Both Liverpool and Manchester City have made stylish starts to the new season, displaying brands of football which have prompted suggestions that the title race will be played out between these two North West sides (we’re not allowed to call them rivals yet).
Even though these teams have scored nine and seven goals respectively in their opening three games, doubts are still raised about their strikers, if not of their quality then of their role in the side.
While there are unique traits which separate Sergio Aguero and Roberto Firmino, neither are necessarily bad at the things the other gets praised for, and criticisms can be wide of the mark. They play in similar, if not completely identical, systems and both play a big part in the success of their teams.
Criticisms of Aguero are usually based around the idea that, regardless of his goal-scoring output, he is somehow not a ‘Guardiola player’. They say he doesn’t get involved in the build-up as much as he should, and doesn’t know how to press.
This idea dates back to Guardiola’s first season in charge when he worked on implementing his style from the outset. Of the players he inherited a few adapted with ease, others not so much, and some not at all, but every player in the squad required tutelage in the ways of the former Barcelona and Bayern boss.
City legend and star player: the story of Aguero’s adaptation was the most high profile and the one which would attract the most attention. It was a regular narrative and in some ways remains so to this day.
20 goals in 25 starts in the 2016/17 Premier League campaign, and 33 goals in 37 starts in all competitions isn’t the return of a player who struggled in that first season under the Catalan boss. Aguero may have admitted that he needed to adapt, but like most players who take to Guardiola’s methods he believes he’s become a better player as a result.
“Pep is a very demanding coach and adapting to what he wanted was not easy during the first year,” Aguero said, speaking to Argentine outlet TYC Sports at the end of last season.
“Besides my responsibilities as a striker, he wanted to get me involved as the first defender of the team. When Gabriel Jesus arrived, he had more options and I started to play less. I kept giving my best in practice and working hard so, when Gabriel went down with an injury, I was able to come back stronger and scored a lot of goals.”
He also told the official Manchester City website how much he was enjoying working with Guardiola, and the parts of his game he has worked on his game during this period. He scored 30 goals in 32 starts in all competitions last season.
“I think being able to adapt to Pep’s playing style has a large contributing factor in my form,” he said.
“Pep is very demanding, but I simply had to adapt my game and mindset, and change how I play to his style. That means helping recover the ball, press, pass it around more, search for my teammates and remain open for passes to find the goal.
“It’s a continuous learning process, and I value that kind of thing as it helps me improve as a player.”
There is evidence from last season that these areas of his game have improved. He is heavily involved in attacking build-up play in terms of passing, chance creation, and dribbling. Of the league’s top strikers he was second only to Firmino in this aspect of the game.
More counter to narrative that Sergio Agüero is a finisher and not a “Pep player”.
— David Sumpter (@Soccermatics) August 25, 2018
Importantly, the goals continued to flow even after the tweaks were made.
There was an FA Cup game against Huddersfield Town in March 2017 when things appeared to really click for Aguero and Guardiola. The Manchester City boss praised the striker’s work off the ball as much as he did his pair of goals, commenting that: “It was the best performance I’ve seen from Sergio in many, many things. In that form he is unstoppable.”
His off-ball actions from last season show pressure on the opposition centre backs and defensive midfielders, becoming the first line of defence as demanded by his boss. Click the ‘Only important actions’ button on the below dashboard to see his efforts.
That Huddersfield game brings us nicely to an impressive Aguero display this season — a hat-trick against the same opponent to open his account. This was his thirteenth hat-trick for the club, and came amid suggestions that he would have been replaced by Jesus in the side after a less eye catching display in the season opener against Arsenal. Instead, the strikers operated as a pair, to devastating effect.
Focal Point Firmino
In many ways Firmino is the dream Guardiola player. In another life you can imagine him ploughing his own furrow in the same team as Lionel Messi. The selfless worker whose movement and workrate go above and beyond most other players, never mind strikers, to benefit those around him.
It’s this movement which has seen the likes of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane flourish, and subsequently led to comparisons between the Egyptian and the great Messi.
While the Argentine supposedly doesn’t do enough, Firmino doesn’t score enough. It’s taken some time for the Brazilian to even be acknowledged as a striker after moving into the position under Jurgen Klopp’s management. Even once he was handed the number nine shirt, he’s always dubbed a ‘false 9’ rather than a genuine centre forward.
The truth is that Firmino is not false, but complete. He’s a raumdeuter and a trequartista in one. A target man and a poacher. Strikers in the modern game are asked to do much more than score goals and Firmino is probably the best example of this player in world football, building on the groundwork put in by another player once managed by Klopp, Robert Lewandowski.
In the 4-3-3 system regularly used by both Klopp and Guardiola, the wide players in the front three will often be furthest forward, encroaching on the opposition defence and effectively becoming inside forwards. Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane at Manchester City, and the aforementioned Salah at Liverpool are the best examples of this type of modern forward, with full backs chipping in as auxiliary wingers.
The shape can therefore resemble a 4-4-2 diamond in certain phases of play, when the strikers drop deep during the build-up with runners darting around them. They then turn to face the opposition goal in the hope of getting on the end of the move having helped start it.
Firmino’s role as the focal point is much more pronounced this season with the addition of Naby Keita, who likes to get forward alongside Mane.
Firmino scored 15 goals in the league last season, and nine in the Champions League alone — 10 if you include the qualifying play-off against Hoffenheim — with only Cristiano Ronaldo scoring more in that competition.
He was third on the Twelve leaderboard for shots by strikers last season, just behind Harry Kane and Aguero. Incidentally, Salah and Sterling would be in the top five if the wide forwards were included.
As shown above the majority of his shots come from close range which is an indication of the work he puts in to get into scoring positions. It’s the shot map of a centre-forward.
Firmino and Aguero this season
Both strikers have contrasting strengths within similar tactical setups, but this doesn’t mean they are necessarily weak in other areas.
As we have seen Aguero can also link the play and defend from the front, and Firmino can poach a goal or two on the rare occasions Salah isn’t scoring them all.
This season’s data is already showing their strengths, but it will also be worth keeping an eye on their supposed weaknesses as the campaign unfolds.