Where does Sergio Agüero rank amongst the Premier League’s greatest strikers?

Where does Sergio Agüero rank amongst the Premier League’s greatest strikers?

Those of a more rational persuasion say love at first sight is little more than a common trope, that the instantaneous and enduring attraction between two parties is but a weary and contrived literary convention reserved for fairy tales, Disney princesses and Hollywood romances. Ask Manchester City fans, however, where they were and what they were doing when they first witnessed Sergio Agüero take to the Etihad turf, and perhaps this romantic phenomenon possesses more credence than it is granted. 

Thirty minutes was all the Argentine striker required to introduce himself to the Premier League back in 2011. Where some foreign footballers require weeks, months or even years to adjust to the frenetic pace of England’s top flight, Agüero immediately dispelled any fears that he would necessitate a protracted period of adaptation. 

Within the space of half a dozen touches after appearing as a substitute for Nigel de Jong, City’s £35m signing had snatched a brace and laid on a fine assist for Spanish playmaker David Silva. Thirty minutes, three goals – and all courtesy of Agüero’s right boot. 

There was no other way to describe what City fans had witnessed that afternoon. It was love at first sight: immediate, irrefutable and, though they may not have realised at the time, destined to endure. Agüero would not transpire to be the footballing equivalent of a one night stand or an exotic holiday fling; rather, over the course of nine magnificent seasons, Kun, as he has been affectionately known since his childhood, has forged an enviable career that has seen him threaten the duopoly of the Premier League’s two striking standard-bearers: Thierry Henry and Alan Shearer. 

Notwithstanding his less than illustrious return in 2012, when Henry departed England for Barcelona, he did so having asserted himself as one of two of the English game’s finest centre-forwards post-1992. Both he and the venerable Shearer possessed at the time of their retirements many of the Premier League’s goalscoring records. As the history books attest, they share seven Golden Boots, 19 hat-tricks and a grand total of 434 goals. Throughout their respective careers, the pair set, broke and reset all the records; they became the benchmarks against which all others were and are measured.

Henry was the only footballer to score in excess of 20 times for five consecutive seasons; Shearer the only man to score in excess of 30 for three years running. Shearer was the first footballer to win the Golden Boot three years in a row; then Henry repeated the feat himself almost a decade later. Henry reached the 100-goal milestone in 160 games; Shearer managed it in 124. In short, Henry and Shearer can boast two legacies few – if any – thought could or would be triumphed any time soon. 

And yet enter stage left, Sergio Agüero, a man for whom the insurmountable has become the achievable. Over the course of nine years, the lethal Argentine has recorded more goals than Henry, registered more hat-tricks than Shearer, and, staggeringly, scored at a more regular rate than them both. It is par for the course for most observers of the Premier League – both casual and ardent – to name either one of Shearer or Henry as the league’s greatest ever centre-forward, and with good reason, but Agüero has staked a credible claim to the throne the former Arsenal and Newcastle men squabble over.

There have been others that have come and gone, dynasties that have risen and fallen into ruin: the legacies of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Luis Suárez, Fernando Torres, Didier Drogba and Robin van Persie have been etched into the annals in the years since Henry and Shearer hung up their boots, but none can profess to have enjoyed the longevity and, remarkably, the consistency of Agüero. It was a marriage between a media-shy Argentine and the world’s most-watched league that seemed destined for fruition from the very beginning.     

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Agüero arrived in Manchester off the back of a stellar spell with Atletico Madrid, who had plucked him from Independiente when he was a mere 17 years old and, as is their wont, sculpted him into a prolific goalscorer over the course of five seasons. Young, dynamic and with proven European pedigree, Agüero’s signature signalled City’s intent not only to establish themselves as a credible force in the present, but as an enduring threat to the hegemony inter-city rivals Manchester United had enjoyed for the previous two decades. 

Thanks in no small part to Agüero’s maiden contribution of 23 league goals, the dividends were immediate. In 2011/12, after a gruelling 38-game-battle with Manchester United, City were crowned champions of England for the first time since 1968, and it would be Agüero who sealed a momentous triumph with his now-legendary 94th-minute winner over QPR on the final day of the season. It is a goal that requires no fanciful introduction, for it has been watched the world over; an indelible imprint on the post-1992 footballing landscape.

It remains a moment deeply entrenched in emotion, unfettered by the restraints of logic or reason. Some will argue much of the essence of football has been extracted and distilled into a bland, sterile series of statistics and metrics, but this moment has somehow escaped the pablum of analytics. A mystery even to the man who executed it. “I wish I could tell you how I did it but I can’t,” Agüero once told The Guardian. “I thought for all the world that Mario [Balotelli] was going to have a go himself but he just moved it on one more and it fell at my feet and I just thought: ‘Hit the target, hit it as hard as you can and hit the target.’ And it went in.” 

His place in Manchester City folklore was declared forevermore. Had he not kicked another ball for the club, Agüero would still be spoken about today in reverential tones – the man who wrestled the title from United’s grasp with literally the last kick of the season. And yet, remarkably, this goal has gone down not as the defining moment of a closing chapter, but rather the hook of the opening one. 

In an environment where players arrive and depart with alacrity, Agüero has remained a reliable mainstay at Manchester City, outliving and often outperforming the other forwards who were brought in to compliment him or to provide competition, until he alone remained the preferred option for a succession of managers that included Roberto Mancini, Brian Kidd, Manuel Pellegrini and, finally, Pep Guardiola.

Able to operate as a lone striker or in tandem with a partner, Agüero developed into something akin to a ‘nine-and-a-half’ while at Manchester City. Capable of playing off the shoulder due to his clever movement and devastating turn of pace, he could also work as a second-striker, especially when deployed alongside more archetypal target men like Edin Dzeko and Alvaro Negredo.

Although not a unique skillset, per se, Agüero possessed in his prime a combination of attributes that permitted him to thrive in a number of scenarios and across a number of roles. Should an opposition manager find a way to thwart the threat Agüero presented, the wily Argentine would simply reply with a swift and measured counterstroke. 

Following the sacking of Mancini at the end of the 2012/13 season – a disappointing campaign both for City, who finished a distant second to a resurgent Manchester United side, and for Agüero, whose personal goal tally was nearly halved – Agüero assumed the mantle of the club’s primary goalscorer, a role that precipitated a change in approach for the Argentine. Previously, he had often been deployed in tandem with his compatriot Carlos Tevez, who departed that summer for Juventus, but under Pellegrini, he was used as the club’s central menace. 

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Despite only playing on 23 occasions in the league throughout 2013/14, during which he was also substituted 15 times, he still managed to score 17 goals – roughly once every 90 minutes – and contributed nine assists to City’s ultimately victorious title campaign. Had Agüero not missed great swathes of the season between December and March thanks to a succession of calf, hamstring and knee injuries, Luis Suarez’s astonishing 31-goal, golden-boot-winning haul may well have been under serious threat. 

This, in fact, would become something of a recurrent theme throughout Agüero’s career; though often prolific, scoring at a rate even Henry would’ve raised an eyebrow at, his perennial assaults on the golden boot were so often thwarted by spells on the treatment table. 

The following season, 2014/15, despite relinquishing the title to Chelsea, Agüero’s output rose once again, as he clinched his first – and to date, only – golden boot with 26 strikes in 33 appearances. After scoring in the opening fixture against Newcastle, Agüero totalled 14 goals and three assists in his first 15 outings, which included crucial strikes against Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool. He would also come perilously close to tying the record for the most goals scored in a single Premier League match when he struck four times against Tottenham in a 4-1 home win. 

Three seasons into his time with the club and it was fast becoming apparent that Agüero was potent enough to win matches on his own, but City were cruelly robbed of his services when he was forced off after just seven minutes against Everton on 6 December with knee ligament damage. These would be the only five matches he missed all season, and his goalscoring continued in earnest in January, where he rounded off the campaign with a further 12 goals and five assists. In doing so, he secured the golden boot ahead of Harry Kane, while also finishing as both Manchester City’s top scorer and assister – a feat yet to be repeated in light blue. 

After scoring four against Spurs in the previous season, the 2015/16 campaign saw Agüero finally elected to an exclusive club, as he joined Shearer, Andy Cole, Dimitar Berbatov and Jermaine Defoe in having scored five goals in a single match. His haul came during a 6-1 win over Newcastle and was achieved in a mere 23 minutes – the fastest quintuplet in Premier League history. 

Under the guidance of Pellegrini, whose brand of football had been labelled “death by beautiful geometry”, Agüero operated at the point where all these intricate lines met: the apex. His work was typically done in and around the box, where he utilised his immense upper body strength, low centre of gravity and volatile acceleration to terrorise defenders in areas where they simply knew they couldn’t touch him. As such, his goal and assist return rocketed with uninterrupted game time, but his impact outside of the attacking intentions in the final third was negligible.   

City, at the time, did not play the extreme pressing game for which they subsequently became famous for under the regimentation of Guardiola. Pellegrini required Agüero to finish moves, not fashion them through relentless harrying. As such, when attacking play broke down, City were susceptible to rapid counter-attacks. 

It was this openness that ultimately contributed to Pellegrini’s downfall, as the club finished second and fourth respectively, eight and 15 points behind the eventual champions Chelsea and then Leicester. Agüero, for the second season running, surpassed the 20-goal milestone in the league, eventually finishing joint-second in the race for the Golden Boot, level with the fleet-footed Jamie Vardy and one behind Kane.

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This perceived failure paved the way for the arrival of Guardiola, whose predisposition to possession-heavy football often an enormous amount of pressing from his front line. Immediately, despite having plundered 102 goals in 150 appearances under Mancini, Kidd and Pellegrini, Agüero’s place in the Spaniard’s plans was called into question. 

“It is not enough to receive the ball from his teammates. He has to help us in the first pressure and run a lot and help us a lot with movement,” Guardiola explained in 2017. “You cannot be brilliant when you disappear when you [don’t] have the ball. It is impossible. Football is a connection between what you have with the ball and without the ball.”

There were some who doubted the Spaniard’s apparent pedantry when it came to the performance of his central striker. If he was scoring goals, did his perceived lethargy in his work without the ball truly matter? Indeed, in Guardiola’s first full season, Agüero helped himself to 20 league goals in 31 games. Here was a man who had scored in excess of 20 goals three years running; a man at the peak of his powers. There were few strikers in world football more prolific, and yet Guardiola still wanted to eradicate the minor flaws from an almost flawless footballer. 

Agüero reacted accordingly. In his first season under Guardiola, the number of sprints he recorded per 90 minutes rose by nearly 40 percent. The average distance he covered in a game increased by over a kilometre. Within a year, one of the deadliest forwards in the division was both fitter and hungrier. 

Having developed from a cunning second striker into a predatory number nine, he underwent another transformation into something of a pressing forward. Willing to shuttle across the pitch to hunt in tandem with the wingers, Agüero was part of a sustained sortie whereby City were regaining the ball higher and higher up the pitch. Duly, more chances presented themselves, and teams soon discovered Agüero was every bit as clinical as he had been under Mancini and Pellegrini. 

In the 2017/18 and 2018/19 seasons, Guardiola’s dominant City clinched back-to-back titles with the new Agüero very much the focal point of a team that scored 201 league goals across 76 games. The Argentine claimed 21 goals and six assists in a mere 25 outings in the 2017/18 campaign, while in the 2018/19 edition, this rose to 21 goals and eight assists. 

Not that the methodology of his goal-scoring altered much. Between 2014 and 2017, 15 percent of his goals occurred inside the six-yard box, while between 2017 and 2020 it stood at a marginally improved 20 percent. His rate inside and outside the penalty area remains almost identical, too, proving that although the man himself changed his approach, his goalscoring philosophy remained the same.   

Furthermore, his game-winning strike against Burnley at Turf Moor on 28 April ensured Agüero would equal yet another Premier League record, as he became only the second man after Henry to score 20 or more goals for five consecutive seasons. 

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Sadly, the ultimately futile 2019/20 campaign was a year crippled by injury, thus robbing him of the chance to break Henry’s record. Agüero would only start less than half the available league matches, albeit he was still capable of posting a tally of 16 league goals, four shy of the total needed to extend his remarkable run to six seasons in a row. 

For those of a statistical persuasion, it’s a testament to his sheer lethality that Agüero has consistently outperformed his expected goals (xG) tally in all but one of those five campaigns, with the only time he failed to match expectations occurring in Guardiola’s maiden season in charge – a campaign hindered by the added complication whereby Agüero was tasked with overhauling his game to fit his new manager’s ethos. 

As for his record in Europe and the question of his wider reputation, Agüero has managed to maintain a respectable scoring rate, despite City’s repeated failures to make inroads in the knockout stages of the competition. With 36 goals in 56 games, he presents no competition to the likes of Ronaldo, Messi, Van Nistelrooy and Lewandowski, but he has scored more regularly than Raúl, Henry, Shevchenko and Ibrahimovic. 

It is perhaps only these shortcomings on the European stage – as much down to his club as personal responsibility – that preclude Agüero from the conversation around who has been the world’s premier centre-forward of the last decade.   

As of now, City are on course to clinch yet another Premier League title – their third in the last four seasons – but it is a main course served with a side of sadness, for it appears as though the 2020/21 campaign may well turn out to be Agüero’s last in the sky blue of the Citizens. 

Another injury-plagued year has seen the Argentine register only a handful of appearances across all competitions, and with his contract due to expire in the summer, there are no signs that a deal is in place. As hard as it is to fathom, we could all be witnessing the forlorn swansong of a man who has come to redefine the role of the Premier League striker. 

Even though the years and the injuries are robbing spectators of his presence, Kun’s legacy exists in both history and memory, and will only endure over time, like that of his predecessors in Shearer and Henry. Simply, whether you value his talents from an artistic or statistical perspective, there is no denying that, if goals are the gauge by which a striker is judged, there are few so rich as Agüero. 

As for City fans, when it comes to Agüero, it was always love. From when he first stepped onto the Etihad pitch to the curtain call they all dread. Perhaps they will know when that fateful moment will come. Perhaps they won’t realise they were in the good old days until they have left them. But it doesn’t matter. Sergio Agüero was always love at first sight. 

By Josh Butler @joshisbutler90

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