It is easy to forget now, but there was a period during Pep Guardiola’s first season in charge of Manchester City when Sergio Aguero’s future was called into question.
The Argentinian has always been a prolific goalscorer, but he was not always fulfilling his manager’s demands outside of putting the ball in the back of the net. When Gabriel Jesus hit the ground running soon after arriving at the club midway through that 2016/17 season, some speculated that Aguero could be politely ushered through the Etihad Stadium exit door in the summer.
Instead, the former Atletico Madrid marksman has taken his game to another level since then. He has been instrumental in both of Guardiola’s Premier League title triumphs in Manchester, and has now scored 254 goals in 368 games for City – more than any other player in the club’s history. Far from wanting him to leave, Guardiola now frets about finding someone to step into Aguero’s shoes when his contract expires in the summer of 2021.
“Sergio is irreplaceable,” Guardiola said in December when it emerged that his star striker was unlikely to sign a new deal beyond next season.
“It will be one of the toughest asks of my career to [fin a replacement]. We have another incredible striker in Gabriel [Jesus] and maybe another one will come when Sergio leaves but he is irreplaceable.
“The most important moment of this club – more important than when this club hopefully wins the Champions League – is when Sergio scored that goal against QPR [to win the Premier League title in 2011/12]. That moment is much better than four titles in one season or whatever and he was the guy.
“Sooner or later it will happen. He will decide when. I’m sure the club will be ready to try to find the guy to replace him but of course it will not be easy.”
Guardiola, or whoever is in charge at the start of the 2021/22 season, has a big decision to make. Should Jesus be promoted to the role of first-choice No.9, or should the club sign a replacement for Aguero from elsewhere?
When City spent £27m on Jesus’ signature back in August 2016 – the deal allowed the Brazilian to remain with Palmeiras until the following January – they no doubt intended for him to be Aguero’s long-term successor. Jesus got off to a brilliant start, scoring seven goals in his first 10 Premier League appearances as City finished third in his first half-season in English football.
Jesus then reached double figures the following campaign, finding the net 13 times as City won the Premier League title with a record 100 points. His top-flight tally dropped to seven in 2018/19, but he was more prolific overall after notching another 14 goals in the FA Cup, League Cup (both of which City won) and Champions League. He was on course to beat that high of 21 strikes in all competitions in 2019/20, having scored 18 times before the season was suspended in the middle of March.
Jesus’ goalscoring figures are consistently impressive, particularly when you consider that he regularly begins game on the substitutes’ bench and is rarely afforded the luxury of stringing consecutive starts together. Of his 92 career Premier League appearances, the Brazilian frontman has been on the pitch from the first whistle on just 48 occasions. That means almost half of his league outings in a City shirt have come from the bench.
Yet while that statistic does shine his scoring statistics in a positive light, it also means that Jesus has not yet been subject to the pressure that comes with leading the line week in, week out for a club chasing four trophies every season. That is not to say the Brazilian would be unable to deal with that extra scrutiny, but it is certainly worth bearing in mind when it comes to the question of who should replace Aguero. Many of Jesus’ countrymen will recall how he failed to find the back of the net at the 2018 World Cup despite being deployed as the Selecao’s starting centre-forward ahead of Roberto Firmino.
“He has to be himself. We need him and his goals. That’s why we won the last game. We need him for his goals and if he puts this idea in his head he is able to do it every game,” Guardiola said in December, before calling on Jesus to show more self-belief.
“For all the players, confidence has to be there all the time not just because of good or bad performances or winning or losing games. The greatest athletes all the time have a strong mentality that we all have to learn from. That is the key difference.
“They have to play, otherwise they will not be in a high level playing in the Premier League. They have quality and they can control it, they don’t need their manager, mum or friends to speak to them. They have to believe they are good enough.”
Jesus, for his part, will no doubt be desperate to convince Guardiola or his successor that he is the man to take over from Aguero. City are patently one of the best teams in Europe, but there is still plenty more for them to win. There is no doubt a particular appeal to being part of a side that wins a club’s first Champions League, for instance. Like many of his fellow Brazilians, Jesus may also have half an eye on the Club World Cup. Nevertheless, Jesus is now 23 years of age. He has been content to learn from Aguero and serve as his understudy in the past few seasons, but he will want to be first choice once his Argentinian colleague departs in 2021. If City choose to bring in another striker instead, they may have to wave goodbye to Jesus as well as Aguero.