Watching a Pep Guardiola team at their peak is a beautiful sight. The frenzy of swarming bodies; the meticulous calculations of movement; the geometrically-perfect passing-lines: Guardiola’s tactical methods produce the best football in the world and, having stumbled through the stodgy winter schedule, Manchester City are beginning to relearn his patterns.
Like so many great works of art, Guardiola’s tactics are an unexpected fusion of opposites. The free-flowing creative energy in the final third occurs only after the ball has travelled in a carefully refined mathematical sequence. The chaotic rhythms of his forwards are permitted only after the football pitch has been divided into harsh columns and squares, with each player obeying precise instructions when weaving between them. For Guardiola, beautiful football requires imagination and conformity in equal measure.
And so we come to the conundrum that is Sergio Aguero, a man capable of absurd feats of artistry but sadly lacking the sacrificial qualities of obedience. The Argentine does everything right in the box and virtually everything wrong outside it, leading to a perilous position inside the Guardiola regime that has been exacerbated by the arrival of another South American. Gabriel Jesus is the kind of sprightly, fastidious, manically athletic forward that Guardiola dreams about. He is also the versatile, false-nine-trainable teenager who is destined to become the new fulcrum of Guardiola’s attack.
Jesus’s season-ending ankle injury has gifted Aguero a three-month window of opportunity, but it is already too late; the Argentine’s City career is sadly doomed. Jesus’s lay-off merely delays the inevitable.
The most frequently cited reason for Guardiola’s distrust in Aguero is the 28-year-old’s work-rate, and indeed this forms the basis of the Catalan’s decision. Aguero’s movement was once again highlighted on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football, which revealed that Aguero has never run more than 10.3km in a City shirt. Jesus already averages 11.5km per 90.
This damning statistic reflects Aguero’s most prominent deficiency in the modern game. Increasingly, the German-Spanish hybrid model of high-line, gegenpressing football dominates English football after its key creators – Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp – travelled to these shores. Constant harassing of the opposition, and endless reshuffling once the ball is won back, are vital components of any Guardiola striker. In Jesus, they have an Alexis Sanchez-esque scurrying nuisance in the final third whose boundless energy from the front line galvanises his team-mates to press with similar determination.
And the Brazilian’s energetic style is equally important in how he contributes to the meticulous build-up play championed by Guardiola.
In his revealing book Pep Confidential, Marti Perarnau describes what Guardiola wants from a forward: he is “one who attacks the zones in which the opposition centre-halves work, but without them being able to patrol him. For Guardiola, the ideal striker doesn’t work permanently in the box, instead he arrives there at the culmination of a collectively constructed attack.”
This desire for a “false-nine” style forward is easy to understand. The swirling short-passing football of Guardiola requires all forwards to interchange positions and work together to disrupt the opposition shape: remaining in an organised structure while disorganising the opponents’ is the mantra that defines Guardiola’s methods.
And these methods require an awful lot of movement. Strikers are expected to repeatedly float into the wing space, alternating between “corridors” of the pitch (areas demarcated clearly on the training field): “we work in these five corridors and the fundamental thing is that the winger and the full-back from the same side of the team can’t ever be in the same corridor,” Guardiola told Perarnau. “If our full-back starts wide, the striker also copies that move, in which case it’s our winger (operating down the corridor inside the furthest wide one) who attacks the opened-up space”. What Guardiola aims to achieve is a zig-zag pattern that maximises the angles for multiple passing options – which requires the central striker to shift across the line and perform multiple roles within a single match.
Aguero simply does not do this. Instead of following these instructions, which ensure that players “arrive in the penalty box” rather than “crowd it”, he tends to stay central and hopes only to influence play in the final third. Tellingly, Aguero received just six passes in wide areas against Bournemouth last weekend.
This ties in with another core Guardiola philosophy, that “in all team sports, the secret is to overload one side of the pitch so that the opponent must tilt its own defence to cope. You overload one side and draw them in so that they leave the other side weak.” Such a system requires enormous amounts of work and positional discipline – as well as the creative intelligence to operate like a winger and number ten, while remaining the team’s principle striker. To overload one side requires the forward to drift across, vacating their usual position in order to help their team-mates and confuse the centre-backs – who are left with no-one to mark.
Jesus has already shown that he is capable of this, and is believed to be one of three young players whom Guardiola is set to build his team around. Along with Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane, Jesus has the meandering elegance, self-sacrificing teamwork, and positional interchanging ability of a typical Guardiola forward. It is easy to envisage these three players gliding through the Etihad with the furious, defence-splitting energy we once saw at Old Trafford, when Carlos Tevez, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo formed a hyper-fluid front-three of false nines.
Jesus’s energy, on and off the ball, is far superior to Aguero’s. This is why Guardiola remains unsatisfied despite the Argentine’s goal return – and this is why his future at the club has already been decided. Aguero might remain in the first eleven until the end of the campaign, but Jesus’s brief, electric cameo in Manchester has reminded Guardiola of what his side is crucially missing.
Jesus is the future of Man City. Aguero, sadly, is the past.