This is an extract of a chapter from Pep’s City: The Making of a Superteam, by Pol Ballus and Lu Martin. The two Catalan journalists had unparalleled access to Pep Guardiola’s inner sanctum for the book, which was published in October 2019.
At a table inside Salvi’s, a popular Italian restaurant in Manchester’s Exchange Square, on January 19, 2017, sit Pep Guardiola, Sergio Agüero and the agent of the Manchester City striker. The following morning, a blurry mobile-phone photograph is published by the Daily Mail. A serious-looking Pep is leaning over the table. Agüero is partially hidden, leaning back in his chair. There have been rumours of discord between the incoming manager and his highest-profile player, rumours that have gathered pace since the arrival of Gabriel Jesus to contest the striker role in Pep’s team. One glance at this image does nothing to banish them.
Agüero was a City legend before Pep arrived in England. He was on his way to becoming the club’s greatest-ever goalscorer, including one that will live forever in the collective memory of the club and its fans: the final-day, 93rd-minute winner in May 2012 that won the league title for the first time in 44 years in the most dramatic fashion imaginable. His name is scrawled in ink across the neck of shaven-headed supporters; it adorns the back of more City shirts than any other. “Nobody is more marketable than Kun,” explains Omar Berrada, right-hand man to City CEO Ferran Soriano.
However, as 2016 turned into 2017, not everyone at City was ready to have his name etched on to their skin. The knocks against Agüero had begun before Guardiola arrived, and only increased in volume in the early months of his reign: Agüero was lazy and his timekeeping was unpredictable; he did not press opposition defenders; he had become complacent; his diet wasn’t right (too much red meat – a typical Argentine).
Pep wanted more from his star striker. Soon after taking over at City he told the media: “Agüero could definitely be contributing a lot more to our game, to the whole process. It would be great if he improved his use of the ball, keeping possession better. I can’t do anything for him in terms of his performance in the box, because he’s outstanding there. He’s going to do a lot for us, but I’d like to help him become a better player.”
Pep called the dinner meeting at Salvi’s hoping to help Agüero understand his philosophy better, to tell him he wanted him to be the example for the rest of the team. Pep needed his No.10 to press more, keep the ball more determinedly when in possession and show the same work ethic as all of Guardiola’s other players.
“We talked about loads of things,” Agüero tells us when we meet him in the latter stages of season 2018-19, a long time after the dust has settled. “We kept postponing it and then, when we finally met up we talked about work for 20 minutes at the most. The rest of the meal we spent chatting about other stuff – family, life in general. But people got the wrong end of the stick and were saying that because I hadn’t been playing much, I wanted to leave. The thought never entered my head. Sure, when Gabi [Gabriel Jesus] came I knew that I might lose playing time. But I didn’t consider leaving. I decided to wait and see what happened and to speak to the club if it became necessary. But it never did, so I didn’t have to speak to them.”
However, before Pep took over at City, Agüero had been tempted by the chance of a transfer to Barcelona. His friend and Argentina teammate, Leo Messi, had asked the Catalan club to sign Agüero before Luis Suárez had joined Barça. Although Barcelona were willing to meet the €90m price tag City had placed on their star striker, the deal didn’t go through. Due to Financial Fair Play regulations, City were limited to spending £60m during that transfer window and were not confident of replacing Agüero within that budget.
Then they recruited Jesus. The Brazilian had just been signed when Pep and Agüero met in Salvi’s and the impact was immediate. Pep replaced Agüero with the talented Brazilian forward for three games. The new boy scored three goals and provided two assists, but then badly injured a toe in his fourth game. Agüero found himself back in the starting XI, but for the first time in years, he was feeling the heat. There had been other contenders for the top spot over the years – most recently Wilfried Bony, Stevan Jovetić and Álvaro Negredo – but there was never any doubt who the ace was. Jesus’ arrival had changed everything. The Argentine would have to up his game. Scoring goals was no longer enough.
Mikel Arteta puts the challenge that lay ahead of Agüero into context. “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 focused and intense about the game that anyone who doesn’t adapt is finished, out the door. It’s impossible not to adapt. They all have do it.”
“I had to adapt and do much more pressing,” agrees Agüero. “We did a lot of work on that in training. I have to press the goalkeeper and centre-back. Maintaining the intensity like that is really tough for me and it was something I’d never done before. But I’ve become much stronger physically over the last few years and my game outside the box has improved. I just wasn’t used to playing like that. I still do what I need to do when I’ve got the ball, but off the ball my positioning and pressing abilities have greatly improved and I move much more effectively.
“As a player I’m nothing like I was when I played for Independiente. I was a second striker back then. Then in Spain I learned to move differently. And now my game is totally different even from what I was doing five years ago at City. Total transformation. Pep asked me to try a new way of playing and I had to adapt to that. It wasn’t easy, but I had no choice.”
Guardiola certainly asks a lot of his No.9s. He asks them to create superiority in the centre of the field, drop to the wing when needed, close down spaces as the opposition defenders bring the ball out and draw the opposition away in order to create passing space on the inside – and still get on the end of City’s crosses like strikers are supposed to do. After a sticky start, Agüero now exemplifies that role. Despite this pivot in the middle of his eight years as City’s starting forward, he has continued to knock down a series of individual records, while winning trophy after trophy as part of a team connected with more sophistication than any in Premier League history.
The goal that immediately cancelled Glenn Murray’s opener for Brighton on the final day of the 2019 Premier League title race was Agüero’s 21st in the league, matching his total from the previous season and placing him one behind the trio of players who shared the Premier League’s Golden Boot, Sadio Mané, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mo Salah. He has hit 20 goals or more in each of the past five seasons, despite the change in his responsibilities on the pitch. As of summer 2019, his total of 164 league goals is a record for his club; as is his all-competitions total of 231.
Diego Maradona once reigned supreme at the San Paolo stadium, Napoli’s passionate, volatile home. And it was there, deep in the sticky, broiling Italian south that Agüero became City’s all-time top scorer when Leroy Sané set him up to stick the ball past Pepe Reina. City’s third goal in a 4-2 win placed the Argentine ahead of Eric Brook, who played for the club between 1928 and 1939, scoring 177 goals in that period.
“I remember every goal I’ve ever scored,” explains the striker. “I remember every detail of all the goals I’ve scored for City.” But which is his favourite? “My top goal is one I scored at home to Norwich in my first year with the club. There was a big crowd of players between me and the goal. I improvised a toe-poke, the ball nutmegged about three defenders and went in. That’s the one I like best: I took the ball from Micah [Richards], back to goal, turned, saw that there was no room for a dribble and improvised that little poke of the ball which left them no time to block. I only saw it go through the legs of the first guy, but on the television it turned out that it nutmegged a couple of them. When I saw the replay I said to myself: ‘That’s the only way I could have scored that!’
“I also like scoring against United because I know what it means to our fans. The next day people will be out shopping or walking the dog or taking the kids to school, wearing their blue City shirt and so proud to have won the derby. I was exactly the same as a kid. When your team won, you’d be out wearing the colours. I know exactly how people here feel. That’s why it feels so good to score against United.”
Agüero is serious about his goals. Every time he scores, he keeps the shirt he was wearing. If he changes at half-time and scores in both, they both go into the trunk in which he stores them. Eventually, he intends to ship them all to his house in Madrid, in which he has installed a small museum to his career.
The change in Agüero has, like every other quantifiable performance metric, been recorded by the Manchester City analytics team. The medical staff have software that monitors the players as they train. Every metre run – long distances, sprints, jogging – is recorded. The data shows how many sprints a player performs, what top speed he hits, his rate of acceleration, his heart rate during each activity. A colour coding system then shows the intensity and power applied in each area of performance.
Fitness coach Lorenzo Buenaventura: “In Pep’s second year here, Kun improved in every single area. There wasn’t a single training session or physical test where he failed to improve on the previous season’s stats. His work rate has been absolutely spectacular.”
Sergio Agüero: “Pep makes sure all his players improve. He makes the best even better. It’s just what he does. He won’t leave you alone for a second – there are no off-days.
“Some of the young players have big ideas, but then they get complacent and mess up. With Pep, you don’t get away with that. It doesn’t matter what age you are – 20, 25, 30 – he wants you working to improve every single day. Everything he says is for your own good, although at the start I couldn’t see that. But over time I realised that he was right. He can be very direct, but it’s good that he’s up front about things.
“People had told me good things about him before he came, that he was a good guy. Then, when he arrived, I was a bit taken aback by his intensity. It wasn’t always easy to understand what he wanted. With Pep, it can feel like he’s putting a lot of pressure on you.
“You start thinking ‘I’ve got to play well’ and only end up putting even more pressure on yourself. But I understood pretty quickly that it’s just his way. It’s how he is. He was the same in his second and third seasons here. That’s Pep: super-intense.”
Agüero recognises that there are two sides to the coach. “I have a great laugh with him, he’s really good fun, but there’s no laughing when it comes to work. He’s a real worrier, too. Just after we won the Carabao Cup, we were playing West Ham at home. That morning, I stroll into the CFA for a swim or a massage and I see Pep, pacing up and down his office, scratching his head and muttering to himself, obviously a bundle of nerves. And I think, ‘What a state he’s in.’ He was so uptight. Okay, West Ham are tough to play and it was a difficult game but we had eight hours until kick-off. And it wasn’t him who’d be playing, it was us! There was nothing he could do at that stage.
“He’s brought his style of football here, improved ideas. Of course, it’s happened before – City under Pellegrini or Arsenal under Arsene Wegner, years ago. But nobody has ever done what Pep’s done, playing the way we play. And that can only be good for the English game.”