Arsenal v Manchester City: Aguero reasserting himself after Guardiola transformation


Heading into a Wembley semi-final on the brink of 30 goals for the campaign and with 11 in your past 11 appearances would normally mean unfettered acclaim for a player at the peak of his powers.

But, as he prepares to lead the attack against Arsenal, Manchester City's talisman Sergio Aguero must surely reflect that this has not been a normal season.

The 28-year-old flew out of the blocks with 11 goals in his first six appearances, concluding a phenomenal hot streak with a brace in a 3-1 win at Swansea City.

Given the opportunity after that match to lavish praise upon the player who had done so much to smooth his introduction into English football, City boss Pep Guardiola offered a curious response.

"I am so happy for him. But I think he can play better and I will try to tell him," he said.

"He has great ability and in the box, there is nothing I can do to help him there. But maybe I can help him develop, like keeping the ball and helping the rest of the team."

A pattern of qualified praise for Aguero was established and, while Guardiola is always sure to criticise his attacking collective for missing chances, the manager's most well-worn complaint has rarely reflected well upon his starting centre forward.

Of course, after seven goals in the four months after that Swansea game, he lost this status to Gabriel Jesus.

The Brazilian protege netted three times in his first two Premier League starts and won instant praise from Guardiola for his pressing and selfless work for the team - again, something that felt like implicit scrutiny of the man benched at Jesus' expense.

Guardiola became noticeably irritated as Aguero's future cropped up constantly at media briefings, although a sense of matters hurtling to a head quelled when Jesus broke a metatarsal away at Bournemouth in February.

Evidently second choice by this stage, City's top scorer grasped the opportunity and refused to sulk.

A brace against Huddersfield Town in an FA Cup fifth-round replay followed a double versus Monaco and prompted Guardiola to praise Aguero's finest all-round display of his tenure. The penny was dropping.

Speculation persists over City's reported interest in Arsenal forward Alexis Sanchez and Jesus is in the running to be among the substitutes at Wembley, regrettably timing his resurrection for one week after Easter Sunday.

But, facing these apparent threats to his immediate future, Aguero cuts an altogether more assured character than the one twice banned for violent conduct before Christmas. A certain "Guardiolafication" seems to have occurred.

Joe Hart and Frank Lampard have separately remarked upon Aguero's nonchalant approach to training during previous seasons but he is evidently working harder than ever before on the pitch.

According to Opta data, the striker has covered an average of 10.06 kilometres per game in the Premier League, up sharply from 8.91km last season and 9.09km in 2014-15. He completes 61 sprints per match, again a dramatic increase on the 44 averaged last time around.

On both these metrics, he outstrips the allegedly more Pep-friendly Sanchez, whose 57 sprints average is consistent with last season and lower than 2014-15, while the Chile star is down to 9.06km in terms of average distance covered over 90 minutes.

Aguero's increased workload might be a reason for a dwindling shot conversion rate of 14.91 per cent, the second lowest across his six seasons in England, but his goal haul remains impressively ample and his manager's words are much warmer.

"Now he's involved in the game, doing all he can do. There's no complaints [over] what he's done after the injury to Gabriel Jesus," Guardiola beamed after his man headed home Kevin De Bruyne's cross in the 3-0 win over Southampton last Saturday.

His unforgettable title-winning goal versus QPR in 2012 means Aguero has a permanent and lofty place in Manchester City history. Against Arsenal, he can demonstrate his part in their future under Guardiola has been severely undersold.