Why is there still so much doubt surrounding Sergio Aguero’s future at Manchester City?
Pep Guardiola says publicly that Aguero is a major part of his plans. Aguero says publicly he wants to stay and, privately, that has always been his intention.
The club themselves are adamant that Aguero is not being sold this summer, and stress that he will benefit from added competition.
So why does Aguero feel that City could yet decide there is no place for him next season, as he admitted for the first time on Sunday?
Is it because of media reports - like this one - suggesting all is not well behind the scenes? That's certainly a popular idea among supporters and it's true that footballers can have doubts planted in their minds by constant stories in the press.
But if that were the case, would City’s desire for him to stay not have been relayed to Aguero by now? Wouldn’t steps have been taken to allay the fears of one of their most important players? Perhaps this message could have been passed on, for instance, at a meeting between the striker, his chief agent and Guardiola himself.
That exact meeting took place less than three weeks ago at a Manchester restaurant, yet on Sunday afternoon Aguero accepted a rare post-match interview request and said on three separate occasions, under no duress to do so, that he feels the club may no longer want him.
As has been the case for months now, there is something going on.
As Goal revealed on Monday, Paris Saint-German are interested in Aguero and sources in France stress that talks between the Ligue 1 champions and the Argentine's representatives have been taking place since October.
Aguero's hunch that he is no longer needed could well have ensured that he is listening to offers, if only in a bid to have his next move lined up should Guardiola and City decide, after all, that he will not see out his contract.
Aguero wants to stay, that was a key takeaway from his answers, but the other unavoidable conclusion is that he thinks City might sell him— Sam Lee (@Sammy_Goal) February 5, 2017
The most influential members of City’s hierarchy do not have a bad word to say about Aguero, because - aside from all the goals - he has never given any consideration to leaving, and his agents have never used reports of interest from other clubs as leverage to get better terms - which is of course a common tactic in football.
In light of the PSG interest, it is clear Aguero is keeping his options open, and there are plenty of reasons to suggest he is wise to do so.
City and Guardiola have made a number of decisions over the last year or so which add credence to the idea that Aguero's future is far from certain.
First of all is his new contract, which was signed last January but never announced. There were several suggestions at different points in 2016 that official confirmation was forthcoming, but that never transpired.
It’s very rare that a player, let alone one of such calibre, signs a new contract but the news is kept under wraps. If nothing else, surely news of a longer contract would put off any potential suitors?
In another twist, Guardiola arrived at City last June having done his homework, and having already decided he had no strikers that would both work hard and score goals.
Less than a week after Guardiola got to work in Manchester, an enquiry was made regarding Borussia Dortmund’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but the Bundesliga club wanted too much money. Aubameyang has confirmed the approach in recent months.
This all invited suspicion, but the biggest indication - until Sunday - that Aguero would have to fight for his future was delivered on the eve of the Premier League season.
In the middle of August, a week after Gabriel Jesus was signed from Palmeiras, sources close to City’s transfer decision makers informed Goal that the Brazilian was signed explicitly to put pressure on Aguero.
The teenager’s work-rate had attracted the attention of City’s scouts, and Guardiola pushed through the deal because, according to those sources, he wanted Aguero to be part of his team, but only if he could adapt his game.
Jesus was signed to be the example for Aguero, and after just three starts that has proven to be the case.
Aguero himself has indicated that he has been told to watch and learn: “Yes, at the moment I have to watch what he does, to learn, maybe I could [learn] a little bit,” he said on Sunday. Yet he added defiantly: “But I am how I am. I have spent a lot of years in Europe playing the same way.”
That was the first indication during a previously routine post-match interview that Aguero had something to get off his chest.
It was then, when asked if he was happy with his current situation, that he suggested his future was in doubt.
“Yeah, fine, normal,” he insisted. “Sometimes this happens. When you’re on the bench you have to wait for your opportunity. I have three months to do my best and try to help the team and we’ll see what happens with my future.”
It was not a slip of the tongue. In response to follow-up questions about whether he has thought about leaving City and when exactly his contract expires - given the confusion surrounding last year’s extension - he rammed the point home.
“No, no,” he said, dismissing the idea of leaving. “I have to help the team as much as I can in these three months, afterwards we’ll see what the club wants to do with me.”
Asked a straight question about his contract, he said: “In three years. In three years my contract is up, that’s why I say I’m happy at the club. In these last three months that are left I have to help the club, and as I say the club will decide if I have a place here or not.”
The writing has been on the wall for months. Guardiola, true to his pre-season intentions that Aguero would adapt his style and stay at the club, spent the beginning of the campaign urging the Argentine to do more, much more.
The Catalan was especially keen to point this out when reporters, generally unaware of the background context, were looking for generic praise of Aguero as he started the season with 11 goals in six games.
At Stoke City in August, Guardiola was asked innocently, as Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini would be, how important Aguero is to his plans. It was at the Bet365 Stadium that the Catalan first surprised journalists by insisting he would need to up his game. It was a topic he would revisit on many further occasions, whether prompted or not. In recent months the message has changed, with Guardiola now pointing out he is happy with Aguero.
The Argentine has shown signs of improving, most notably at West Brom and against Barcelona at the end of last year, but clearly it has not been enough to prevent Jesus from coming in and taking his place.
It was before that game against Tony Pulis’ West Brom in October that Guardiola provided an in-depth explanation of long-balls versus direct passes, during which he pointed out that he would like to have the latter option available to him, but that City do not have a striker that enables them to try it.
Guardiola has dropped subtle and not-so-subtle hints regarding Aguero's position and, after West Ham away last week, his praise of Jesus’ pressing and, crucially, ability to fight for long balls was another sign that the new boy is already the manager's favoured option.
With some justification, City fans have become fearful that one of their favourites may not be around for much longer. If this much information has become apparent to the public, it is no stretch to suggest Aguero might have discovered, or been told, even more in private.
“Things to do with the club, nothing strange,” he said of his meeting with his agent and Guardiola last month. “Private things that have to stay inside those walls.”
Sources close to Aguero have told Goal that the striker's future was up for discussion at that sit-down, and that he was told to fight for his place, that he is no longer first pick.
Clearly, Aguero feels his future at City is under threat - why else make the point on Sunday? Either that, or he is unhappy with what he heard that evening at Salvy's Cucina.
Mid-season negotiations with other clubs are standard practice when players either fear for their future, or want to move on.
For Aguero, who has never wanted to leave and whose agent does not engage in these kind of tactics, it is telling that PSG’s firm interest has been considered.
Aguero has always wanted to return to Independiente when his time at City comes to an end, and that will still be the case, not least because it is still the easiest route home.
In an ideal world, Guardiola wants Aguero to stay, but his improvement has not been as marked as hoped last summer and time is running out. Of course, City insist he is going nowhere.
Yet it is impossible to escape the idea that Aguero's exit is a very real possibility.