By Kristan Heneage
Many have sympathised with Pellegrini’s plight. Subject to constant speculation over his future, Pep Guardiola’s name has often come up during press conferences. As soon as Guardiola’s summer arrival was confirmed, talk turned to the potential departure of a City star. "I think Yaya will leave the club," Toure’s agent Dimitri Seluk told The Sun. "But before leaving I hope he will win again the league and all the cups. It’s not a question of whether Pep likes him or not. It’s life, you know. Pep can call Yaya and speak to him to let him know ‘I’m with you’ or ‘I am not with you’.”
At one stage a colossus that could spin the momentum of a game, few view the Ivorian in that same exalted way now. Pellegrini has often been criticised for selecting Toure in a midfield two - something he did against Sunderland on Tuesday - as it further highlights his decreasing mobility around the field.
A decision that did not cost him during a 1-0 win, Pellegrini realised the error of his ways as the second half began. Subbing in Fernando for Kelechi Iheanacho so that Toure could play behind Sergio Aguero, it not only gave the team more balance, but also allowed them to match up against Sunderland’s midfield trio. Now in an a more advanced position, it is there that the 32-year-old has often done so much of his damage for . His speed and threat from distance make him nigh impossible to defend against.
However to watch him now is to watch a player declining, at least physically. With his agent expecting him to leave in the summer, it would seem a sensible time to move on. Toure does not fit the brief of a Guardiola midfielder. Dropped to accommodate the emerging Sergio Busquets when Guardiola took over at Barcelona in 2008, Toure completed 90 minutes just nine times during the 2009-10 campaign before being moved on to for £24million.
With his future seemingly cemented, the focus, much like with Pellegrini, must be on the present. To watch Toure at the Stadium Of Light was to see a player in need of a more defined, less physically demanding role. In central midfield he looked lethargic and laboured. Still blessed with size and strength, his ability to win the ball back was helpful but not as influential as we’ve come to expect.
Shifted into the number 10 role, there was little in the way of improvement. Early in the second half he collected the ball outside the penalty box - a bursting run seemed imminent. Yet even though the mind could conceive it, the legs struggled to produce as he was easily dispossessed. That was followed by a 50-50 with defender Lamine Kone left Toure flat on the floor, surrounded by cheers from the home support. “The fans will love him [Kone] after bouncing Toure off him,” Sunderland manager Sam Allardyce said afterwards.
A footrace with the same defender minutes later saw Toure struggle to break away from his opponent, like he so often has in a City shirt. Ultimately losing the ball during that exchange, he would misplace almost half a dozen passes before the night was out. Visibly frustrated, it was difficult to gauge whether his ire was aimed at teammates or his own inability to perform in the way he once did.
Speaking after the game, Pellegrini was coy on the midfielder’s influence. “Yaya is the same player, he is an offensive midfielder,” Pellegrini said. “Sometimes he is playing a little bit forward, sometimes he is playing a little bit further back, but he is doing the same duty as he is always does.”
Removed to ironic cheers 11 minutes before full-time, his slow trudge off the field was a fitting end to a night full of laboured movement from the midfielder. Arguably better confined to the role of impact sub, it may prove hard to transition a player of his stature to such a diminished role.
Still challenging for the Premier League, a third title would be a fitting end to his time in Manchester. When he does leave the club, he will undoubtedly have suitors. Inter Milan manager Roberto Mancini had attempted to sign him last summer, while talk of a potential move to China for a bumper pay packet of £30million a season refuses to go away.
On Tuesday night City fans chanted for the soon departing Pellegrini - a sign of their appreciation. They were less vocal for Toure, further indicating his lack of influence on proceedings. A star that twice helped elevate the club to become Premier League champions, City have pushed for change in the dugout to match their lofty ambitions and they must now do the same on the field too, starting with Toure’s presence in midfield.