If one game encapsulated Manchester City’s tendency to stall when confronted by the opportunity to prove they are a side marching towards the top of the sport it was their home defeat at the twinkling toes of Barcelona last week. Over the course of the ninety minutes the Citizens’ limitations worryingly reared their ugly heads.
Manuel Pellegrini’s side served the most possession hungry side in Europe a buffet of space in midfield to shape the game as they pleased; with sole ownership of the ball, challenged only occasionally by a distorted City press, Barcelona could pick their moments to spring forward and ultimately grab a two goal lead. Lionel Messi drifted from the right hand side to pick up the ball in central areas and the lack of a tactical reaction was negligent on the Chilean’s part.
Gael Clichy’s second yellow card to cut City’s mini-revival to it’s knees but it was proof of two things; the Manchester clubs inability to tame their emotions and also their lack of understanding the European game despite three previous seasons in The Champions’ League.
The Frenchman’s idiocy hardly needs inflation, but is compounded nonetheless by the fact City were finally on top of the game. Up front a mischievous, conniving wee pibe was tormenting Barcelona’s defence; often absorbing the power of a Gerard Pique shoulder and blitzing beyond the Catalan before skillfully pushing him onto the back-foot. For City fans this was nothing new; another recurring feature at The Etihad is Sergio Aguero hauling his side away from defeat and toward respectability for a club who have spent so exuberantly.
City’s number 16 deserves far better than the biennial disappointment he has endured since he moved to the north-west. Despite the presence of players like David Silva and Yaya Toure, Aguero is the most integral player to the club’s aspirations; his hat-trick to overcome Bayern during the group stages this season won City a game where they appeared to be playing a man down, despite the opposite being true.
After the departure of Luis Suarez, the Argentinian has become the most exciting player to watch in England. Roberto Mancini called him a “photocopy of Romario” and the similarities are frightening. As well as possessing the acceleration of a Formula One car, his strength defies his 5’ 8’’ frame. His alluring manipulation of the ball is often worthy of applause; at the weekend against Liverpool he caressed a dropping ball to safety along the ground in the Anfield side’s box, bafflingly avoiding any defenders before firing a shot narrowly wide of the post with Simon Mignolet planted to the ground.
One could hardly blame the goalkeeper; Aguero varies his finishing as well as any forward in the world not named Lionel Messi. He is capable of unleashing a high, early shot towards the near post as he did at Stamford Bridge last season, or delaying his effort to find space around a centre back before angling it beyond the keeper along the Etihad’s turf.
The former (ludicrously labelled) ‘next Maradona’ doesn’t take to the pitch knowing how he will attempt to score but it is not completely natural either. Discussing how he works toward scoring earlier this year Aguero stated he “finds it most useful to look for space in the first 10 minutes of games because that’s how you work out how the opposition feels most comfortable to defend”.
The Argentine continued: “If you don’t get a goal in those opening exchanges, it’s no problem, you already then understand how a team prefers to defend and you can adapt your game to find the space you need. If things get congested in the middle of the pitch, I’ll look to go out towards the wings or drop deeper and get on the ball a bit more. It all depends on the game”.
Ironically, Aguero’s presence in the City squad can sometimes hurt his team. Having played most of his career slightly deeper than another forward (Diego Forlan, Carlos Tevez) he is more comfortable alongside an Edin Dzeko figure.
He touched on this himself earlier on this season, stating: "For most of my career I've played behind a striker, but close enough to form a partnership with them. That's where I think I play best."
Unfortunately for City, the type of 4-4-2 they often line up in negates the danger posed by Aguero in the sense that it starves him of service against quality teams. Roberto Mancini attempted to find a balance by introducing a 3-5-2 system after the team’s first title but impatiently discarded the idea far too easily.
The noise coming from Manuel Pellegrini suggests he is unlikely to make such an effort. Yesterday he confidently backed himself and his system, claiming “I know what is better for this team. Everyone can talk what they want."
Pellegrini could point to Aguero’s (and City’s) statistics and justify his claims. Aguero leads the league in shots per 90 (5.2) and shots in the penalty area/90 (4.1), followed by three City players in each category (Dzeko, Wilfied Bony and Frank Lampard). He is ahead by a considerable distance in shots on target/90 (2.3); indicating his shots are taken in dangerous areas.
As we have seen time and time again this will not be enough when City need it most however. Unfortunately for Aguero there will always be tactical naivety. There will always be too much space for intelligent and adroit midfielders to spin into beyond a disjointed press. There will always be over-eagerness and silly fouls.
Thankfully, there will always be Sergio to numb the pain a little.