Sergio Agüero has scored 181 league goals for Manchester City, but one of them would have been sufficient to make him a legend. Whatever else Agüero had done in his career, his strike on the final day of the 2011-12 season, running on to receive Mario Balotelli’s only assist of that campaign before, with glorious inevitability, lashing his shot past Paddy Kenny, would have written his name in golden letters in the history of the club. There was, though, quite a lot else besides.
But let’s begin with that injury-time strike at the end of his first season at the Etihad, a goal that consecrated a new era of English football. Praise the awareness, praise the movement, praise his earlier instruction to Balotelli, praise the shot, but most of all praise the calmness in that moment, when a season came down to a single kick, he never looked like doubting himself. And this for City, a club that had come to be defined by doubt, a club that had become a byword for failure, a club for whom if it could go wrong, it usually did. That game against QPR stands now as the last battle between the old City and the new.
The task should have been straightforward: beat a team in serious danger of relegation, that had lost 13 of their 18 away games that season, to win the title. And yet City for 90 minutes had been doing their best to mess that up, even after Joey Barton had been sent off to reduce QPR to 10 men. It could have joined the great list of City pratfalls: Steve Lomas taking the ball to the corner to protect a draw when they needed a win to stay up, Jamie Pollock’s own goal, David James playing upfront, letting in eight at Middlesbrough, the 2-2 against QPR in 1998 that dragged them into the relegation zone in the second flight … But it didn’t because Agüero had the wherewithal to smash the ball hard and low past Kenny’s left hand.
There is probably nobody in the history of the club City fans, in the moment, would rather that chance had fallen to. That was his 30th club goal of the season in all competitions, a mark he would match or surpass on four further occasions in the following seven years. His consistency is remarkable. Since 2007, Agüero has got into double figures every season until this one (and with two months remaining, it’s not impossible he could get the seven further goals he requires). In all but two of those he has got past 20. It’s a long time since he surpassed Eric Book’s record as the club’s all-time top goalscorer; if he could somehow find nine more goals over the next two months, he would have improved Book’s mark by more than 50%.
Only Wayne Rooney, Alan Shearer and Andrew Cole have scored more Premier League goals, but they all had the advantage of having spent all or the vast majority of their careers in England; Thierry Henry is the only other foreign player in the top 10. And it’s not just goals: it’s only in the Premier League era that assists have been counted, but Agüero lies fourth in that list for City, and Raheem Sterling is within range.
As Richard Jolly pointed out on Twitter, Agüero at his peak had a run of six seasons in a row in which he scored 28 goals or more, the first player to do so in English football since Jimmy Greaves. And there is further resonance there in that both found themselves playing for a manager who, if they didn’t quite look at goal tallies with a sense of suspicion, were at the very least asking their center-forwards what else they brought.
Pep Guardiola’s conception of football is very different from that of Alf Ramsey, but both prioritize the process over individuals, both see goals as being only part of a striker’s job. “Pep is a very demanding coach and adapting to what he wanted was not easy during the first year,” Agüero told the Argentinian channel TyC in May 2018, admitting Guardiola had been “angry” with him at times. “As well as my responsibilities as a striker, he wanted to get me involved as the first defender of the team … I think this season [2017-18] we were on the same page with Pep. He told me he was happy with my performance and his anger was worth it because I had a better year.”
Agüero adapted. His movement changed and he did begin to lead the press. He had the intelligence and he had the application to modify his game. Unless he is ever-present from now, this will be his first season at City in which he has played fewer than 30 games, but it’s injury not ideology that has restricted him. His life in Manchester appears to have been exemplary, devoted to football and to his son (who lives in Argentina with Agüero’s ex-wife, the daughter of Diego Maradona, but before Covid would spend a week a month in Manchester). Not only has there been no hint of scandal, but he barely seems even to go out – which perhaps explains his dedication to gaming.
Barring something extraordinary, he will leave City with five league titles (more than any other City player in history), with a host of goalscoring records that may never be challenged and, perhaps most importantly, with a profound sense of goodwill. No player has done so much to change the image of the club.
The Guardian Sport