Signed by Mancini, revamped by Guardiola – the evolution of Sergio Aguero

Sergio Aguero used to ghost through media mixed zones with the same ease as he negotiated Premier League defences.

The Manchester City legend would glide along, clutching an expensive black toilet bag under one arm, hiding behind his cheeky-kid smile and the claim that his English was not good enough to stop and chat.

He was the Blues’ poster boy, the image the club used to promote tours to the Far East, North America and Australia, the closest thing they had to an icon, at a club that has always bought extreme potential rather than galacticos.

After years of Kun doing his talking with his feet, the Manchester-based media stopped trying to squeeze a few words out of him, and his Argentina pal Pablo Zabaleta, always amicable, would be left to talk about Aguero or Carlos Tevez.

Some players use the media to get a message out to the supporters, or make a statement to the manager, or just simply to improve their public relations – always smart in an age when image rights are worth millions.

Aguero rarely felt the need. His sharp-shooting feet did all that for him, and both Roberto Mancini – who brought him to the club – and his successor Manuel Pellegrini, were glad of it.

But that all changed when Pep Guardiola took over, a man who demands the same intense workload from others that he places on his own shoulders.

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Mancini’s reign was glorious and incendiary, the fiery Italian clashing with players, angering staff and generally upsetting the apple-cart, for good and bad. It turned City from mid-table plodders into title-winning stallions, but there was always a row simmering away beneath the surface.

Aguero seemed oblivious, even when it was his fellow Argentine Tevez who was at the centre of the controversy.

Aguero and Zabaleta, who did not share El Apache’s fierce, street-fighter attitude, looked on in some alarm as their international teammate butted heads with Mancini, not least in the infamous Bayern Munich bust-up when Tevez fumed on the bench.

The former Manchester United star had been the true catalyst for City, lighting fires in bellies, leading them to the FA Cup triumph that ended the 35-year wait for a trophy in 2011 and qualified them for the Champions League for the first time.

That summer, Aguero arrived, and a competition for places that was already underway in the Argentina team had been imported to Manchester.

When Tevez found himself on the bench for the historic first game in the elite European competition, a 1-1 draw with Napoli, and was also not in the starting line-up for the next group game, a trip to Bayern Munich, the row spilled over.

Sergio Aguero takes the applause after coming off the bench to register his first goals from the club
Sergio Aguero takes the applause after coming off the bench to register his first goals from the club

Tevez had been brilliant for City, but Aguero’s arrival was sensational.

In the immediate aftermath of Kun signing from Atletico Madrid in 2011, Mancini and his assistant David Platt felt sick to the stomach – they saw him in training and thought they had just spent £28.5million – with another £3million in add-ons – on a dud.

Built for speed rather than comfort, Aguero appeared nonchalant in training, and his shooting was all over the place.

Keeper Joe Hart would later describe the little Argentine as one of the worst trainers he had ever seen, saying “some days you look at him in training and he is useless”. But Kun was dynamite when it mattered.

His debut, coming off the bench to score a cute poacher’s goal, smash in a trademark thunderbolt and brilliantly tee up David Silva in a 4-0 win over Swansea, swept away the fears of Mancini and Platt in 30 breathtaking minutes.

And while his form caused problems between the manager and Tevez, Aguero sailed serenely on, scoring goals, missing barn doors in training and dodging the English media.

It culminated in his 94th-minute heroics against Queen’s Park Rangers, the moment that cemented his legend but also marked him out as a player for the big moments.

Aguero had been a classic number ten for Independiente and Atletico, a busy, scurrying striker who could drop deep to receive and turn, but was better when playing off the shoulder of defenders.

But with Tevez, Mario Balotelli or Edin Dzeko alongside him, Mancini was happy for him to play more in front of goal – and his 30-goal return in his first season justified that.

When Mancini’s reign finally combusted, Manuel Pellegrini stepped in with the brief of being the longest caretaker manager in football history.

He was told from day one that his tenure would, at best, last until the club could attract Pep Guardiola, when – regardless of his success – he would be asked to step down.

That made for a manager who was not about to rock any boats, and whose more placid nature and dull media profile was the perfect antidote to Mancini’s fire and brimstone.

Oil was poured on troubled waters, and Aguero just kept on scoring, so no need to change anything with a player who was already a legend in the eyes of the adoring City fans.

Mancini’s turbulent final season in charge was actually his least productive since his first season in Europe, as a raw 18-year-old at Atletico Madrid. He bagged 17 goals as City trailed in 11 points behind United, flopped miserably in the Champions League and lost the FA Cup final to Wigan.

Under Pellegrini, the sharpness returned with 28, 32 and 29 goals in his three seasons under the Engineer.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – AUGUST 16: Manuel Pellegrini, manager of Manchester City shakes hands with Sergio Aguero of Manchester City during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Chelsea at the Etihad Stadium on August 16, 2015 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

In the February of that final season, 2015-16, the bombshell dropped as Pellegrini, almost as an after-thought, revealed at the end of an otherwise desperately uninteresting pre-match press conference, that he was leaving at the end of the season.

Within minutes, news filtered through that Guardiola would be joining the Blues that summer, the endpoint of three or four years of planning, persuasion and intrigue.

City went further in the Champions League than ever before that season, reaching the semi-finals, where they froze and were edged out by Real Madrid.

But there was genuine excitement among the squad at the arrival of a marquee coach, one who had a reputation for improving individuals and teams, and above all, won things on a serial basis.

But the Catalan also had a history of shaking things up, of making big decisions and seeing them through – and the fact one of his first acts as Barcelona manager, his first senior appointment, was to tell Ronaldinho, Deco and Samuel Eto’o that they were not in his plans, was a warning sign.

Joe Hart was the first to feel that ruthless edge, despite being a firm fans’ favourite and a big voice in the dressing room.

But his ability with his feet was not good enough for what Guardiola wanted, and he was quickly replaced by Claudio Bravo.

Guardiola also won plaudits from City fans for tackling another legend, leaving Yaya Toure out of his first-team plans until he had taken a grip on his troublemaking agent Dmitri Seluk.

This was no respecter of reputations, for good or bad.

If Hart’s plight had angered loyal City fans, when the teamsheet dropped for the Champions League group game at Barcelona in October, 2016, they were aghast.

Not only was Aguero on the bench, he had been replaced as central striker, seemingly, by Kevin De Bruyne.

The shock was visceral. Not only did it feel like a major blunder, leaving out the one player who had the knack of scoring difference-making goals, it also looked like a huge smack in the teeth for a player who had become used to being the first name picked.

City collapsed to a 4-0 defeat courtesy of a hat-trick by Aguero’s close pal Lionel Messi, and Kun was sent on as an after-thought, with the game already gone and just 11 minutes to go.

That led to the intriguing sight of Messi, clearly as surprised as the rest of the world, making a bee-line for his former Argentina room-mate, the two men having an intense conversation behind cupped hands to thwart any lip-readers.

The subject of the chat was clear, as a hurt-looking Aguero shrugged and grimaced.

He had a point, He had started Guardiola’s brave new regime with a stunning 11 goals in the first nine games, including two hat-tricks, as City surged to the top of the Premier League.

He had started on the bench a few days before the trip to the Nou Camp, in a 1-1 draw against Everton, but that seemed like a case of wrapping their prize asset in cotton wool ahead of a big European game, an assumption that seemed to be confirmed when Aguero was sent on with half an hour to go to try to grab the three points.

But alarm bells were already ringing, after the manager had told journalists he wanted Aguero “to be involved in our game, in our process, and keep the ball and help us.

BARCELONA, SPAIN – OCTOBER 19: Sergio Aguero (L) of Manchester City FC speaks with Lionel Messi (R) of FC Barcelona during the UEFA Champions League group C match between FC Barcelona and Manchester City FC at Camp Nou on October 19, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

“Of course, in the box I cannot help him – he is going to help us a lot in the box, he is magnificent. The first goal, the first control, how quickly he makes the first steps, his definition, his goal.”

Aguero had described Guardiola as “picky about everything” while away on international duty ahead of that Everton game, and the two men were already heading for a confrontation.

It was the first inkling that, for all of Kun’s goals, for all of his legendary status, for all of the fear he struck into opposition defenders, Guardiola was not entirely happy.

He wanted the goals, but he wanted more from Aguero. He remembered the more rounded Atletico version of Kun, a player that had been a thorn in his Barcelona team’s side in La Liga.

And as a manager who stressed the team ethic and wanted ten outfield players prepared to run their blood to water for the cause, he felt he could get more from Aguero.

Assistant manager Mikel Arteta laid it on the line: “Do players have to adapt to Pep? There’s really no other option. It’s one of the secrets of his success. He gets people so intense and focussed about the game that anyone who doesn’t adapt is finished, out of the door.”

The player’s reputation as a lousy trainer did not fit with Guardiola, who felt he needed to be sharper, work harder and fit with the rules – and improve a diet that, typically South American, had plenty of red meat.

And he had leverage, as City had already sorted out a £27million move for workaholic Brazil number nine Gabriel Jesus, a raw teenager, but one who had just fired Palmeiras to the league title in his native country, won an Olympic gold medal and then been promoted to the national team.

When Jesus arrived, everyone expected he would be phased in, used sparingly, and told to watch Aguero closely to improve his movement and finishing. Everyone except Guardiola and his staff, that is.

Hours after Jesus completed the move, in January 2017, Aguero was pictured at Salvi’s restaurant in Manchester, with his agent and Guardiola, in what seemed to be intense discussion.

The timing was obvious – Guardiola made it plain that he wanted more from his star striker, although he later said they chatted about family and other matters for most of the meal.

After making his debut as a sub against Spurs, days after arriving in the country, Jesus made his first start in an FA Cup win at Crystal Palace.

But when City headed to West Ham for a league game, there was another Nou Camp-style sickener in store for Aguero.

Off the back of a streak of scoring seven goals in his previous ten games, as if meeting the impending challenge posed by Jesus, he was on the bench again, cutting a disconsolate figure.

The Brazilian formed a young, dynamic front three with Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling that ripped the Hammers apart in a 5-0 win at the London Stadium, and Aguero trotted on for a disorientating final 17 minutes.

Jesus scored his first City goal in that game and added two more as Swansea were beaten 2-1 four days later.

Jesus broke his foot at Bournemouth after again being picked ahead of Aguero in early February, leaving Guardiola with no striking alternative, but the stand-off was obvious.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – JANUARY 18: Sergio Aguero of Manchester City celebrates after scoring a goal to make it 1-1 with Gabriel Jesus during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Crystal Palace at Etihad Stadium on January 18, 2020 in Manchester, United Kingdom. (Photo by James Williamson – AMA/Getty Images)

Every transfer window since Aguero had joined City in 2011 had seen him linked with a move to Barcelona or Real Madrid, but the player and the club had repeatedly closed such talk down, and the player was clearly happy in Manchester.

But, for the first time, he began to stop in the mixed zone to chat to Spanish-speaking reporters.

The message was always the same – if City wanted to keep him, the ball was in their court. “My intention is to stay. The club can say what it wants, but in June they will have to meet with me,” he said at one point.

And City’s response was equally straight-batted – they wanted him to stay, alright.

But Guardiola had a caveat to that, he wanted a new, improved Aguero.

Aguero rose to Guardiola’s challenge in some style – with Jesus in the treatment room, he scored 12 goals in 12 games, ran further than he had ever done in a sky blue shirt, linked play like a classic number ten

The stand-off was quickly forgotten as City won successive titles, and Guardiola later reflected on that period, saying: “When people in the first year said I’m not friends with Sergio, as sometimes I played Gabriel or Raz as a striker they were my decisions but I was always delighted (with Aguero).

“It wasn’t just that he scored three goals but for how he tried, fought, and worked backwards. He gave absolutely everything for the team.

“Of course he doesn’t have the energy of Gabriel or Bernardo (Silva) but every player has his own quality.

“I judge the intentions, not the results and the intentions from Sergio was always perfect since we were together.”

Aguero had his best goalscoring figures, and played his best all-round football, under Guardiola, scoring a staggering 95 goals in 130 games in the first three seasons of the manager’s reign.

But with the years advancing, and City needing to plan ahead, the knee injury that wrecked last season for Aguero, brought things to a head.

Even when the player’s long rehabilitation was complete, Guardiola appeared to be reluctant to use him.

His team had been brilliant with Jesus, or even without any recognised striker, and with four trophies in their sights, he was not taking any risks on the basis of sentiment.

That irritated Aguero, who felt he was ready, but it appears the unease between the two men was no more than the usual coldness felt between a manager and a player who has been left out.

The fans wanted Aguero to have another season, at least, to say a proper goodbye, hopefully with a flood of goals, but Guardiola, with one eye on the future of his team, had other plans.

The manager’s tears as City said goodbye to their icon with a 5-0 thrashing of Everton, and with Aguero showing the world he was still lethal with two classic goals, were genuine enough.

Now Aguero moves on to Barcelona, under the gaze of Ronald Koeman, another manager who bears the legacy of Johan Cruyff and total football.

Whether he compromises and allows Aguero some leeway, as did Mancini and Pellegrini, or whether he takes a more absolute decision like that of Guardiola, remains to be seen.

A forward line of Messi, Aguero and Antoine Griezmann would have 1,426 career goals between them – but they also total 95 years, hardly a plan for the future, which is why Guardiola made the hard-nosed decision to move on Aguero and find a younger replacement.