Remodeled Aguero finally gets Guardiola’s seal of approval

Manchester City's Sergio Aguero gestures during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester City and Manchester United. (Dave Thompson/AP)

MANCHESTER, England — For a player who has excelled for years as a penalty-box poacher, Sergio Aguero found himself doing some unusual things in Manchester City’s final home game of the season.

When he wasn’t dropping deep to link up play with flicks and one-twos, he was drifting out to the wing to leave space in the middle.

He even took the option to pass instead of shoot on occasions.

This is a remodeled version of Aguero — and City manager Pep Guardiola wouldn’t want it any other way.

Aguero didn't score for City in its 3-1 win over West Bromwich Albion in the Premier League on Tuesday, but that's no longer what he is being judged on.

At least not by Guardiola.

"An amazing performance," the Spanish coach said.

Guardiola stunned reporters and City fans alike at the start of his first season in English soccer by publicly calling out Aguero, saying he expected more from a player who has long been widely regarded as the best striker in the Premier League. Guardiola wanted to see a better pressing game from Aguero, more teamwork and link-up play, a better work ethic.

Aguero was even dropped for a Champions League game at Barcelona in mid-October, a decision many could not understand.

Was this the end for Aguero at City, the club for whom he famously won the league with that 94th-minute goal on the final day of the 2011-12 season? If Aguero wasn't prepared to change his game, it likely would have been, particularly with Gabriel Jesus arriving at City in January and immediately displaying the kind of attributes Guardiola liked in a striker.

On the evidence of the West Brom game, Aguero has finally mastered how to perform the striker role that Guardiola wants.

"What I saw from outside when I coached against him, he was a guy in the box to score a goal," Guardiola said. "I tried to get him involved in our game, to be involved defensively and especially to help us because I think he has a quality not just to score a goal but to be involved in the process.

"Get out from the central defenders, create space behind central defenders if they decide to follow him. He has the quality to give that and make the pass. It's necessary to feel that your teammates and manager and staff and the club are happy whether you score or don't score."

For the first goal against West Brom, whose ultra-defensive tactics were starting to frustrate City, Aguero came short to receive a pass and carved open the visitors and produced a back-heel flick to play in Kevin de Bruyne, running through from midfield. De Bruyne crossed and Gabriel Jesus tapped in at the far post.

For the second goal less than two minutes later, Aguero again started from deep, running through and passing to another midfield runner in Leroy Sane. The ball dropped for De Bruyne to side-foot home from the edge of the area.

The third goal from Yaya Toure particularly pleased Guardiola, who reacted to the ball hitting the net by spinning on his heels and punching the air with both fists -- as much for the build-up as for the goal itself.

Again dropping deep and dragging two defenders with him, Aguero played a 1-2 with Toure with a deft reverse pass with his left foot. Toure charged into open space and finished between the goalkeeper's legs.

"I like strikers to not be there like a post," Guardiola said, straightening up his body. "I like when we arrive at the line for them to be there. I like strikers to arrive to the positions, not stay in the positions. I think Sergio does that amazing."

That didn't used to be the case.

Aguero has scored 31 goals in all competitions and is enjoying one of his most prolific seasons at City. But Guardiola appears to be getting much more out of the Argentina striker.

Maybe Aguero will be staying at City after all.