John Obi Mikel of Chelsea and Yaya Toure of Manchester CityDavid Rogers/Getty Images

Yaya Toure: Africa’s greatest ever midfielder?

It’s not often that a transfer move causes such a transformative effect for a player as when Yaya Toure, who celebrates his 38th birthday on Thursday, swapping Barcelona for Manchester City in 2010. 

The Ivory Coast midfielder joined the nouveau riche Citizens just as they were aspiring to supplant city rivals Manchester United as the top dog in the Premier League, and he certainly wrote his own story, as did the club.

While some observers still give Pep Guardiola stick for opting for Sergio Busquets as his deepest midfielder and then jettisoning Yaya, it’s safe to say all parties were beneficiaries of the switch. 

Before Pep’s appointment at Barca, the West African had been playing second fiddle to the Blaugrana’s more creative central midfielders and mostly had to make do with a role in front of the defence. At City, however, he was transformed into one of the best dynamic midfielders English football has ever seen.

The individual awards he picked up in his time in England emphasise just how terrific he was in building the modern Man City: he was named African Footballer of the Year four times (joint-highest with the legendary Samuel Eto’o), a two-time winner of the BBC equivalent, and was named in the PFA Team of the Year on two occasions in 2012 and 2014.

Yaya Toure Barcelona

In the latter, which coincided with City’s second title success, some observers still believe he should have been named Player of the Year ahead of the exceptional Luis Suarez, a debate that indicates how incredible Yaya was in City's title-winning 13/14 season.

Toure matched Frank Lampard as the second midfielder to score 20 Premier League goals or higher, a feat that hasn’t been matched by anyone else since. Had he pipped Suarez, he’d have become the first African to claim the honour of best player in the division, but it wasn’t to be (Riyad Mahrez in 2016 and Mohamed Salah two years later have since gone on to make their mark in the top flight).

Alongside Joe Hart (who was there at the start), Vincent Kompany, David Silva and Sergio Aguero, the West African star formed part of the spine that began the blue wave in Manchester, starting with FA Cup success in 2011 and eventually culminated in league success the following season. Three additional league titles have followed since that maiden triumph, and a lot can be attributed to the quartet’s exploits in laying an unshakable foundation.

It was Yaya who began the rise with momentous goals in the oldest cup competition, netting two decisive goals in the semi-final win over Man United before repeating the trick against Stoke City. 

Roberto Mancini’s team had gone into the Derby encounter with the Red Devils on the back of a winless six-game run against Sir Alex Ferguson’s troops, a streak that included five defeats, so the expectation was for the encounter to conclude with the red half of Manchester leaving Wembley celebrating. 

Yaya Toure | Manchester City Stoke | 30082014

However, their mesmeric Ivorian had seen enough United dominance, pouncing on a Michael Carrick pass intended for Paul Scholes, surging past the English deep-lying playmaker as well as Rio Ferdinand, before finishing coolly past Edwin van der Sar in goal. The Citizens were into their first FA Cup final in 30 years and had the chance of ending a 35-year trophy drought.

Tony Pulis’ team were an even harder nut to crack in the final, frustrating the favourites with their defensive display for 70-odd minutes…then Toure rose to the occasion yet again, firing a thunderous left-footed effort past Thomas Sorensen in the 74th-minute to end 35 years of hurt.

Those strikes in the semi-final and decider already made the ex-Olympiacos man a hero at the Etihad, still, there was even more to come, as seen in multiple Premier League-winning campaigns. The English top flight hadn’t quite seen any African player like Yaya.

Michael Essien heralded the former Monaco man’s arrival, but the 2009 Champions League winner surely surpassed the Ghanaian in the Prem and then some. The Bison’s ball-carrying and tenacity were revered in his pomp, while his spatial awareness, versatility and propensity for the spectacular endeared him to the Stamford Bridge faithful, yet Yaya took it up a notch in his prime in Manchester.

Michael Essien Chelsea

He combined technical quality and brute strength to either unlock opposition defences or bully teams depending on the situation, scored incredible goals that will be replayed over and over and brought relevance to the Citizens.

On the international scene, Yaya led Ivory Coast to the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations, having been on the losing side in 2006 and 2012. In a sense, it was what part of that Golden Generation deserved after underwhelming on the continent in the late 2000s despite being tipped for great things due to their immense quality across the squad.

Toure may not have had Jay-Jay Okocha’s natural talent, Mikel John Obi’s charismatic leadership and influence, or Sulley Muntari’s tenacity, yet what he did on the pitch to help lift Man City to the pinnacle of the English game surely sees him supplant past midfield men from the continent.

If Man City’s goal was to knock United off their perch, Yaya contributed to the power shift in Manchester, and it's one of several decisive contributions that makes him Africa’s greatest midfielder of all time.