Pep Guardiola could have singled any of the Manchester City team out for criticism on Wednesday night after they crashed out of the Champions League at Monaco. The defence had shipped another three goals and the whole midfield gone absent without leave in an abysmal first half.
But it was the front three who got it in the neck, in public, from Guardiola when he gave his press conference soon after the final whistle at the Stade Louis II.
“Why was the second half a problem with our defence?” Guardiola bristled. “The problem was the first half when we were not there. Our strikers have to be aggressive and pick the ball up, but we didn’t, at this crucial time. That is why we are out.”
Guardiola was furious that his players had ignored his pre-match instructions. Before the game he had said that the only way City could beat a team like Monaco was by “taking the ball and attacking as much as possible”.
But it was very clear in the opening minutes that was not going to happen, and in that first half City lost the game. “We wanted to show personality, not to let them think,” Guardiola said afterwards. “But they could pass and pass the ball.”
The message clearly got through to the players, who all said afterwards they had fluffed their lines. “We forgot to fight as a team, press as a team and defend as a team,” Bacary Sagna admitted afterwards.
Just think back to when City have played some of their best football this season, and certainly their most Guardiola football, and which players they had in their team.
It was in late January and early February, when City had Gabriel Jesus up front, not Sergio Aguero. That was how it was for their 4-0 win at West Ham United on 1 February, arguably their most complete performance of the season.
Gabriel was everything Guardiola wanted in a centre forward. He is quick, mobile, selfless but above all, in Guardiola’s favourite word, “aggressive”, harassing opposition defenders when they had the ball. That is how this City team are meant to play, winning the ball back and defending against the counter-attack through constant pressure from the front.
Aguero has come back into the team since Gabriel broke his foot in Bournemouth on 13 February. He has worked hard on a side of the game that does not come naturally to him. Guardiola has said Aguero is playing the best he has ever seen and there was a hope that Guardiola could change the 28-year-old, and turn him into his type of player after all.
But there is no getting past the fact that Aguero and Gabriel inhabit very different bodies, play very different games and exist at very different stages of their career. Aguero is the best finisher in the Premier League but last night he could not do what Guardiola wanted him to do, taking the game to Monaco and putting them under pressure. He could not provide the leadership to Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling and Monaco realised soon enough they were off the hook.
There has been a debate this year whether Gabriel or Aguero will be City’s first-choice centre-forward next season. City have always insisted that Aguero is not for sale although Aguero himself has said more than once that City have not yet made that directly clear to him.
Eventually, if not in 2017 then in 2018, Guardiola will have to choose between the two candidates to be his leading man. If he was starting to think that Aguero could be moulded into someone more like Gabriel, to do all that pressing from the front, Wednesday night might have given him some pause. Gabriel is still recovering from his metatarsal fracture in a protective boot, but last night he looked more invaluable to City’s future than ever.