Manchester derby day used to be an occasion to relish for Sergio Aguero.
It was one of eight goals in his first eight outings in matches between the blues and the reds as City went from being Sir Alex Ferguson’s noisy neighbours to the top side, not just in Manchester but also in England across the eight seasons that followed.
Although Aguero has scored only once in his past six derby appearances, under normal circumstances few would dismiss his chances of getting the goal that would move him level with Joe Hayes and Francis Lee as City’s highest scorers against United, or the three that would see him move past Wayne Rooney as the most prolific player from either side in these momentous duels.
However, current conditions are anything but normal.
Forget about the global pandemic, there is also a “new normal” for Aguero, who is out of contract in the summer and has not scored a league goal in more than a year. Despite being fully fit, the chances are there will be no place for the Argentine in Pep Guardiola’s starting XI against United. Even if the brilliant 32-year-old is named on the City bench, there is no guarantee he will be used.
Almost unnoticed, the fourth highest scorer in Premier League history and the man responsible for the most iconic goal in the entire competition is in danger of becoming a marginal figure as Guardiola’s reshaped team chase an unprecedented quadruple.
Records matter to Aguero. Speak to those who know him and it is clear eclipsing Rooney’s derby-day mark of 11 is a major driving force.
Also, it is stressed, he has not fallen out of love with Manchester City. The club’s record scorer is open to the idea of staying on into next season, even if there is interest from Paris St-Germain, Barcelona and Italian duo Juventus and Inter Milan.
Motivation is not an issue and neither, now, is fitness.
It has been though. The knee injury Aguero suffered against Burnley in June was, by all accounts, significant. Recovery was frustratingly slow and when Aguero did get back, he was immediately put into a period of isolation due to a close contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus – and then he got it himself.
In the eight months from 22 June to 23 February, Aguero started three games. The seven substitute appearances that split his two starts against West Ham, at London Stadium on 24 October and Etihad Stadium on 27 February, gave him 92 minutes of action.
He has not completed a full game since last season’s encounter with the Hammers, on 19 February, which was the last time supporters were present to watch City play at home.
The most recent of the two goals Aguero has scored this season came against Marseille on 9 December. His last league goal came at Sheffield United on 21 January 2020.
Aguero puts his absence down to bad luck.
This may well be true. However, it is also accurate that for each season he has played under Guardiola, there has been a period where injury has kept him out for around a month.
As it turned out, Aguero’s absence this term coincided with the start of the record-breaking 20-match winning run in all competitions that has carried City clear in the Premier League, into the EFL Cup final and started talk about the quadruple.
This is a run that has been achieved with fluidity, where defenders turn into midfield pivots when City have the ball. Gabriel Jesus has played as an orthodox central striker on occasion, on others they have used an unorthodox one in the form of Ilkay Gundogan, Kevin de Bruyne or Raheem Sterling.
It is unarguable those tactics, which prompted West Ham manager David Moyes to compare Guardiola to celebrity chef Heston Blumentahl, have been a resounding success, and with others such as Bernardo Silva and Rodri excelling, why would the City boss want to change them?
After there being only four instances of Aguero being named as a substitute then not getting on in a Premier League game in almost three years to November 2020, there have been six further occurrences of it in the past three months.
Against West Ham last weekend, he was a peripheral presence and when Guardiola needed a winner against Wolves on Tuesday with the game level at 1-1, it was Gundogan who was warming up, not Aguero.
It has reignited the debate about whether Guardiola feels he is actually better off without the man who has scored a club record 254 City goals.
|Ruud van Nistelrooy||128.2||95|
|Minimum 20 goals|
Aguero has been down this path with Guardiola before.
When the pair first teamed up at City in 2016, the manager didn’t feel the striker was willing to do the pressing and harrying of defenders he demanded. Aguero didn’t understand why he had to.
After a run of one win in four league games, Guardiola dropped him for matches against West Ham, Swansea and Bournemouth.
Whether it was a long-term decision was never tested because in the third of those games, Jesus suffered a fractured metatarsal and didn’t play for 10 weeks.
In the gap, Aguero scored 15 times in 17 games. He also started doing the hard running Guardiola demands; closing down the centre-half, out to the full-back and back to the centre-half if needed. Over and over again. The rumours of disenchantment went quiet. In 2018, he signed the contract extension, which is now less than four months away from expiry.
Last season, his return of a goal on average every 90.9 minutes was the second-best figure he has achieved during his City career.
|Season||Games||Mins||Goals||Mins per goal|
Through it all, Aguero has remained the same, humorous and cheeky with those who know him, quiet and reserved with those he does not.
A lot of substitutes have warmed up down the side of the pitch at Etihad Stadium post-lockdown but Aguero has had more light-hearted moments than anyone else.
With a big smile on his face, he looked through a camera lens of a photographer, who was momentarily leaning back before lining up the next action shot, and on another occasion he sprinted down the touchline with a glint in his eye as soon as the fourth official had turned his back after coming out to deliver a stern rebuke to Aguero and his team-mates for doing exactly the same thing.
It is a shared sense of humour that makes Aguero and Lionel Messi such good friends, even if Aguero was one of the last to realise who his new team-mate was.
When they were picked together for the first time at youth level for Argentina, Aguero made a point of asking who the little guy was. While everyone else was fully aware of Messi’s growing reputation, Aguero was nonplussed.
When he was given a name, he continued, within earshot: ‘Who, who?’. The pair have been close ever since and shared a love of gaming for quite a while, although it is thought Messi has now stepped back.
Aguero has not. He continues, sometimes into the early hours, with some of the most famous players in the world. That is the life he leads away from the pitch. In pre-pandemic times there would be a steady stream of visitors – friends and relatives – to his luxury city-centre duplex.
It is where he feels comfortable. He is rarely seen out. Despite spending almost a decade in England, his grasp of the language is not great.
Guardiola has said repeatedly that Aguero’s status at City affords him the right to choose the time of his exit.
Yet that does not tell the entire story. For what the striker needs to know is what kind of future is he going to be offered.
Is it the one anticipated for him at the weekend, starting on the bench and there, if needed, in case City need a moment of inspiration? Or the one he doubtless feels capable of – as a central figure and one of the finest imports the Premier League has ever had?
A record seven player of the month awards is testament to that status, though it is odd that he has been picked in the PFA team of the season only twice and never been a recipient of the player of the year prize. It suggests continued uncertainty around his overall value.
There is no answer to these questions about his future role yet. The feeling is it could go either way and Aguero may stay for another season, or become the final member of Roberto Mancini’s historic 2012 title-winning team to leave.
Guardiola was vague when he most recently spoke about the situation. It seems he is ready to accept either outcome.
“Sergio knows there is no sentiment,” he said. “He has known it from day one.
“There will be games that are tight and difficult, when we need someone to score a goal and the best one at that is him.
“Sergio is the most important person at this club. He scored the most important goal. We want to help him but at the same time, there are other players who want to play too.
“I get money to make the decisions and I always judge on performance.”