The agony of choice. Manchester City started this game with a frontline of Riyadh Mahrez, Sergio Agüero and Gabriel Jesus: a move from zero No 9s to two of them, although Jesus moves in more mysterious ways than the average centre-forward.
Midway though the second half this had switched to a fluid front four of – oh, let’s see – Jesus, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Ferran Torres. By the end Phil Foden was hurtling though the centre forward position, legs whirring, the world’s most prodigiously gifted attacking afterthought.
The agony of choice describes an overload of options, a numbing saturation of possibilities. Although, nobody seems to have told Pep Guardiola any of this. In the course of a 2-0 defeat of Leicester at the King Power Stadium Guardiola rotated his attacking formations like a man chomping his way through a voraciously more-ish 90-minute taster menu, a diner for whom there is always room for another wafer‑thin inside-forward.
This was a result that moved City to within 11 points of regaining the Premier League title, while also offering the disconcerting luxury of resting key players. The performance was also timely. Watching City apply that fine point scalpel it seemed quite funny that anyone could look at this team and think, yes, this is all very well. But what they really need is a brand new £150m centre-forward.
This is as much a question of style as effectiveness. Every one of city’s seven attacking players at the King Power contributed something of note. All except Agüero, the pure cutting edge in this team, and the player who is in style if not physique or miles on the clock, the closest city have to current Golden Boy Erling Haaland.
Guardiola was dismissive when it was put to him this past week that City might be in for Haaland. They could probably find the money from somewhere for a player of that quality. But there is perhaps a tactical element here, too.
At the end of a week when the talk switched decisively from whether Agüero can regain his place as a key part in this team to the identity of his replacement, it seemed fitting he should start at the King Power. The Argentinian has been a key part in a decade-long run of success. Here, though, he seemed to chafe a little in a team that has been tactically re-geared in his absence, Understandably so. A fully fit Agüero is a luminous presence. This was just his second start in six weeks. Plus of course it has been 15 years now in high-end European club football.
Those endearingly bandy legs, the super-flexi ankles, the thighs like sacks of sugar have pounded their way through almost 700 professional games.
This season there have been niggles and a gruelling bout of Covid-19. Agüero is a genuine aristocrat of European club football and too good not to come again in a team more clearly geared to his strengths. And this is the wider point. It wasn’t so much that Agüero was off the pace at the King Power, although he was that too. It is more that he looked like a dated part, a high-spec diesel saloon thrumming around between the rows of Teslas.
It took him nine minutes and 30 seconds to touch the ball. In fact his first contribution was to debit one goal from the City account, leaping over the ball as Fernandinho picked up a clearance and shot hard and low into the corner past Kasper Schmeichel. Agüero was deemed to have distracted the goalkeeper. He shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
Leicester like to press out quickly. There’s no obligation to dawdle while they do it.
Agüero ran his patterns, jogged, half-pressed, and only really looked to come alive in that narrow channel around the penalty area. There is a grand footballing tradition of the sniper, the shark, the player whose real concern is the moments that decide a game. But City have flourished this season without a pure cutting edge. Is there a place for Agüero’s minimalist kind of artistry now?
Agüero was standing in space when Benjamin Mendy turned inside and scored the game’s opening goal. He was on the sidelines when Jesus scored from six yards, the final gloss on a fine team move.
Either side of this City’s attacking rhythms were dominated by another brilliant performance from Kevin De Bruyne, a totally different kind of player, but one who has occupied those Agüero-scented central spaces in recent weeks.
It is always tempting to draw wider conclusions when a team performs as well as this, to assume this is it, the picture is complete. What is clear is that Guardiola has built a team of rare attacking power – and an usual thing too, all revolving angles and fluid thrusts. It is a significant feat whatever their ultimate level this season, just as Agüero, the ageing buccaneer, deserves his own final run from the fringes.