In the landscape of the modern era Premier League, few players have transcended the minefield of rivalry and tribalism in the popularity ranks, but among that number stands Ivory Coast centre-back Kolo Toure—a unique personality who Liverpool may regret releasing from their number this summer.
Named alongside less-illustrious names such as Joao Carlos Teixiera, Jerome Sinclair and Jordan Rossiter in Liverpool’s list of players culled from their squad, as well as Emmanuel Adebayor, Steven Pienaar, Martin Demichelis, Gaston Ramirez and Stephane Sessegnon among others around the English top flight, Toure is set to begin his search for a new club ahead of the 2016/17 campaign. Seemingly adamant to continue his playing career, the 35-year-old is said to be mulling over an early offer from Ligue 1 challengers AS Monaco. This would mark the fifth club in a long and decorated 17-year career for Toure, serving as a marker of the title-winner’s longevity.
Domestically, Toure will likely be considered a loss for the Premier League due to his cult status, preserved from his time at Arsenal, onto Manchester City and then on his move to Anfield in 2013. A rare personality in an age of identikit, “at the end of the day,” footballing role models, Toure’s positivity and affability have brightened up post-match interviews, rare press conference appearances and often clashes on the field, too—with the rapture swelling following his first and only goal for the Reds in the Valentine’s Day 6-0 win away to Aston Villa serving as a prime example of his standing among supporters and players alike. Tearing away from the Villa Park penalty area as his header rippled the back of the net, a beaming Toure encapsulated what is often missing from modern football: a fleeting, unbridled joy.
This is a vital quality in any dressing room, with Toure often serving as a morale-booster during his time with Liverpool. Speaking in 2013, for example, former Reds defender Martin Kelly said: “Kolo’s a great person; he’s come in as a big character for the club and helped a lot around the dressing room. Whether he’s on your team or not in training, he’s giving advice to everyone and you like that as a defender. You like feeling as though you’re a full team.”
Furthermore, this is something that Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp recognised himself in April, providing a glowing assessment of Toure’s qualities, saying “he’s a very, very important player for us, even when he doesn’t play. One of the most impressive people I’ve met.” During an injury-hit first campaign for Klopp on Merseyside, Toure stood up as an unlikely leader in his first team, providing a welcome stand-in for regular centre-backs Mamadou Sakho and Dejan Lovren.
However, with no room for sentimentality in modern football, and with Klopp unlikely to show any this summer, if Toure were a mere figure of fun amid a focused Reds squad, it would have been the right decision to sanction his release—such as with Arsene Wenger’s decision to part ways with long-serving stalwarts Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky this summer; with both providing positive influences in the dressing room, but little in terms of consistency on the field. But as Toure proved over 26 appearances for Liverpool in 2015-16, he is far from a spent force at the top level.
Toure featured in 14 league games for the Reds last season, losing just once, and while this is no definitive marker of his quality, the centre-back certainly proved something of a good-luck charm for Klopp. Hugely adept at the defensive basics—knowing when to dive in, when to drop off and when to step out of the back line—Toure often provided a tonic for the more erratic Sakho, the shaky Lovren and the worryingly off-colour Martin Skrtel, while his tactical intelligence, big-game experience and sheer commitment also proved invaluable.
It was no fluke that Toure was Liverpool’s best performer in May’s Europa League final defeat to Sevilla, while his last-ditch challenge to deny Xherdan Shaqiri in January’s 1-0 win away to Stoke City in the League Cup semi-final first leg — later named the “salmon tackle” by his colleague, Jose Enrique — showcased his will to win at any cost. However, most striking about watching Toure turn out for the Reds in 2015/16 was that the 35-year-old showed no depreciation in pace — something that is often held up as evidence of a player’s decline.
As a fourth- or fifth-choice centre-back option in 2016-17, Klopp could have done much worse than Toure, and speaking in February, the Premier League veteran suggested he would be willing to take up a reduced role next season. “I’m in the team at the moment and I am showing every game that I’m still here,” he said, before adding “I’m very happy and I always give 100 percent for this club.”
Klopp will no doubt have considered these factors as he weighed up offering Toure a new deal this summer, though a number of counter-arguments are likely to have swayed his decision. Next season, Liverpool will not take part in European competition, leaving the possibility of a 40-game campaign and limiting opportunities for peripheral figures—likely the reason behind Teixeira rejecting the offer of a new deal. Furthermore, with young defenders such as Joe Gomez coming through, a new signing in Joel Matip to be established and Sakho currently looking set to face no UEFA punishment for his failed drug test, Klopp may see Toure as surplus to requirements—the German would have needed to move on at some point.
But there remains a shade of disappointment in Liverpool’s decision to part ways with Toure after three seasons on Merseyside—as with the likely departure of Joe Allen after the European Championship—in that the Ivorian still has plenty to offer the Reds both on and off the field. The onus now lies with Klopp, who must look to a similar steadfast presence to his ranks this summer.