Death, taxes, Sergio Agüero goals, and… Sergio Agüero injuries. Such is life for Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini, who has been forced yet again to account for the absence of his brilliant talisman. Less than a week removed from a five-goals-in-19-minutes tour de force against Newcastle (also known as a half-Lewandowski), Agüero was stretchered off the field with a grade-two hamstring strain suffered on international duty in Argentina. He is expected to miss seven matches in all competitions for City.
The timing of Agüero’s injury is far from ideal for the Premier League title favorites, with red-hot Arsenal nipping at their heels in the league and their annual Champions League group of death to navigate in European competition.
But in spite of the obvious concerns surrounding Agüero’s injury, there is still plenty of reason for optimism around the Etihad Stadium. It must be remembered that in this era of Sheikh Mansour megabucks, City‘s squad is annually nothing short of loaded. Still, Agüero’s absence will require a significant change in playing style.
Prior to this season, an Agüero injury usually just meant an extended run in the team for Edin Džeko, with minimal change to how City played. Despite the big Bosnian’s vastly different body type, he was more or less a similar striker to Agüero, preferring to play on the back shoulder of opposing center backs and get himself into prime scoring positions in the middle of the box. City could continue playing its standard style of football, just with a slightly less dynamic striker up top.
But with Džeko’s summer departure to Roma, Wilfried Bony is the only other senior striker at the club. And unlike Dzeko, the Ivory Coast international has a vastly different style than Agüero, which will have a trickle-down effect to the rest of the squad.
Bony is not particularly fast, and thus City cannot rely on sending him behind the opponent’s back four in the same way it can release Agüero. His movement in the box is also nowhere near that of Agüero’s.
What Bony can provide, though, is the league’s best back-to-goal hold-up play in the attacking third, and this, even more than goal scoring, is where City will need him to be in top form. Using his unfathomably strong legs, he is able to hold off opposing center backs with ease. From there, after he has attracted significant attention from the opposition’s defense, Bony can distribute the ball to onrushing midfielders in dangerous, often unguarded positions.
Here he is in his Swansea City days, playing in Jonathan de Guzman with a delightful back heel.
How well Bony manages to get the ball to City’s supremely talented midfielders in threatening areas will likely prove to be the crucial factor in whether the club can thrive in Agüero’s absence. It helps that he has plenty of prime targets in this ridiculously good City midfield, a unit that should be able to collectively make up for the goal scoring that Agüero so often provides individually.
First, there are the marquee summer signings Kevin de Bruyne and Raheem Sterling, who will need to be especially lively with David Silva nursing an ankle injury. Both have playing styles well-suited to receiving the sorts of flicks that Bony is so fond of providing.
Against teams that play higher lines — namely Manchester United and Sevilla, as far as City’s upcoming fixtures are concerned — Sterling should come to the forefront on the strength of his world-class pace. The Bony assists at the 0:42 and 2:11 mark in the below video are the types of chances Sterling should be able to get while Agüero is out.
The tricky-dribbling, long-range shooting De Bruyne will be tasked with doing the damage against teams more liable to park the bus. As such a gifted passer, de Bruyne would probably prefer to find pockets of space and distribute to a more advanced striker — see his two assists to Agüero in the 6–1 romp over Newcastle earlier this month. But the Belgian will need to ignore his instincts and get himself into slightly more advanced areas to provide a needed goal thrust for City. Once Silva returns, the Spaniard will need to make a similar tweak to his game.
But the most intriguing player to watch in Agüero’s absence may well be Yaya Toure. The central midfielder has long had a sneaky habit of coming truly unleashed when Agüero is on the treatment table. It is hard to say whether this is a result of Pellegrini’s instruction or just Toure’s own sense that, as one of the club’s biggest stars and leaders in the dressing room, he must take the initiative when Agüero is missing. Either way, the results are hard to ignore.
When Agüero is flitting about and giving opposing defenders nightmares, Toure, as with all City midfielders, can sit a little bit deeper, leaving Agüero to handle the lion’s share of the goal scoring. In the Argentine’s absence, though, we are treated to the full Toure experience. In Pellegrini’s spell at City, Toure has scored 31 league goals. Incredibly, 18 of those have come with Agüero off the pitch.
We got a glimpse of this phenomenon on the season’s opening day at West Brom, City’s only Agüero-less game so far this season. Toure duly scored and assisted from advanced areas in the first 25 minutes, and City coasted to an easy win. Note Toure’s positioning on the goal (as well as the vintage Bony assist). It is a goal scored from the type of area where you would normally expect to find Agüero.
The above goal is the vision for how City is to play without Agüero, with subtle tweaks to the established roles of City midfielders, and Bony helping to facilitate it all with his strong hold-up play.
The absence of Agüero will inevitably be felt. He is a bona fide match-winner, capable of bailing out a poor City performance with a moment of brilliance. But all hope is not lost at the Etihad. Rather than relying heavily on their star, City will need a little bit from everyone to emerge from this Agüero-less stretch on top of the league and in position to reach the Champions League knockout stage. It is time for City’s lesser — but still undeniably bright — stars to shine.