Pep Guardiola hasn’t shied away from controversial decisions since taking over at Manchester City – ask Joe Hart – but his latest move is a retelling of a legend.
Sergio Aguero’s name is already carved alongside those of Bert Trautmann, Tony Book, and Colin Bell in the club’s folklore. Starting with his introduction from the bench against Swansea City in 2011, when in little over half an hour he scored two and assisted one on his debut, the Argentinian has bagged enough goals to land sixth in City’s all-time scoring list. He’s just 28 short of outside-left Eric Brook’s record, and he made his debut in 1927.
And, of course, he claimed one of the most dramatic and historic strikes in top-flight English football. A goal that stretched the seasoned vocal chords of Martin Tyler after he evaded a Nedum Onuoha tackle and slammed beyond Paddy Kenny to snatch the title from hated rival Manchester United.
But while Guardiola won’t tell his players to dispose of all the medals they’ve won before as they haven’t been acquired in a fair and aesthetic manner – like Brian Clough taking the Leeds United helm in 1974 – he wants things done his way. What Aguero’s doing up front at the moment simply doesn’t fit in with his designs.
Two weeks ago, for the first of what’s turning into an annual double-header between City and Barcelona, Aguero was notably benched for the Camp Nou clash. Kevin De Bruyne led the line, but moved laterally and diagonally across it; and it worked, until a Claudio Bravo dismissal inadvertently ushered Barcelona into a 4-0 canter.
Aguero was never going to be left out of Tuesday’s return fixture in Eastlands. The point had been made.
This time, the individual errors didn’t mar City’s game. The home side started strongly, and was denied a penalty by the questionable officiating of Viktor Kassai, the Hungarian brandishing a yellow card to Raheem Sterling for being illegally felled in the area by Samuel Umtiti. As is the Barcelona way, Lionel Messi punished City’s inability to capitalise on its superiority on 21 minutes.
Related – Watch: Messi, Barcelona cut City to shreds with perfect counter-attack
City wasn’t willing to bow to the Blaugrana’s talented throng, however, with Ilkay Gundogan – doing his best impression of Xavi in his pomp – scoring either side of a sublime Kevin De Bruyne free-kick. It was a deserved win for City, and an interesting fruition of Pep’s plans was discernible particularly in the opening period, when Aguero and the unflagging Raheem Sterling effortlessly flitted between spaces in both the middle and right-hand side of the attack.
Perhaps Aguero’s finest attribute is his economy of movement. It was epitomised in his opening goal of the 2015-16 campaign, when he exchanged passes with Yaya Toure in a tight spot atop the 18-yard box, before narrowly twisting his way into the area and skipping a shot beyond Thibaut Courtois. This, coupled with his ferocious acceleration, makes him the Premier League’s best forward.
Guardiola, though, is “picky about everything,” as the striker himself told Reuters in October, and wants more mobility, inter-changing of the channels and all-round industry from Aguero. Despite the back of the 28-year-old’s shirt stating otherwise, the ex-Atletico Madrid man is no longer a No. 10.
“He (Guardiola) wants me right as a nine, but then he gives me more freedom too. He asks me to move all around the attack,” Aguero explained after wrapping up Argentina’s last bout of World Cup qualifiers.
To ably fulfill Guardiola’s plans for him, Aguero’s expected to crop up on the left and right, but also to hound and harry defenders just like an old Barcelona player from the gaffer’s heady days in charge in Catalonia.
“I want full-backs and central defenders and midfielders and inside forwards and wingers who can dribble,” Guardiola explained. “Because you can learn control and good passing. So, yeah, dribbling, that’s the key.
“I like wingers in general – not just classical wingers, but those who master making diagonal runs. The classic Barca winger has always had the inside-to-out run totally mastered. But I also want my wingers to generate the outside-to-in runs: it’s why we signed David Villa.”
Watching Aguero mould under Guardiola’s shape-shifting (into a player with possibility more qualities in line with Villa than Luis Suarez, as has been suggested) will be fascinating, and could help the City icon plunder those inexplicably elusive individual awards.