Something strange happened 12 minutes into the first half of what was, all things considered, a pretty strange kind of game. First there was a hush around the Etihad, then a gurgling sound, followed by an oddly sensual purr in the stands as the big screens showed the first replays of Sergio Agüero’s first goal in this 6-0 shellacking of Chelsea
Agüero had just put Manchester City 2-0 up and in effect killed the game. The moment stood on its own, though. Football crowds don’t often gasp. But then, they don’t often get to see goals like this. Taking the ball in a deep inside-left position, Agüero turned, jinked and shrugged away the attentions of Jorginho, a deep midfielder with all the gnarled defensive presence of a tea-sodden digestive biscuit.
The shot came without breaking stride, a right-foot spank that flew with a vicious certainty into the far top corner, and which seemed to defy physics as it did so, its trajectory totally flat, unhindered by gravity or drag. Had the net and the stand not been in its way Agüero’s shot would presumably still be flying at the same height and speed even now, arrowing over the hook of Cornwall, past the Bay of Biscay and off towards the south Atlantic
It was the enduring image of the day; or at least one of them, on an afternoon dominated also by the sight of Maurizio Sarri gesturing wildly at a group of Chelsea players who often seemed to be facing the other way, the Italian’s hands describing furious shapes in the air, at one moment puncturing an invisible water bed with a bread knife, at another performing the world’s angriest silent disco dance.
But then it wasn’t hard to pick out Agüero as the outstanding single figure on a day when Sarri-ball met Sergio-ball with, as they say in movie outlines, hilarious consequences. Much will be written about his second hat-trick in eight days in the middle of a title chase. A neat close-range finish and a second-half penalty took Agüero to 160 goals in the Premier League, and out in front now as City’s all time league top scorer.
With Raheem Sterling also playing with a beautiful sense of certainty, City were irresistible here. Albeit against opponents so dreadful their performance could prove fatal for Sarri’s attempts to buck the trend of disposable Chelsea managers.
There is an element of overlap to these two elements. Zoom out a little and it is the diversification in Agüero’s game that really leaps out, and which shines a light on both the supreme quality of Pep Guardiola’s coaching at this rarified level, and the clumsiness of Sarri, an arriviste among the A-listers, in his six months to date with Chelsea.
It is no secret that Agüero has changed under Guardiola, has found other gears and greater depths to his game. But then it has always been the model in kill-joy lazy thinking to dismiss Guardiola’s success as a bought success. For all the millions spent, this is manager who gets his real kicks from coaching, from finding something more in the players he has.
Guardiola will bridle at any suggestion he was ever less-than-sold on Agüero as the key attacking part in his vision of his City team. But the fact is Agüero has also expanded his palette, evolving from that comfortable status as a pure cutting edge and pre-existing hometown superstar, to a more rounded player now, perhaps even an all-round attacker to match anyone in Europe. That second goal came from dropping deeper, filling the different spaces he finds now, alternating between No 10 and all-round playmaker and his established role as shark-like cutting edge. Agüero looks fitter and moves more freely. Here he was wheeling around constantly in search of the ball, gloved hands almost brushing the turf, the grey-rinse beacon at the front of this team.
The goals have been big goals, too, of late. Since November Agüero has eight in four against Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and now Chelsea. Aged 30, seven seasons and three managers in his time at City, Agüero has become the de facto on-field leader of this team.
It is the kind of feat Guardiola has enacted elsewhere, an ability to improve existing superstar players that makes for a slightly cruel contrast with Sarri’s own fumbling at Chelsea. It has become a cliche to state that playing N’Golo Kanté out of position is like using a diamond tiepin to stir a pot of paint, that Jorginho, for all his talents, is being chewed to pieces by the Premier League in that central role. But it is also true that a clash of personnel and systems still looks unsolved, unfixed and probably terminal now.
As Agüero came off on 64 minutes he walked close to Sarri, who half-turned in a pained but gracious acknowledgement of what the league’s outstanding central attacker had just done to his team.
City have three winnable games now, followed by a trip to Old Trafford and Spurs at home, as they look to enact that perfect run to the wire. Whatever happens from here the change in Agüero, that softening into a pure asset, no longer chafing against but adapting to every part of the Pep system, is a lesson in high-level team-building.
City may or may not go on to win the title. But it seems certain the run to the line will have Agüero’s name written right through it.