Manchester City overcame some first half jitters in their penultimate Premier League match to secure a 4-0 victory against 17th place Aston Villa this morning. While a brace from Edin Dzeko and an 89th minute goal from Steven Jovetic were crucial in securing the win, it was Yaya Toure’s surging run and collected finish for their fourth that would stamp the exclamation mark on the match, City’s Premiership chances and the perception on the man himself as the best midfielder in the world at the moment.
For many of the naysayers, the argument will be simple: it was Aston Villa, hardly the toughest opponent to drag into a Premiership race.
Facing a team ranked 17th and barely holding on to top flight football, Villa was barely considered to represent a significant challenge for the Sky Blues in their penultimate match of the 2013-14 premiership.
And while footballing analysts and ever-pessimistic City fans tried pointing to Villa’s strong record against top-four opposition this year. But it was smoke and mirrors. Most fans watching the game knew it was City’s game to lose.
In many ways, this assumption speaks volumes of the change in the perception of Manchester City in the league these last few years.
I think we have become used to assuming Premiership winning teams to be unfaltering and clinical in their run in. Years of watching Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United calmly winning the handful of critical games at the end of a season that would deliver them the title unchallenged. The stoic nature of the Scot and the seemingly magical ability to find goals when it counted (Fergie-time or otherwise). Or watching Abramovich’s Chelsea (Sorry Mourinho!) run away with it.
However, the Red Devils or Blues, Manchester City are not.
While many players on the City team already have an EPL title to their name (and in some cases, La Liga titles, Europa Cups and Champions League titles), it may do well to remember that as a team, in their Sky Blues shirts, they possess just one. Any player will tell you that match day mentality and confidence is developed as a squad, and cannot purely be transplanted as required. This is still a team in the process of building its dynasty, and it is hard to fault the club and its fans from feeling that same engulfing nervousness that any would when closing in on something as lie-changing as an English Premier League title.
So there is something to be said in just how harrowing an EPL title race can be. And how imposing a team like Villa can become when there is a Barclays Premiership riding on the result, on your performance, on every play. At this end of the season, molehills become Mount Everest, and every win seemingly against the odds. As Liverpool’s capitulation against Crystal Palace showed, nothing is certain when you are the top dog.
This was the context of City’s match against Villa – and in fact many of their matches this year: high importance, requiring players talented enough to step up and make the plays the team needs.
Of course, Toure has not been the lone ranger in this respect.
As last night showed, the Manchester City midfield are built not around any one player, but rather a trio of talent – Nasri, Silva and Toure. A beautiful thing to watch as the three float from one side of the pitch to the other, feeding and running off one another to find that moment of weakness in the opposition defence. Last night, it was Silva responsible for the first two goals, finding pinpoint passes behind the line for Zabaleta to deliver the ball in the box for Dzeko. Other nights it will be Nasri.
The point is that this cohesion in the midfielder belies the impact each has directly on City’s outcomes, particularly Toure.
While he may be responsible for less clutch winners than City’s successful 2011-12 EPL campaign, it is his work bringing out from defence that has been unparalleled this year. The very definition of a holding midfielder but with heightened capabilities in attack. The box-to-box prototype brought to life (my apologies for the use of this over-saturated word).
This is what makes him the best midfielder in the world.
Where other superstars in the park can defend or attack with jaw-dropping brilliance, Toure does both, and is peerless in how he does them, in the toughest league in the world.
This season, Yaya has scored 20 goals in the Premiership and ranks third behind Suarez and Sturridge. For context, the next highest recognised midfielder is Eden Hazard; Chelsea’s 32 million pound key player and recent recipient of the PFA Young Player of the Year Award (2013-14). In assists he managed a respectable eight, to place equal seventh in the Premier League. He also managed 90 per cent completion rate for his passes and in defence he ranks highly for tackles and for clearances.
Also, without the benefit of the Sky Blues key striker Sergio Aguero, the Manchester City midfield has had to make more of its own luck. Despite this, it has seen them score the greatest amount of goals of all the team in the Premier League this season and threatening Chelsea’s all time record from 2009-10.
At this point, many will point to Steven Gerrard and the almost identical statistics he has registered for this season as proof he is in fact the best. You are well within your right to. After all, Gerrard has had one of his best seasons, after many years of high performance and a swag of individual and team achievements. He deserves such suggestions.
I guess in the end, picking a player as “best in the world” is not an exact science but rather a judgement call amongst the elite footballers in the world – a choice of personal preference often based on one defining feature.
And, for me, what tips the scale is his command of beautiful football that still gets results. He is grace and power personified. When City has needed him to stand up, he has done so this season, and in seasons past, and with an elegance seldom seem in world football.
He is a pleasure to watch and (barring calamity) will help lift the title for his club once more in a few days time. Does this not deserve him the additional title of world’s best midfielder as well?