Gabriel Jesus is in Barcelona as he undergoes treatment on his fractured metatarsal from Dr. Ramon Cugat, rated by Pep Guardiola as the best in the business. With Manchester City's best-case scenario being a two-month absence, wrapped in the caveat that rushing the teenager back could be damaging in the long term, Sergio Aguero will once again be his club's frontline striker.
"I know how important Sergio is," Guardiola said on Monday, after the 2-0 win at Bournemouth from which Gabriel, 19, limped from the field, and Aguero came from the bench to pressure Tyrone Mings into scoring City's second.
"I did yesterday, the day before, the last week, the last month."
Important, though not indispensable, as Aguero's relegation to the bench in City's last three Premier League matches has lately revealed. The return of Manchester City's greatest goalscorer of modern times to the starting lineup appears little more than a temporary, convenient fix, considering the speed with which Aguero was demoted once Gabriel became available after his January arrival from Palmeiras. It was a situation that led to Aguero publicly leaving his future open-ended. The previously inexplicable idea of him leaving City has become real, though circumstances have now thrust him back to the fore.
An uneasy alliance with an elite striker has been a refrain throughout Guardiola's coaching career. A list of those the Catalan has locked horns with is a list of modern greats. Each of Samuel Eto'o, Thierry Henry, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Villa and Robert Lewandowski, despite all sharing successes with Guardiola, were players who could never quite fit his philosophy.
After Guardiola took over at Barcelona in the summer of 2008, he employed Henry almost exclusively on the left flank. And while the likes of Deco and Ronaldinho were rapidly sold on, Eto'o was also on his hit list. Though their relationship has lately warmed, with Eto'o labelling Guardiola as the "world's best" in December, they frequently rowed in Barcelona.
"Pep told me how to move like a striker," Eto'o said in 2014. "I told him: 'You're not normal!'"
They lasted a season together, in which the Cameroon scored 36 goals as Barca won the Treble. He also scored the opening goal of the 2009 Champions League final win over Manchester United, before joining Inter Milan as part of a deal that took Ibrahimovic to Barcelona and €46 million and Eto'o to San Siro.
Ibrahimovic's disputes with Guardiola filled the first chapter of "I Am Zlatan," his autobiography. "He swapped the 4-3-3 for a 4-5-1 with me at the front and [Lionel] Messi right behind me," he wrote. "The balls passed through me and I didn't get to play my game. On the pitch I have got to be free as a bird."
That craven desire for freedom, the striker's selfish gene, jars with Guardiola, who much prefers the committed all-rounder to the self-seeking specialist, a philosophy deriving from his career as a midfield player. He demands and expects that strikers work as hard as their colleagues in contributing to the defensive effort rather than conserving energy for darts towards the opponent's goal. Aguero is no Carlos Tevez or Luis Suarez in that regard, the all-action, aggressive foremost prong of a pressing strategy. Meanwhile, Gabriel's 293 minutes so far for City had announced he is just such a player.
"I am how I am, I have spent a lot of years in Europe playing the same way," Aguero said on Feb. 5 having watched Gabriel score both goals and defend from the front in a 2-1 defeat of Swansea. They did not sound the words of someone willing to adapt, instead those of a striker wishing to continue living on his instincts.
When Aguero was rattling in 11 goals in his first six matches of the season, Guardiola made clear that expectations extended way beyond the score sheet.
"I want him to score a lot of goals," said Guardiola after a hat trick in a 5-0 win at Stoke in August. "But he has to help us make the first pressure, to not give them the time to think, the time see the ball to play.'
Even before Gabriel's arrival, Guardiola had made clear that a starting place was by no means a certainty, benching him for Oct. 19's 4-0 loss at Barcelona, in favour of Kevin De Bruyne being the central attacker. That came the week after City's manager admitted he had asked Aguero to study the movements of an unnamed striker.
Whether Gabriel is available or not, Aguero is being asked to change his game to remain part of the Guardiola plan. The next few weeks will reveal his ability and willingness to make that change .