Pep Guardiola loves midfielders and once joked that he would like a squad full of them.
At times this season, Manchester City have tested how successful his theory would be, with Guardiola’s two main strikers unavailable for large chunks of the campaign.
Sergio Aguero has played just 260 minutes in all competitions. After beginning the season recovering from knee surgery, he suffered a hamstring injury shortly after his comeback and was most recently sidelined by Covid-19.
The Argentine is finally back on the training ground and ready to make an impact in the second half of the season as City fight on four fronts for trophies.
Gabriel Jesus, meanwhile, has started fewer than half of City’s matches after a thigh injury and his own positive test for coronavirus.
He has been back and available for the past month, scoring four in his last four starts to help City set a new English record for most consecutive wins by a top-flight club.
Their historic 15th successive victory arrived on Wednesday courtesy of an FA Cup success at Swansea which was wrapped up by Jesus when he brilliantly pulled Bernardo Silva’s headed pass out of the sky before turning and smashing in City’s third goal in a 3-1 triumph.
Despite his good form, though, the Brazilian had been left on the bench for the crucial Premier League trip to Liverpool three days earlier.
Guardiola opted to begin the game at Anfield with Phil Foden operating as a false nine before switching to an unusual 4-4-2 in the second half, with Bernardo Silva playing close to the City youngster.
As the only striker available for selection, many players would have been devastated at being omitted from the starting line-up for such a big game, so Guardiola was full of praise for the way in which Jesus, who came on in the 72nd minute, reacted to the situation.
“He was incredibly involved in the game at Anfield even when he wasn’t playing,” the City boss said. “Before the game in the locker room, he was incredibly supportive to his mates.
“When he plays, he always plays well. For a striker it’s so important for him every game to score a goal.”
By playing without an orthodox striker, Guardiola has come up with a fast-moving, attacking style where many of his players’ positions are interchangeable.
Ilkay Gundogan is often the furthest forward central player, which is why he has 11 goals this season – the 30-year-old’s best ever tally for a campaign.
At other times it can be Foden, Raheem Sterling, Bernardo or Kevin De Bruyne drifting into the striking roles.
Even the full-backs have a license to roam into central dangerous positions and, against Swansea, Benjamin Mendy threatened to score just his second goal for the club when he took up the position of a No.9 on a couple of occasions.
Despite the recent success, Guardiola is not ready to move to his Utopian vision of a team full of midfielders just yet.
The City boss has insisted he will need Aguero and his goals and is, thus, looking forward to the 32-year-old’s imminent return to action.
Long-term, the striker’s future remains less certain, with his contract expiring at the end of the season and, as it stands, no suggestion of an extension.
City are unlikely to make the same mistake they did with Vincent Kompany when they waited 18 months to replace a club legend and ended up missing his influential presence during a relatively disappointing 2019-20 campaign.
Potential moves for Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Haaland, Inter’s Romelu Lukaku and Southampton’s Danny Ings have already been considered if Aguero departs.
But that would leave a question mark over the future of Jesus. The former Palmeiras prodigy has been touted as Aguero’s ultimate successor ever since he arrived at the Etihad Stadium as a 20-year-old in 2017.
With 76 goals from 174 appearances at City, Jesus has a decent strike rate, although it pales in comparison to that of Aguero. The club’s greatest ever goalscorer has an incredible 256 goals from 379 appearances.
Jesus has admitted to finding it frustrating when he goes through a goal-scoring drought and it can often affect his game and confidence. But his game is far more than just goals.
Jesus offers an energy and work-rate that are hard to find in even the world’s best strikers and his unselfishness and commitment are traits that have marked him out as a special player at the Etihad Campus.
It was no coincidence that Guardiola made a point of hailing his attitude at Anfield. But he is more than a glorified cheerleader.
Jesus has the intelligence and flexibility to fit into Guardiola’s fluid forward line and when he’s scoring goals, that makes him a huge asset.
His performances in last season’s wins away and home to Real Madrid in the Champions League shows exactly the unique contribution he can bring.
At the Santiago Bernabeu, he started as a left winger, delivered a high-energy performance and sneaked into the central striker role for the crucial equaliser in a 2-1 victory.
Nearly six months later, after the coronavirus delay, he hassled Raphael Varane into two uncharacteristic errors as City claimed one of their biggest wins in Europe.
Guardiola’s micro-planning means that his side are constantly evolving to cope with their opponents.
In Jesus, he may have the best striker in the world that can fit into a striker-less system.