Sergio Aguero may have missed a penalty on Tuesday that would have seen him become Man City's all-time top scorer, but the winning run continues nevertheless. That's partly because there is now much more to the striker's game, writes Adam Bate.
This time last year, Sergio Aguero had scored 11 goals in his first six games under Pep Guardiola. Manchester City had won the lot. But the manager was not happy. Still, he wanted more. In particular, from his star striker. "To score five goals in two games is a good statistic," he said midway through that run. "But he has to help us."
Guardiola added: "It is not enough to receive the ball from his team-mates. He has to help us in the first pressure and run a lot and help us a lot with movement … You cannot be brilliant when you disappear when you [don't] have the ball. It is impossible. Football is a connection between what you have with the ball and without the ball."
The City boss did not write off Aguero. Instead, he talked of plans "to help him to play the way to create as many chances as possible" and fans are finally beginning to see the results. Not just for City, who have scored 24 goals and conceded just once in their last five games, but for Aguero too. One year on and the goals are still coming his way. But crucially, he has now added assists too.
The pass to Raheem Sterling against Crystal Palace looked simple enough, a cushioned side-foot volley that found his team-mate near the goal-line for the easiest of finishes. But its significance should not be overlooked. It was the third Premier League game in a row in which Aguero had assisted a goal, achieving that feat for the first time in his career.
Indeed, he produced only three assists in 31 Premier League appearances last season. In the previous campaign under Manuel Pellegrini, he came up with only two assists in 30 games. Suddenly, Aguero is a player transformed and any lingering notions of him as a selfish penalty-box predator are being challenged. Those assists are evidence of his generosity.
In the previous game against Watford, the Argentine not only laid on a goal for strike partner Gabriel Jesus but also allowed Sterling to assume penalty duties in order to help boost the younger man's confidence. In the win prior to that, a 5-0 thrashing of Liverpool, Aguero opted to pass to Jesus with only the goalkeeper in his path. A trend is emerging.
"Kun Aguero, he is a hero within the team," summer arrival Benjamin Mendy told The Telegraphlast week. "Look at the 6-0 win against Watford - we won a penalty and everyone knows Sergio takes our penalties but he said, 'No, let Raheem take it'. Kun doesn't just want to be the star himself. He wants all the players to shine, everyone to be brilliant."
Previously styled as a goal-poacher supreme, Aguero has always insisted there was more to his game - pointing to the fact that he was not a No 9 in his time at Atletico Madrid. Recent performances have underlined his expanded repertoire. He ranks third in the entire Premier League for chances created from open play and joint-top for clear-cut chances created.
Aguero has already matched last season's total for the latter and passed his number for the campaign prior to that. Perhaps much of it can be explained by the change of system with more bodies in the box and greater passing options available in the final third. But it is also an indication of a change in mentality, one Aguero appears to have embraced.
Such unselfishness also deserves particular praise given that the contrast with other stars is so stark. While Aguero was gifting a penalty to his team-mate, Neymar and Edinson Cavani were fighting over the role at Paris Saint-Germain. The Manchester City hero would be entitled to feel threatened by Jesus but that has not been evident in his actions on the pitch.
Instead, Jesus's January arrival has had a positive effect on him. It quickly became clear that the Brazilian would be a starter, with Aguero benched for three consecutive Premier League games. When Guardiola chose to praise Jesus's pressing game and described him as the future of the club, Aguero was forced to respond. He has had to adapt and adapt he has.
"He's very demanding of me," Aguero said when asked about Guardiola last season. "I need to be the player who starts the pressure and with my pressure the rest of the team-mates will join me and keep up the pressure." He recognised what was needed and the Premier League tracking data suggests that he has delivered what was demanded too.
The statistics show that Aguero's output has increased under Guardiola since the turn of the year. He has made more sprints and covered more distance per 90 minutes, making a greater all-round contribution to City's play. And amid it all, he also happens to be the Premier League's joint-top scorer with six goals so far this season.
"He loves to play football," said Guardiola last week. "He likes the ball and when he can score a goal, his eyes open. He's a football player. Sergio has the character to score goals. He had it in the past with Argentina, his mother and father gave him that talent. He will die scoring goals, there is no doubt about that." Maybe now, he will die assisting them too.