Selling Aguero not as easy as some think, so Guardiola might have to adapt
With hindsight, nothing Sergio Aguero said, following his benching for Manchester City's game vs. Swansea on Sunday, was unreasonable.
"I have three months to do my best and try to help the team and we'll see what happens in the future," he said. "Sometimes this happens. When you're on the bench, you have to wait for an opportunity."
Asked specifically whether he was thinking of leaving the club, Aguero replied: "No, no. I have to help the team as much as I can in these three months. Afterward we'll see what the club wants to do with me."
What else was he going to say? "I love being on the bench! Less work and I get paid the same! Awesome!"
Or, perhaps: "I love City so much and I am already so fulfilled in my career that it doesn't matter to me if I never start another game. I'll happily go on the Fabian Delph plan for the duration of my contract."
I'm kidding, of course. From a PR point of view, what Aguero should have done was either say nothing and avoid the media entirely -- perhaps by hiding behind Yaya Toure or by wearing giant headphones and blasting Cumbia music so loud that it frazzles bystanders -- or, if he really had to talk, just repeat endlessly: "I'm only thinking about City... I'm only thinking about City... I'm only thinking about City..."
Alas, he answered the questions like a grown-up, which instantly prompted speculation. And while clubs like to laugh off "speculation" -- treating it as if it were some kind of naughty word -- the fact of the matter is there is bound to be uncertainty over his future.
Let's be clear: I think Pep Guardiola is being totally honest when he says that Aguero and Gabriel Jesus can and will play together. Heck, they did it in the last seven minutes of the Swansea game, during which time City scored their winner.
Longer term, it may well be that Aguero remains the first-choice striker, the guy who plays in every big game and most of the lesser ones. And maybe Gabriel Jesus who, lest we forget, is still a teenager, comes off the bench. Or, possibly, plays from the wing. Or, maybe, City play with two front men. Who knows?
But it's also entirely possible that Guardiola concludes that Aguero doesn't offer what he wants from a central striker as much as Gabriel Jesus or a new signing. That won't mean the manager has been lying; it will simply mean that he changed his mind. Because that's what intelligent people do: When the facts change, so do their opinions.
Indeed, we've seen this happen already at City this season with the club's goalkeeper situation, involving Joe Hart, Claudio Bravo and Willy Caballero. Guardiola takes a view, changes his mind -- maybe because he realizes he got things wrong, maybe because circumstances change -- and then goes and does something entirely different.
One popular theory is that Guardiola feels Aguero doesn't press opposing center-backs as effectively as he could, leaving City's high defensive line vulnerable to long balls over the top.
This may or may not be true but, even if you have a center-forward who doesn't press well, there are counter-measures other than simply replacing him. You can press the center-backs with a winger. Or you can drop your own center-backs deeper. Or -- here's an idea! -- get better defenders than the ones you currently have.
One thing we can be relatively sure of, though, is that Aguero as a regular benchwarmer is a non-starter. He, like most footballers, wants to play. And City, who despite their riches are still running a business and still have Financial Fair Play obligations, aren't going to happily keep a guy on the bench, who makes north of $15 million a year.
So, what happens next? Aguero is put up for sale, that's what happens.
Unless City are willing to offer a deep discount, though, shifting him is tougher than it appears, despite -- or maybe because -- he's one of the top center-forwards in the world.
One hurdle is that, under the terms of his current contract, City are due to pay Aguero close to $50m between now and its expiration in 2020. There are very few clubs who can make such a wage commitment and, in fact, if he does move then he'll want a bump in money.
After all, despite being banned for seven games and starting just 20 times in all competitions this season, Aguero has 18 goals. In the Premier League, he has scored every 122 minutes, which is worse than the past three years -- one every 95 minutes -- but better than his first two campaigns at the Eithad.
Another hurdle is that it's hard to see City selling to another Premier League club. For a start, there's the age-old thing -- real or imagined -- of not wanting to strengthen a rival. After five seasons at City, Aguero would likely see most clubs as a step down or sideways and, what's more, barring some sort of musical chairs of center-forwards, the ones that could afford him don't have a pressing need in that area.
(The one really intriguing option -- think Carlos Tevez in reverse, right down to the "Welcome to Manchester" sign -- would be Manchester United but, for all intents and purposes, that feels like a non-starter.)
And so you scan the continent's big clubs and see that Bayern Munich have Robert Lewandowski, Juventus have Gonzalo Higuain and Barcelona have Luis Suarez.
Which leaves Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain. Aguero lived in Madrid when he played for Atletico and has been linked to the Bernabeu in the past. Karim Benzema is seven months older and is locked up through 2019 but, between injuries and assorted off-field "baggage," has missed plenty of starts.
Alvaro Morata was bought by Madrid to be the Frenchman's long-term replacement but is also perpetually linked with a move. On paper, at least if one or the other is moved elsewhere, Aguero would be a tremendous addition, at the right price.
Meanwhile, PSG have Edinson Cavani who, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic gone, is on an absolute scoring tear -- funny, that! -- and has 31 goals already this season. Adding Aguero would mean moving to a two-striker set-up -- it would be simply cruel to shunt Cavani back to the wing -- but that's far from unthinkable looking at the rest of the squad.
Could Aguero move lower down the footballing food chain?
Possibly, but it seems a stretch. The Italian media have linked him to Inter but they're under Financial Fair Play restrictions and would likely need to move Mauro Icardi. That's not impossible, but probably not the most logical move at this time as it would likely take all the Icardi money to land Aguero, who is some five years older than his fellow Argentine.
Atletico Madrid have already quashed any such rumors, so forget his former club as an option. Milan have far more serious matters to worry about, like the possibility of no new owners and no Champions League football. Tax-free Monaco in a partnership of Atletico alums with Rafael Falcao? They too would have financial fair play issues. And it would be a bit depressing to picture Aguero in front of such small home crowds.
I know what you're thinking: China. And, sure, given the transfer premium, Aguero would likely break every record in terms of wages and fees. But while recent deals have shown us anything is possible, this would represent another quantum leap. Plus, with Chinese authorities talking about introducing their own versions of FFP and limiting the number of foreign players, it feels even more far-fetched.
The more you think about it, the more this feels like one of those situations where Guardiola pretty much has to figure out a way to make things work. He's been given free rein thus far and, on occasion, it has cost Man City heavily, at times in terms of points, at times in terms of money. But the fact that there are, at most, two realistic, deep-pocketed bidders who might have interest, means City are not in a strong position to sell.
There's also the small matter of Aguero actually having a longer current contract at the Etihad than Guardiola. It's true, contracts only mean so much but, given Guardiola's wanderlust, you wonder whether it makes sense to sell one of your best players to accommodate a guy, who might be gone himself in just over two years.
Last month, Carlo Ancelotti said some of City's road bumps this season were merely down to the fact that it takes time for the club "to adapt to Guardiola's ideas." And that's true but, when it comes to Aguero, this might be one situation where Guardiola has to adapt to his players and not the other way around.
Not unless City are happy to take a huge financial hit by selling at a cut-rate price or keeping the player as an unhappy, overpaid benchwarmer.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.