In a modern football landscape determined to squeeze every last drop of simplicity from the game, Sergio Aguero’s blinkered dedication to his craft is simply remarkable.
Because, as much as the sport is now awash with numbers and stats and zones and so much more, and despite the heavy influx and influence of technology, football is still about what it has always been: goals. In short, coaches can do what they like, including designing the most intricate of game plans, but if a team cannot score goals it all counts for nothing.
Football, pure and simple, demands natural, instinctive goal-scorers. And it is why I can unabashedly shout from the rooftop, using the loudest megaphone available, the special, simple skills that elevate Manchester City striker Aguero to the upper echelon of what is now a dying breed: and, looking back over the years, there aren’t too many in this elite coterie.
Let’s get the numbers out of the way first. Aguero’s hat-trick in Man City’s 6-0 demolition job on Chelsea at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday was his 11th in the English Premier League. It equalled the great Alan Shearer’s record – and the brilliant 30-year-old Argentine is continuing to stretch his all-time leading tally for City: he now has 222 goals.
What makes Aguero so special, so unique? Let’s unpack that. It was the legendary Johan Cruyff who once said that, in football, “there’s only one moment in which you can arrive in time; if you’re not there, you’re either too early or too late”. Aguero has an almost sixth sense awareness of the “moment”. His recognition of an opportunity, together with his cat-like reaction to it, is a pleasure to watch.
More than that, it’s Aguero’s equanimity that sets him apart. He’s never ruffled in possession, which is why his princely poise and lustrous touch are responsible for so many of his goals.
But there is more to his game. I marvel as he switches gears when accosted by a defender. He looks like he’s dawdling along and then, in a blink of an eye, he’s ratcheted up the pace and left his marker eating dust. He can shoot - boy, can he shoot - with either foot. Cast your mind back to the first goal against Chelsea on Sunday: an unerring drive that whistled beyond goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga and into the top corner.
For me, though, his greatest strength as a striker is his ability to find space. In short, you could stick Aguero in a telephone box and you wouldn’t be able to mark him; he’ll find space to score. He’s never static, he’s always thinking, always scheming.
Even when he’s not on the ball, you can imagine the wheels of his football brain turning as he plots his next move: he shifts wide, creating space for a teammate; then he will drift deep and take a pass from a teammate; all the while waiting for defenders to drop their guard; then he inserts himself between the two centre-backs, probing, anticipating, like a bird of prey, for the right opportunity. And, when Cruyff’s “moment” arrives, you can bet on Aguero being there.
Strikers, like goalkeepers, are a different breed. They dance to the beat of their own drum. I believe in the philosophy that in football, as in life, you cannot paint everyone with the same brush; different strokes work for different folks. Too often coaches are undone because they want to treat everyone in the same way - it doesn’t work.
And I think even Man City’s famed manager Pep Guardiola got a lesson in this with Aguero. Initially, after taking over, Guardiola wanted to change the striker’s game, to get him more involved defensively and force him to do things that didn’t come naturally. It clearly led to a breakdown in communication and Aguero was regularly left out of the team a few seasons ago. Now, having allowed the Argentine forward to simply focus on the strengths that make him such a prolific striker, Guardiola is reaping the rewards: goals galore.
Aguero is most certainly in my pantheon of striking greats. Age is always the channel that tunes the memory, so players like Alfredo di Stefano, Eusebio, Denis Law, Ferenc Puskas and Pele are acknowledged, but mainly on the fringes because my memories are vague and mostly based on old, fuzzy film replays.
But my real memories of strikers, the ones that are cherished and still so vivid, begin with Argentina’s dashing goal-getter Mario Kempes (at the 1978 World Cup) and are always freshly watered by remembering the performances of Liverpool’s Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush. Aguero sits lovingly alongside this trio, joining a stellar cast which includes Italians Alessandro del Piero and Roberto Baggio, the inimitable Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the dashing Dutchmen Marco van Basten and Ruud van Nistelrooy, Liberia’s George Weah, Spanish marksman extraordinaire Raul Gonzalez, that most famous of Frenchmen Thierry Henry and, of course, the Brazilian goal-bangers Romario and Ronaldo.
We all remember the day – May 13, 2012 – when Aguero netted a sensational injury-time winner for Man City to lift the Premier League title for the first time since 1968. And, with that, the Argentine also imbued the blue half of Manchester with a sense of history. Because, think about it, before then, what do you remember about City? Not much. They never won anything. Which players stand out? I don’t know – perhaps Joe Corrigan, Francis Lee, Asa Hartford, Brian Kidd, Tommy Caton, Niall Quinn and Peter Reid.
Now, though, since that 2012 goal, with Guardiola’s arrival, and because of Aguero’s heroics, City have a real history. And, in years to come, as with Man United, Liverpool and Arsenal, the Sky Blues will have a past to revere, and esteemed players to be admired and remembered forever.
In England, there have always been strikers who have defined an era. In the 1980s it was the incomparable Dalglish; in the 1990s it was master-blaster Shearer; in the early 2000s it was the classy, incisive Henry; and, today, without any shadow of a doubt, it’s the artful, highly astute Aguero.