Friday 2 December 2016

The endangered species of the centre-forward

Aguero the latest victim of Guardiola's emphasis on workrate

Mark Ogden

Published 21/10/2016 | 02:30

Sergio Aguero is introduced as a second-half substitute against Barcelona. Photo: Getty
Sergio Aguero is introduced as a second-half substitute against Barcelona. Photo: Getty

Gary Lineker will know how Sergio Aguero felt as he took his place on the Manchester City substitutes' bench in the Nou Camp on Wednesday evening.

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Back in the 1980s, with Johan Cruyff replacing Terry Venables as Barcelona head coach, Lineker suddenly discovered that one of football's greatest thinkers did not think much of centre-forwards, particularly those whose contribution to the team was regarded as little more than scoring goals.

Cruyff placed scant value on Lineker's prodigious ability to put the ball in the back of the net, so little, in fact, that he shunted the Englishman - the Golden Boot winner at the 1986 World Cup - out to the right-wing in his Barcelona team before moving him on to Tottenham Hotspur at the first opportunity.

Lineker, in Cruyff's opinion, did not offer enough to the team outside the penalty area and, regardless of his goalscoring prowess, he quickly became surplus to requirements.

Scoring goals - many in the game will insist - is the most difficult task of all and those with a natural instinct to make the net ripple are the most prized assets of the lot.

But not for Cruyff and, it seems, not for Pep Guardiola either.

Guardiola has made no secret of his devotion to Cruyff as his inspiration, so it should come as no surprise that the City manager is following in his mentor's footsteps by challenging the perception that goalscorers should be regarded as a special case and treated differently.

Most-feared

Aguero has developed a well-earned reputation as the most-feared goalscorer in the Premier League since arriving at City from Atletico Madrid in 2011, but by dropping him to the bench against Barcelona, Guardiola gave the clearest indication yet that the 28-year-old does not offer enough to the team as a whole, beyond scoring goals.

Is the Argentinian set to suffer the same fate under Guardiola at City as Lineker experienced under Cruyff in Catalonia?

Certainly, Guardiola has treated Aguero with the big stick since succeeding Manuel Pellegrini as manager this summer.

He has spoken of Aguero's need to do more, to press opposition defenders more quickly and with more tenacity, insisting he can get better.

Every player can improve, of course, but by insisting his decision to drop Aguero in Barcelona was due to a need to play with more midfielders, Guardiola, in an instant, cast doubt over the forward's ability, or readiness, to put in the defensive work required against a team of Barca's quality.

Guardiola is not alone in his view that centre-forwards can no longer expect to claim their place in the team by virtue of their strike-rate.

Fabio Capello ruthlessly halted Michael Owen's England career for similar reasons, believing that the former Liverpool and Real Madrid striker was no more than a penalty-box player and therefore exposed his team-mates when opponents had the ball.

And Louis van Gaal quickly dispensed with Javier Hernandez, another eighteen-yard box predator, because of his view that the Mexican was unable to contribute defensively in his Manchester United team.

The concern for Aguero, and those City supporters who have come to idolise the club's all-time leading goalscorer in European competition, is that Guardiola does actually value forwards, but not those in the Aguero mould.

His move for Brazilian youngster Gabriel Jesus, who will arrive at City in January, points to Guardiola's desire for forwards capable of playing anywhere across a front three. Similarly, his unsuccessful pursuit of Borussia Dortmund's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang this summer hinted at a determination to inject more energy and work-rate into the City forward line.

Nolito, signed from Celta Vigo this summer, has already shown himself to be the identikit Guardiola forward at City.

Aguero, meanwhile, is not a tireless worker in the final third. He is not a player who will press and harass defenders or goalkeepers, but when he comes alive, it quite often ends up with the ball in the back of the net.

Guardiola - a man who believes that keeping the ball out of the net is no longer the key asset of a goalkeeper - wants forwards who can tick all of the boxes, however, and that is why Aguero is now suddenly, remarkably, vulnerable.

Goalscorers of the quality of both Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto'o were forced to accept being moved to the flanks by Guardiola following his appointment as Frank Rijkaard's successor at Barcelona in 2008. Neither player was particularly happy to vacate the central channel, but both ultimately danced to Guardiola's tune.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic lasted just a season at the Nou Camp under Guardiola, however, during which he fell out spectacularly with a coach he derided as a 'school teacher'. Eventually, the likes of Pedro and David Villa were preferred as wide men while Lionel Messi, and even Cesc Fabregas, were deployed as a withdrawn striker - the false nine.

At Bayern Munich, Mario Mandzukic clashed with Guardiola just as Ibrahimovic did at Barcelona and the Croatian was shipped out of the Allianz Arena after one campaign, to be replaced by Robert Lewandowski - a player who Guardiola was initially lukewarm about.

The Pole won Guardiola over, however, with his combination of goals and incessant work-rate in the final third.

Few players can match Lewandowski's energy and tenacity and willingness to press defenders - Ian Rush gave Liverpool a similar service during the club's period of European domination - and he quickly proved to Guardiola that he was the forward who ticked each of his boxes.

Aguero is too good a player, too prolific a striker, to be cast aside without being given the opportunity to show he can also be to Guardiola's liking.

But being dropped for a Champions League game against Barcelona is not a good start if he is to prove his manager wrong. (© Independent News Service)

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