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Yaya Toure at Manchester City: The puzzling past, present and future

ESPN FC's Steve Nicol and Alexis Nunes discuss who will be heading out the Man City exit door this summer.

For three years, Manchester City had two Toures. It has seemed like longer, however. Long after Kolo Toure's 2013 move to Anfield, City supporters continued to chorus their irritating, infectiously catchy song about the defender and his brother Yaya. It wasn't just them, either. The ignominious end to Steven Gerrard's Anfield career included an infamous filmed version of the captain leading the Liverpool team in a rendition on a Dubai escalator.

In a sense, though, City still have two Toures. There is the Yaya Toure who has been the driving force for their rise and the one who is described as a liability. There is the Toure who has been the decisive figure in major matches and the one who is starting to come up short in defining games. There is the nice guy and the man who courts controversy. There is the player who has stayed and the one who is going.

This is the duality of Yaya Toure, the enigma who polarises. The contradictions confound attempts to form a rounded picture of one of the most compelling players of the Premier League era; a rare blend of physical power, technical ability and statistical excellence. He is built like Patrick Vieira, takes free kicks like Gianfranco Zola and has scored at the rate of Gerrard. But he has a mercurial nature and an increasing image problem.

It hardly helps that the 32-year-old is represented by Dimitri Seluk, the infamously outspoken agent with a penchant for taking pot-shots at Pep Guardiola, the most coveted manager in world football and City's summer arrival. The Russian set the tone for another spell of speculation by saying Guardiola's appointment would probably result in Toure's exit .

Yet while the midfielder has a bond with Seluk that dates back to the player's time at Metalurh Donetsk between 2003-05, it is worth noting that he is not Toure's only advisor. His words may be memorable, but they are not always accurate. Seluk seemed to spend much of last year trying to engineer an exit for his client after claiming City had shown Toure a lack of respect by failing to provide a cake to celebrate his birthday.

While Inter Milan were publically courting Toure last season, others in his camp were counselling caution and suggesting he was always likely to stay at City. The relationship between club and player was not what it was, as those on both sides of the divide acknowledged, but financial factors meant it became a marriage of convenience. He earns £250,000 a week, a sum that perhaps only eight clubs in western Europe can match.

For various reasons, most could be discounted as destinations. Some close to Toure scoffed at Inter's interest, arguing that half of their team earn as much between them as he does on his own. Inter manager Roberto Mancini's public interest in the man he signed for City was seen as crowd-pleasing grandstanding.

So it proved. Seluk's words tend to be hot air. The club, wearily accustomed to his outbursts, ignore many of them. Issues arise more when Toure supports them. He tends to speak quickly, with quiet intensity, but rarely says anything especially interesting. He is not a press officer's worst nightmare.

Instead, Toure's contentious comments come neither in English nor in England. They tend to come in French, such as when the allegation City denied him time with his dying brother Ibrahim was delivered to France Football. So, too, the suggestion it would be an honour to play for Paris Saint-Germain. He used the words "indecent" and "pathetic" among his complaints to French radio station RFI when he was denied the 2015 African Footballer of the Year award, with Borussia Dortmund's Pierre-Emerick Aubayemang instead given the prize.

Yaya Toure has just five goals in 23 Premier League appearances this season for Manchester City.
Yaya Toure has just five goals in 23 Premier League appearances this season for Manchester City.

The irony, perhaps, is that Toure is the only player ever crowned African Footballer of the Year four times in a row. Recognition has been more elusive in his adopted continent. Even when he became only the second midfielder ever to record 20 Premier League goals in a season, he finished a distant second to Luis Suarez in the 2014 Footballer of the Year voting. Scott Parker has won the award since Toure's 2010 arrival from Barcelona, but he has not.

Now his image would hardly help him win a popular vote. Yet if some feel he has a reputation as a rebel, forever falling out with people, others have another picture, and not just because he is a UN goodwill ambassador. The confrontational Mancini antagonised several in the City dressing room, but both Toures were deemed so laid back that there was never any danger that their relationships with the Italian would be soured.

Then the younger brother appeared the low-maintenance superstar, not the divisive diva. It helped that many of City's breakthrough results -- the FA Cup semifinal and final in 2011; the wins over Manchester United and Newcastle in the last three games of the 2011-12's title win -- featured colossal displays from the Ivorian. He was the big-game player par excellence.

Yet it is notable that City have not won enough of such encounters of late. They are yet to defeat top-six opponents this season. Whereas it would once have been unthinkable to remove Toure at a pivotal point in a crucial clash, he was substituted in both the Capital One Cup semifinal against Everton and Saturday's 3-1 defeat to Leicester. His powers, particularly physically, seem to be waning.

The accusation, voiced ever more frequently, is that he does not do his defensive duties. The paradox is that he arrived in England as a defensive midfielder. Indeed, he was described as one long after Mancini began actually deploying him as a No. 10.

His biggest game for Guardiola at Barcelona, the 2009 Champions League final win over Manchester United, actually came as a centre-back when Toure helped prevent Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Dimitar Berbatov from scoring. The modern-day variant is a reason why central defenders can be left exposed.

Toure may have reasons to be fearful: Guardiola has sold him once before; City developed an interest in Everton's Ross Barkley before his form relapsed last season, but the Merseysider is resurgent again this campaign. So as Toure prepares to enter the last year of a contract that expires in 2017, club and player's ties to each other are loosening. The emergence of China as a financial powerhouse where marquee players can command huge salaries may offer an escape route.

Yet if he departs, it will be as a conundrum. One Toure is castigated. The other, the modern great who transformed City, should be celebrated. But the dichotomy is that too many are unsure which is the real Toure.

Richard Jolly is a football writer for ESPN, The Guardian, The National, The Observer, the Straits Times and the Sunday Express.

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