Ahead of Sunday’s away clash with Fulham, Roberto Mancini has some defensive decisions to make after the injury to Wayne Bridge. Both Sylvinho and Javier Garrido are in contention to start at left-back, but the Manchester City boss could recall benched skipper Kolo Toure to partner Vincent Kompany and move Joleon Lescott to the left side of defence.
Toure has only made five City appearances in 2010, partly down to the Africa Cup of Nations and a knee injury, but mostly thanks to the good form of Lescott and Kompany at the heart of the Blues’ defence. The pairing of the Belgian and the England international has given City’s back line a solidity they lacked all season as their insecure defence was often the cause of the disappointing results that ultimately cost Mark Hughes his job. Toure has not performed consistently well all season, looking a pale imitation of his composed Arsenal best but he may have been a victim of City’s early season defensive neglect, when the whole back four was underperforming in a too-attacking side.
Arsene Wenger is noted for his ability to judge when a player’s career has peaked and the inevitable downward decline is beginning and this season, Toure has looked another example of that. The aggressive ball-winning has gone, the searing pace lost – the former Arsenal captain has trundled along, a passenger on City’s wild ride. Placed next to Lescott and handed the captain’s armband following Richard Dunne’s departure, Toure showed few of the qualities that convinced Hughes to spend £14m to bring the centre-back to Manchester and since losing his place to Kompany, Toure has not been missed. In his absence City have found a defensive strength previously lacking and while it is wrong to credit that solely down to Mancio’s decision to drop the No.28, it has been a contributing factor.
On paper, Lescott and Toure is an ideal combination – two quick, strong and athletic defenders, powerful in the air, comfortable with the ball and tough in the tackle, but it has not worked in practice – partly because of Toure’s apparent decline. Leaving the Ivorian on the bench is a brave decision from Mancini, who has already shown – numerous times – he will not shy away from making the tough choices for the benefit of the team as a whole. But having a big-name player – and the club captain no less – sitting on the bench has the potential to be damaging too. Players loathe being dropped and captains rarely are, leading to – in some cases – a feeling of a divine right to play. There is no indication Toure is at that stage yet but he will certainly be frustrated at his inaction. His grounding at Arsenal – a club where players rarely speak out of turn to the media – may mean he keeps his discontent to himself.
It would be a surprise if the Ivory Coast star got the nod to play at Craven Cottage. With Bridge out for around a month a change obviously has to be made but City’s defence has performed admirably in recent weeks – shunting Lescott to left-back, a position he disliked even in his Everton days, would effectively be making two changes to fill one spot and further disrupting the unit. Garrido, who found himself seriously out of favour under Hughes before enjoying a renaissance under his replacement, and Sylvinho, one of the most experienced players at the club can both replace Bridge directly and with minimal fuss. Drafting Toure back into the fold may be the politically-smart move for Mancini – showing his captain he is still very much part of his plans – but the Italian will not do it for that reason alone. Fulham are a dangerous prospect on their own turf and the ex-Inter boss will not take any unnecessary risks with Champions League qualification at stake.
Toure still has plenty to offer at the City of Manchester Stadium but with a Belgian rock in front of him in the form of Kompany, most of his contributions for the foreseeable future will have to come from the sidelines and the training ground. Just like his former Arsenal teammate Patrick Vieira, Toure’s winner’s mentality and experience of lifting trophies will be vital to City’s progression, but his most telling involvement could still come on the pitch.