Manchester City, 2011–2021
Over almost a decade in England, Sergio Agüero established himself as one of the greatest centre-forwards of the Premier League era, surpassing Thierry Henry as the highest-scoring foreign player in the division's history despite persistent injury problems. Over a period of unrivalled spending at Manchester City and under three different managers, Agüero was also an irreplaceable member of the most successful English team in that time, winning a vast number of trophies and awards, both in a team and on an individual level. His retirement while at Barcelona, in December 2021 at the age of 33, unquestionably followed the end of an era. Agüero, David Silva, Vincent Kompany and Yaya Touré were those most responsible for delivering so much success, and by the start of 2020/21 only Agüero remained.
“He’s a guy in the box with a sense of goal,” Pep Guardiola, once so influential at Barça, said of the Argentinian. “He can score from everywhere, in all the positions. He’s an incredible striker, incredible. That he has more goals than a legend like Thierry Henry is an incredible achievement.”
Agüero was one of the world’s best strikers largely because he got into a position to score so frequently – be that through clever off-the-ball movement or working a shooting opportunity of his own. The timing of his runs and subtle movements to lose a marker and reach the end of a ball into the penalty area were some of his greatest strengths.
An attacker who looked to get in behind opposing defences, Agüero tended to make his runs on the blindside of a central defender to give him the best chance of getting in on goal, and if that defender turned to see his run, it would mean they had taken their attention off the ball, also giving him an advantage. Though he was also comfortable withdrawing towards play, Agüero’s instinct was to be more penetrative with his movement; he also adjusted his game to better suit Guardiola's style of play after the Spaniard's arrival at City.
The calibre of pass that came his way at City certainly contributed to the success he had, and he built a hugely effective understanding with their playmakers, particularly Kevin De Bruyne. After taking a central position, usually between the opposing centre-backs, Agüero increased his speed as soon as he saw his teammate glance up to look his way (below) and made his move into space in the hope of providing a bigger target for the player delivering the ball.
The majority of his shots and goals came off a single touch, an ability that made him even more dangerous in the area because he didn’t need time to set himself before taking a shot. However, when he had the time and space he was capable of taking an additional touch, readjusting, and getting his shot off quickly if the attempted assist was not as accurate as he had hoped or towards the wrong foot. He required such little backlift to generate power in his shots that he didn’t need long to take a touch and shoot.
The combination of his movement and positioning complemented his finishing ability. He was relatively strong in the air and could finish with both feet and with power and accuracy, and consistently caught opponents off-guard before ruthlessly punishing them.
His skill set was also far from limited to his finishing – he arguably did not get enough credit for his contribution to build-up play. He improved significantly at dropping into deeper positions to draw an opposing centre-back out of position and link play. He rarely caught the eye because he didn’t have the vision or passing ability to play killer passes like a centre-forward such as Harry Kane, but he played an important role in disrupting the opposition’s defensive line through his movement and a simple passing game that meant he usually retained possession – something that was key for Guardiola.
Role at Manchester City
It spoke volumes about Agüero’s importance to City that he remained their first-choice centre-forward throughout his time in Manchester and, perhaps most significantly, for the duration of his and Guardiola's time at the club. Speculation as to whether Agüero was the type of forward Guardiola favoured when he took over in 2016 persisted – some questioned if Agüero was comfortable enough coming to get the ball in deep positions and if he could adapt to the demands and intensity of Guardiola’s coaching and playing style.
Those doubts proved unfounded. Agüero not only kept his place in their team but was City’s top goalscorer every season between his arrival in 2011 and 2019. He was beaten to that title by Raheem Sterling in 2019/20, when injury meant he started only 18 Premier League games. It was also in that season, with Agüero absent for significant periods, when City were beaten to the title by Liverpool by the significant margin of 18 points.
City made the pitch as big as possible when they had the ball, and Agüero was key to that, stretching play by pushing high, often beyond the opposition's defence, to try and force them back. When City were building out from the back, he stayed in an advanced position to create space for their midfielders to operate in (above).
He provided a focal point for their attack, but given they almost never played long balls he very rarely had to hold play up for a long time to wait for others to join him. He instead held his position and waited for play to reach him. He was regularly, by some distance, the City player to have the fewest touches in a game.
On the occasions he did drop into midfield, he did a good job of pulling a centre-back out of position, creating space for Sterling – who played on the left but spent a great deal of time on the last line of the opposition's defence – to run into. When Sterling did so, another defender often went with him, leaving even more space for an advancing number eight or full-back to move into (above).
It was close to goal, however, that Agüero’s contribution to his team’s play was greatest. He is one of the Premier League’s all-time leading goalscorers more because of his movement and understanding with his teammates than particularly exceptional finishing. Under Guardiola he tended to score a similar number of goals to his expected goals total, whereas the likes of Kane, Mo Salah and Jamie Vardy often heavily outscored their xG tally, suggesting Agüero scored the good chances that came his way and took fewer of his half-chances than his rivals; he just got into good positions to score more often than anyone else in England.
Agüero was a truly great player whose longevity, despite injury problems and his share of doubters, was genuinely remarkable. For almost the entirety of his career he remained a crucial member of one of the biggest teams in Europe.
Author: Tony Hodson