Pep Guardiola’s ruthless past shows Sergio Agüero exit is not impossible
They light up the part of Manchester City’s stadium that takes it name from the most precious goal in the club’s history. Head along Ashton New Road on any night, pass the nostalgically named Maine Road Chippy, and you can hardly miss it. Martin Tyler’s commentary is emblazoned across the walls. Sergio Agüero is twirling his shirt above his head. Drink it in, soak it up. “I swear, you will never see anything like it again.”
That was the final, and 30th, goal of Agüero’s first season in Manchester and it is commemorated now in the 93:20 Suite, named after the final kick of the 2011-12 campaign and that split-second when the blood in the veins of every City supporter turned into fine wine. His current total is 154, which has moved him past Colin Bell (153), Billy Meredith and Joe Hayes (both 152) and Franny Lee (148) this season in the list of City’s all-time leading marksmen. Agüero is third and, in ordinary circumstances, you would back him to catch the next player, Tommy Johnson (166), as well as the one at the top of the list, Eric Brook (178), by the end of the year.
These, however, are not ordinary circumstances and perhaps there is a more relevant statistic if we are trying to make sense of Agüero’s new position out of the team and consider he has scored only once this season against a side currently in the top eight of the Premier League – and that was West Bromwich Albion, who were 13th at the time.
All the same, it is not exactly easy picking holes in Agüero’s portfolio when he has scored 18 times in 26 appearances this season, including two hat-tricks, despite the common perception that he has not fully adjusted to Pep Guardiola’s requirements. If you want to have a go, you might note that he has never scored at Anfield in eight appearances. But that is about it. Agüero has silenced crowds at Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge, White Hart Lane and virtually every other ground in England’s top division. Nobody has scored so many goals for City in so little time, or at so many different places.
All of which makes it puzzling that Guardiola’s apparent dissatisfaction with his forward can be traced back to that freewheeling period at the start of the season when the new manager had an immaculate record from his first six games and Agüero had already scored 11 times. There were compliments from Guardiola but, equally, there were follow-up remarks that stopped you in your tracks. What an important player, Guardiola would say, and a few sentences later there would be a more jarring comment that felt slightly incongruous when it was unprecedented to hear City’s managers, even one as abrasive as Roberto Mancini, questioning Agüero’s contribution.
It has certainly been a jolt when Manuel Pellegrini used to eulogise about Agüero being third on the list of modern football greatness, outperformed by only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, to find the player in question restricted to a seven-minute substitute appearance in Sunday’s 2-1 win against Swansea City and a bit-part role in the final 17 minutes of their previous game at West Ham United.
The emergence of Gabriel Jesus, the scorer of three goals in those games, does not necessarily catapult Agüero to the door. It is, however, the first time in Agüero’s five and a half years in Manchester that his status as first-choice striker has been lost. Players of his stature do not readily accept watching from the dugout and, for that reason alone, it would be naive to think that if the present situation continues he will be a willing reserve.
How must Agüero have felt at West Ham when he removed his substitute’s top to be informed he was to play on the left, meaning Jesus was continuing down the middle? Did he envisage Jesus’s arrival might have repercussions for his own position, and so quickly? And what about that television interview with Guardiola after the Swansea match when City’s manager was asked whether the new signing would remain in the side? Guardiola has been stressed and unforthcoming in interviews recently. Here, his smile was wide enough to reveal his teeth. “What do you think?” he asked.
That must be the overriding concern for Agüero when City’s formation means there is space for only one central attacker and there is considerable evidence, looking through Guardiola’s years in management, that the manager does not care greatly if the players he disappoints are the ones with the greatest presence and personality.
Samuel Eto’o is just one example bearing in mind he finished Guardiola’s first season at Barcelona as runner-up in the Pichichi, the award for La Liga’s leading scorer. Eto’o also contributed the opening goal in the 2009 Champions League final against Manchester United. Then Guardiola turfed him out. “I understand perfectly that people want to know why because he’s a marvellous footballer,” Barcelona’s coach explained. “On and off the pitch, he’s been fine all year, but it’s a question of feeling.”
Is it a question of feeling with Agüero, too? And though it is wrong just to assume a player who loses his place automatically wants to leave, are we learning something more here about Guardiola’s occasionally high-risk strategies?
What is happening now brings to mind a conversation last autumn with one of the players who has worked with Guardiola and spent a long time trying to understand the man. His view was that Yaya Touré would not be the only one to encounter difficulties because we were talking about a manager who liked young, impressionable players he could mould into his own way of thinking, rather than dominant dressing-room figures who were seen as established mandatory first-team picks. Vincent Kompany was identified, therefore, as someone who did not necessarily fall into the masterplan. Agüero was another one and, however surprising it was at the time, presumably he will have a better understanding now why Graham Hunter described Guardiola in his book Barça, the Making of the Greatest Team in the World as “intense, quixotic and hard to please – pesado, they say in Spain”.
The translation is “heavy” and it could also be argued that Guardiola’s judgment is not flawless if we consider his determination to move out Joe Hart at the start of the season to make room for Claudio Bravo. However it is dressed up, Bravo’s acquisition has been a bad mistake and it is no longer enough to say Guardiola can be trusted, come what may. If this is the beginning of the end for Agüero, City will be losing one hell of a player.
The counter-argument is that it is simply one player being preferred to another – nothing more, nothing less – and that he has a contract until 2020. Yet nobody who has followed Agüero’s career can possibly think this is just an ordinary situation. At the home game against Spurs last month, one supporter passing through the press seats worked himself into such a froth of outrage, having seen a journalist tapping out a line about Jesus’s signing endangering Agüero’s future, he had to be led away by stewards. Three games on, it all feels a lot more real.
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