Just when you thought Manchester City’s midfield was already rather good, Pep Guardiola reaches to the back of the cupboard to find that old tin of baked beans the last tenant had left because they couldn’t be bothered to pack it in the box marked ‘KITCHEN’. To watch Yaya Toure make his first start in any domestic competition since April on Saturday was like tuning into an edition of Premier League Years from a few seasons ago. There he was, dominating the midfield, scoring goals, winning a game almost single-handedly, just as he used to every week. It was comforting.
For so long it felt like a distant possibility. It did not take a clairvoyant to predict that Toure might face a struggle of sorts under Guardiola, the manager who sold him at Barcelona. But agent Dimitri Seluk’s desperate and continued attempts to sh*t on his own doorstep ensured that his client faced an even more difficult task. The controversial figure cast a shadow over Toure at the Etihad Stadium, constantly questioning and criticising the manager. When Seluk accused Guardiola of “humiliating” the midfielder by leaving him out of the club’s Champions League squad, the Spaniard had had enough. He demanded an apology before the player would ever feature for the club again.
The stan-doff was eventually halted three months into the season, but it was Toure who offered the olive branch, not Seluk. The cycle was finally completed against Crystal Palace, when Toure made his triumphant return to the first team. The 33-year-old’s most recent Premier League appearance before Saturday was as a one-minute substitute against Swansea on the final day of last season in May.
David de Gea
“In spite of the fact that David de Gea wants to play, we think that it is better for him, but also for us,” said Louis van Gaal in August 2015. The then-Manchester United manager was explaining his decision to drop the keeper for the Premier League season opener against Tottenham. The Spaniard was engaged in an all-too-public fluttering of the eyelashes with Real Madrid, and he looked destined to return to the capital that summer.
The next week, speculation intensified, and De Gea was made to train with the reserves. With replacement Sergio Romero keeping three clean sheets in as many games, Old Trafford was beginning to begrudgingly accept life after David. United and Real reached an agreement of around £29m for the keeper, with Keylor Navas headed in the opposite direction. But Ed Woodward tripped over the wire for the fax machine, and the rest is history. De Gea signed a new contract, Van Gaal restored him to the starting line-up in the first game after the transfer window had closed, and the Spaniard won a third consecutive United Player of the Year award by season’s end.
Carlos Tevez had planted the seeds as early as summer 2011. After years of living in the city of romance, two of which were spent with Manchester City, the striker expressed a desire to leave. “I will not return to Manchester, not for a vacation, not anything,” he told an Argentinean television station in June.
The comments were so strong and definitive that manager Roberto Mancini must have been surprised when the forward arrived for training in August. But by that point, Sergio Aguero had been signed from Atletico Madrid. Tevez, a regular starter for the club beforehand, was relegated to a role on the bench. By the end of September, he had started just one game and played 189 minutes in ten fixtures. Then the Bayern Munich thing happened. Named as a substitute in a Champions League group-stage game against the Germans, Tevez had been told to prepare to come on in the second half. The Argentinean refused, leading to an internal investigation. “If I have my way he will be out. He’s finished with me,” Mancini stated. “If we want to improve as a team Carlos can’t play with us. With me, he is finished.”
Tevez was initially suspended for two weeks, but was then placed on gardening leave by owner Sheikh Mansour. For four long months, the 32-year-old played golf in Argentina and counted down the days remaining on his two-year contract as Mancini showed no signs of acquiescing.
Finally, by February, Tevez had apologised for his conduct. Mancini welcomed him back into the squad with open arms, the Italian delighted to boost his squad as they continued to challenge neighbours United for the crown. The forward had been suspended for 22 league games, but featured in each of the last ten to help deliver a first Premier League title to the blue side of Manchester.
After attempting to dethrone Frank Lampard, King of Stamford Bridge, at Chelsea, Andre Villas-Boas identified an easier target to showcase his power at Tottenham.
Emmanuel Adebayor would be the Portuguese’s sacrificial lamb. The Togolese had impressed on a season-long loan after joining in summer 2011, and had earned himself a permanent move a year later. He scored 22 goals in 58 games across those two seasons, the latter of which came under Villas-Boas.
Something changed in the summer of 2013. Gareth Bale was sold, Roberto Soldado was one of a number of arrivals, and Adebayor lost his place. Not only that, but he was forced to train with the development squad. The striker did not play any of the first 11 games of the season. He was eventually recalled for a fixture against former side Manchester City; Spurs lost 6-0; Villas-Boas put Adebayor back in the freezer.
The 32-year-old would miss the next four league games, the last of which was a 5-0 drubbing against Liverpool. Villas-Boas was sacked after that result. Adebayor’s glimmer of hope at a return became reality when Tim Sherwood rode in on horseback, Chris Ramsey in tow, with the sun glistening off his gilet. He was restored to the starting line-up for the next game, where he scored twice against Southampton. Having missed 15 of the first 16 league games, Adebayor played 20 of the next 22, finding the net on 11 occasions.
Remember the salute celebration after he scored in a 5-1 win over Sunderland? Remember how the Daily Mail airbrushed Ramsey out of the picture because the Daily Mail?
Two days after the only black manager in the league is fired, the Daily Mail photoshop Chris Ramsey out of a picture. pic.twitter.com/6qkxdOQJKW
— Pete Duncan (@pd8258) April 8, 2014
Xabi Alonso is a hero. He has an incredible beard. His commitment to drama forced him to miss a penalty in the 2005 Champions League final before converting the rebound. He remains loved in Liverpool over seven years after he left for Real Madrid. He used to tell Jamie Carragher to shut the f**k up. He did some goals from his own half. He was good. He still is.
That was not always the case. Alonso may have won the Champions League in his first season and the FA Cup in his second, but the middle part of his Anfield career was eminently forgettable. His struggle for form was compounded by injury problems in the 2007/08 season, and he missed 11 of the club’s first 18 Premier League games.
If Alonso expected to reclaim his place instantly upon his return, he was sorely mistaken. He played 90 minutes in a 2-1 win over Derby on Boxing Day, before becoming an unused substitute in the next game against Manchester City. He then played in successive draws to Wigan and Middlesbrough, before being dropped again against Aston Villa. A 1-0 loss to West Ham followed, before Benitez had had enough with his compatriot’s inconsistencies.
“Xabi needs to step it up,” the manager said in early February. “Xabi knows he needs to work harder if we wants to have a place in the team.” Alonso did not even appear on the bench for the next three league games, before missing three of the last six in the league. His first Champions League appearance came in April. A year later, the 34-year-old was instrumental in an unlikely push for the title; another twelve months after that, his move to Real Madrid finally came to fruition. But the 2007/08 season remains a rare blot on his Liverpool spell.