Aguero and Sanchez dominating the Premier League in very different ways
During their first Premier League meeting in September, Sergio Aguero and Alexis Sanchez both scored in a 2-2 draw at the Emirates. Ahead of their second meeting on Sunday as Manchester City host Arsenal, few would bet against them repeating the trick; these two South Americans are arguably the Premier League's two most exciting attackers.
The fact they're both from South America is of interest, considering forwards from that continent have rarely been consistently successful in English football. Carlos Tevez is the Premier League's top South American goal-scorer with 84 goals, although this places him only 38th on the all-time list, behind players like Kevin Davies and Louis Saha. South Americans often have a short, sharp impact before leaving for warmer countries; Tevez, Faustino Asprilla, Roque Santa Cruz and, to a certain extent, Luis Suarez are obvious examples. The likes of Robinho and Diego Forlan were excellent elsewhere, but struggled badly in England.
Arsene Wenger, meanwhile, has recently claimed that South America is producing more top forwards than Europe, having signed Sanchez last summer, and targeted both Suarez and Gonzalo Higuain in 2013.
"Look across Europe, and where are the strikers from? Many of them ... are from South America," Wenger said last year. "Maybe it's because in Europe, street football has gone. In street football, when you're 10 years old, you want to play with 15-year-olds. Then you have to prove you're good, you have to fight and win impossible balls. When it's all a bit more formalised, it's less about developing your individual skill and fighting attitude. [European countries] have lost that a bit."
Aguero and Sanchez fit neatly into his categorisation. They might be brilliantly gifted technicians, but they're fighters, too.
They are actually very different type of forwards, however. Aguero is a tremendous goal-scorer yet relatively limited in terms of his style, whereas Sanchez doesn't guarantee such an impressive goal return, but is ultra-versatile and capable of doing almost everything in the final third.
Aguero is a peculiar footballer. The more you observe him, the more he seems like a simple, out-and-out poacher, whereas you expect a player of his ability to contribute more in build-up play. He is quick, intelligent with his movement and a reliable user of the ball, and seemingly prefers to start alongside a tall striker in the mould of Edin Dzeko, rather than with another mobile forward. His relationship with Dzeko works well, because the Bosnian comes towards play, and Aguero sprints behind.
Aguero needs a certain environment to succeed. He seemingly requires another forward to drag others out of position, but also someone capable of threading intelligent passes through the defence -- usually David Silva. Sometimes it feels like City use three players -- Dzeko, Silva and Aguero -- to create the opportunities that should be possible from just two.
This is why City's default formation has remained almost identical since Aguero's arrival, despite a change in manager prompted by an apparent desire for a shift in style. Roberto Mancini's system was basically a 4-4-2, usually with two wide players moving inside. Manuel Pellegrini replaced him, and despite constant rumours that director of football Txiki Begiristain wanted City to switch to a Barcelona-style 4-3-3, the formation has remained the same. The reason, in truth, is because Aguero means it's tough to play another way. He wouldn't suit the lone striker role in a 4-3-3, he doesn't like playing wide.
The only true alternative is a 4-2-3-1 with Aguero up front, and Silva (or another playmaker) just behind. That's the approach City used against Tottenham this season, when Aguero hit four goals, and in the 2-2 draw with Arsenal. Aguero, however, likes to play alongside another striker. "For most of my career I've played behind a striker, but close enough to form a partnership with them," he told FourFourTwo magazine last season. "That's where I think I play best."
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Sanchez is the opposite, to the extent that it's difficult to understand his best position. He's played in four separate roles for Arsenal: up front, as a No. 10, from the right and from the left. He's capable of coming short to become involved in build-up play, or sprinting in behind the defence. He's a more prolific dribbler and a more dangerous creator than Aguero, and he contributes more in the defensive phase of play too.
His versatility can be traced throughout his career. At Udinese, he specialised as a No. 10 in a counter-attacking side; at Barcelona, he was a wide forward in a possession-based side, and for Chile, he was a false nine in a heavy pressing side. Three different positions, three different types of football. It's no surprise he can't be pigeonholed as a particular type of attacker, which means he's probably the Premier League's best all-round forward. In a 4-2-3-1 system, you could conceivably play Sanchez in all four attacking positions -- few others are capable of that.
Nevertheless, Aguero has two main advantages over Sanchez. First, his acceleration is incredible -- not that the Chilean is particularly lacking in this area -- and he uses this to full advantage. A distinctive feature of Aguero's game is his tendency to take more touches than you'd expect before striking for goal, not because his control is poor, but because he always wants to shift the ball another couple of yards, confident he can sprint clear of opponents with a renewed burst of pace.
Aguero is also a more consistent, ruthless finisher than Sanchez. There's a crucial reason for this: he's more two-footed than the Chilean. In this season's Premier League, Aguero has attempted 50 shots with his right foot, 21 with his left, and five with his head.
Sanchez's statistics are telling: 55 with his right foot and eight with his head are similar. However, he's attempted just one shot with his left foot, which indicates a real weakness. It's understandable, therefore, that he considers himself a greater goal-scoring threat on the left, rather than the right, where he usually needs to beat opponents on the outside.
Aguero, therefore, can finish in a greater variety of situations. His stunning goal against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in 2013, when he raced onto a Samir Nasri pass and slammed the ball first time into the near top corner past a static, surprised Petr Cech, is the type of goal Sanchez can't score. Sanchez would have cut back onto his right foot, potentially allowing defenders to catch up and giving the goalkeeper longer prepare for the shot.
Few can compete with Aguero as a pure finisher: his goal-scoring record this season is extraordinary, with 14 goals in 16 league games. He might not have Sanchez's all-round ability or Diego Costa's power, but he's probably Premier League's best at putting the ball in the net.
On Sunday, their second showdown should be fascinating. The Premier League has lost many of its genuine superstars recently; the last two winners of the PFA Player of the Year trophy, Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez, both immediately left for La Liga. Aguero and Sanchez are now among the division's elite, and this weekend's meeting between the duo could influence who is voted the Premier League's best this time around.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.