a striker, bring on whichever of the two defensive midfielders didn’t start, and push Toure further forwards.
It’s another indicator of how complete Toure was that, three years earlier, he had been a fill-in centre-back at Barcelona. Now he was an attacker of phenomenal gifts, a man liberated from the dreary business of being a midfielder and now free to do things that City fans would remember forever.
Against Newcastle, things were getting tense. An hour gone, no goals. City were in danger of letting the title slip through their fingers again. Mancini played his trump card, one to dig himself out of another hole. Samir Nasri off, De Jong on… fly, Yaya, fly. Now all they could do was sit, wait, worry, hope that Toure would save them. It took him eight minutes.
Toure is probably the most egregious modern victim of that form of racism which dictates big, black players can only be described by their physical gifts. Or described as the new Patrick Vieira. Sure, his athleticism was a big part of his game, but his subtlety and technique was far, far more important.
The first goal against Newcastle encapsulates that perfectly. It was a shot that had to be placed, but from about 25 yards out. There were too many defenders in his way to just hammer it and hope for the best. On 70 minutes, a sharp one-two with Sergio Aguero put Toure in a pocket of space in which he could assess the angles, see what was possible and then pull it off.
And this is where that subtlety and technique comes in. Watch Toure’s feet closely and you’ll see that after skipping around Yohan Cabaye to take Aguero’s return pass, he doesn’t break stride. Which, when that stride includes hitting a shot from 25-yards past a Premier League goalkeeper, is rather impressive. There’s barely any backlift, no enormous wind-up, just a lightning whip of his right leg. That’s not about power, or strength, or athleticism: all of those things are in the mix, but the most important thing is the technique, how Toure addressed the ball.
Frank Skinner once said that the thing he noticed when filming with footballers was, as daft and obvious as it sounds, how good they were at kicking a football. The way the ball just pings implausibly, disrespectful of the laws of physics, off their foot. The way they can extract maximum power from ostensibly minimum effort is what sets them apart from 99% of the rest of us, and in this case what sets Toure apart from 99% of other footballers.
In one stride, Toure sent the ball into the bottom corner, and the tension was broken. He added another in the 89th minute, but it was the first that made it all. To have the clarity of thought and the ability to pull off a goal that is what makes a ‘moments’ player. Without that whip of the leg, there may have been no 93.20. No league title. No extraordinary ending to the season.
Aguero was bigger, but this may have been more important. Yaya Toure was more important.