How Does Sergio Aguero Rank in Terms of the PL's All-Time Greatest Forwards?

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistOctober 23, 2017

Sergio Aguero: Underappreciated or behind the Premier League's best ever?
Sergio Aguero: Underappreciated or behind the Premier League's best ever?Alex Livesey/Getty Images

After a weekend in which Sergio Aguero became Manchester City's joint all-time leading goalscorer, we look at where he ranks in terms of the Premier League's all-time greatest strikers.

This writer currently has him behind only three others, with the Argentinian more than capable of usurping at least a couple of them before he calls time on a magnificent career in English football.

          

1. Thierry Henry

"Thierry Henry is probably technically the most gifted footballer ever to play the beautiful game."

The above quote is quite the compliment, especially coming from technically the most gifted footballer ever to play the beautiful game. Zinedine Zidane probably does himself a disservice when he talks of Thierry Henry as being the best of the best on a technical level, but in terms of the Premier League, there's little doubt the Frenchman is in a class of one.

To be technically perfect is one thing. To be technically perfect and faster than sound is like winning the lottery of life, twice. Even Usain Bolt can look clunky coming out of the blocks.

Henry in his pomp at Arsenal could have won a footrace with any Premier League centre-half without breaking sweat, while wearing a three-piece suit. He probably could have done so while carrying a three-piece suite on his back, but he was too bashful ever to try. The line between swagger and arrogance is one he tightroped to perfection. 

"When he hit top gear and ran past you, it was like trying to chase after someone on a motorbike," was the description Jamie Carragher used on Sky Sports.

It's a nice analogy, but a flawed one. Motorcycles are brash and loud. Henry had a smooth quality to his movement that, paradoxically, though explosive, was always ethereal. He would have made a wonderful cat burglar, capable of gliding across a wooden floor in football boots without making a sound.  

If genius is in some ways about transcending an existing form, then Henry belongs among the pantheons of true greats. To label him a striker would be like calling Pablo Picasso a decorator because he dabbled with paint. Henry was so much more than a striker.

He was tall yet preferred the ball to feet; he was a predator but did much of his best work outside of the box; he played with a smile but would just as well kill as charm you with it. His finishing was so dead-eyed it was impossible for goalkeepers to read him. Cool to the point of being aloof at times, he is serious and intense, according to those that know him. 

Sure, some 175 Premier League goals in 258 appearances, at a rate of 0.68 a match, merit a "natural born goalscorer" moniker. Yet somehow it seems wrong to pigeon hole him as a striker, as though he'd be happy to spend his time making anodyne chat with Michael Owen while hovering in and around the six-yard box, like a taxi driver killing time waiting to pick up his next fare.

Henry could pass the ball as well as any player in the league, cross it probably better, with his 74 assists giving credence to the idea he is perhaps the most complete player ever to play in England.

In the Arsenal Invincibles side of 2003/04, he was no less the brains of the outfit than Dennis Bergkamp. Along with the Dutchman, and fellow Frenchman Robert Pires, Henry "epitomised the globalised, gentrified, glamorous appeal of the Premier League era," according to The Guardian's Owen Gibson. 

That Arsene Wenger was responsible for turning Henry from the callow winger he bought from Juventus for a club-record fee in 1999 into the best forward in the world is universally accepted, but what's often overlooked is how quickly the then-22-year-old settled into life in England.

His love affair with the capital was instant, on and off the pitch. In his first season, he scored 26 goals in all competitions. In the one after that he managed 22, before hauls of 32, 32, 39, 30 and 33 lit up the following five campaigns.

With rangy limbs and a ridiculously straight back, he was the antithesis to low centre of gravity players like Lionel Messi, who once said of his one-time Barcelona team-mate (via Planet Football): "The first day that he came into the dressing room, I did not dare to look him in the face. I knew everything that he had done in England."

For those that don't, here's a brief snapshot: Premier League winner (x2): 2001/02, 2003/04; FA Cup winner (x3) 2001/02, 2002/03, 2004/05; Ballon d'Dor runner-up: 2003, third place 2006; FIFA World Player of the Year: Silver in 2003 and 2004; PFA Players' Player of the Year (x2) 2002/03, 2003/04; PFA Team of the Year (x6) 2000/01, 2001/02, 2002/03, 2003/04, 2004/05, 2005/06; FWA Footballer of the Year (x3): 2002/03, 2003/04, 2005/06; Premier League Golden Boot (x4): 2001/02, 2003/04, 2004/05, 2005/06; European Golden Boot winner (x2): 2003/04, 2004/05.

Oh, and he's a World Cup and European Championship winner, too.

Wenger on Henry: "Ninety per cent of the time, it was a pleasure and 10 per cent we could feel the little differences in our view of things."

Henry on Henry: "I'm obsessed by the idea of making my mark on history. And Arsenal is my paradise." 

       

2. Alan Shearer

It is impossible to separate Alan Shearer from Newcastle United. When he talks of his hometown club he served between 1996 and 2006, it is with a romance that seems all the more endearing for how antiquated it has become in the modern game.

Famously he turned down Manchester United, twice. The first time, when he joined Blackburn Rovers for a British record £3.6 million in 1992, was justified when in 1994/95 he helped them to a Premier League title so unlikely it would probably have been spiked had it been pitched as a storyline for Melchester Rovers.

When he supposedly did it again for a second time, in 1996, to join Newcastle for a world-record £15 million fee, it felt like the best striker in Europe at the time was decidedly less ruthless in his decision-making than finishing.

On paper, Shearer finished his career at Newcastle with just two FA Cup runners-up medals, and a close-but-no-cigar second place in the Premier League, to show for it. In his head, he achieved so much more. Each and every time that right arm was raised in celebration he felt it just as joyously as those wearing black and white in the Gallowgate End. If he weren't on the pitch, he'd have been in there with them. Letting the heart rule the head isn't foolish, it's human.

In an era when the false nine has become ubiquitous, Shearer was one of the last of the proper variety. He could head the ball harder than most strikers could kick it.

For sheer variety of goals Shearer had a veritable selection box in his armoury. Tap-ins, penalties, long-range screamers, long-range headers, diving headers, volleys et al. What binds them together is he tended to hit the ball so hard, often first time, that if it didn't end up in the back of the net it would usually pitch up in A&E with concussion.

When Sir Alex Ferguson once said of a goal Shearer scored for England against Poland, "he hit it as if he meant to kill it," per The Guardian's Gregg Bakowski, he could have been describing the majority of the 422 he bagged over the course of his career. Unlike Pele, that number does not include goals scored in either training or on FIFA. 

Taking sentiment out of it, he played his best football at Blackburn. In 138 Premier League games he scored 112 goals. His first campaign at Ewood Park was restricted to just 21 appearances due to injury but still yielded 16 goals. It was a scoring rate that would prove prescient. Between 1993 and 1996, he scored 30 Premier League goals or more at Blackburn for three consecutive seasons.

The 148 league goals he scored for Newcastle in 303 league appearances is phenomenal by anyone's standard, but it still represents quite the drop off. When injuries took their toll, he adapted his game accordingly, as all good players do. He became the quintessential target man, despite not being particularly tall, as opposed to the all-action centre forward he was in his formative years.

Though he broke Newcastle's goalscoring record, only in four of his 10 seasons did he score over 20 league goals, with his highest return coming in his first season at St James' Park, when he managed 25.

What makes Shearer's career all the more remarkable is that it was one beset by serious injury. He suffered an anterior cruciate knee ligament injury at Blackburn, and then at Newcastle he damaged his ankle ligaments. On three separate occasions he missed half a season. Prior to losing a yard of pace, Shearer was as magnificent a specimen as England has ever produced. 

He first broke 20 league goals in 1993/94. The last time he did it was in 2003/04, a span of a remarkable 10 seasons. It is a measure of his longevity that Harry Kane, despite having scored 86 Premier League goals already at the age of 24, at a rate of 0.69 a match, would need to keep scoring at his current level into his mid-thirties to have any chance of matching Shearer's record of 260.

Souness on Shearer: "In my opinion, Alan Shearer is the greatest English centre-forward there has ever been without a shadow of a doubt; he's a very, very special player. He makes average balls into great balls. He's the scorer of every type of goal going."

Shearer on Shearer: "It doesn't matter that I didn't win a trophy because I did it my way and I lived the dream."

          

3. Eric Cantona

Eric Cantona scoring that chip against Sunderland that summed him up as both a man and player.
Eric Cantona scoring that chip against Sunderland that summed him up as both a man and player.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

It is often said Eric Cantona was the catalyst for Manchester United's dominance of English football under Sir Alex Ferguson. It does him a disservice.

The Frenchman, for better or worse, was the catalyst for English football as it is now, period. When he stuck out his chest and cocked his collar, the old First Division did likewise and the Premier League was born.

On the first Premier League weekend in August 1992, there were 13 non-British players. English football was essentially an elongated version of Peter Kay's garlic bread sketch. Then came Cantona.

From the moment he landed in England, each and every one of us became a seagull following his trawler. Pretty much single-handedly he made being a foreigner in Britain fashionable. In many ways, it was the exact opposite of how it is now.

Magnificently moody, it was if a French New Wave cinema star had pitched up in a quintessential British kitchen sink drama. As handsome as Jean-Paul Belmondo, he wore double denim, cowboy boots and sported an earring. In Leeds.

I was at his debut in English football. It was an inauspicious start as he came off the substitutes' bench as Leeds lost 2-0 at Oldham Athletic. Even as kid, I always remember how there seemed to be tenfold the amount of photographers at the game than usual. Each and every lens was trained on Cantona.

Without knowing too much about him, he still had magnetism impossible to resist. In 1992, it was still possible to exude a certain mystique given loading up the internet took longer than slow roasting a joint of meat. 

Even still, a reputation for being France's most infamous agent provocateur since Serge Gainsbourg preceded him. His list of clubs was almost as long as his rap sheet. At the last of those, Nimes, he had announced his retirement just 55 days earlier after being suspended for a month by the French Football Association for throwing the ball at a referee. It was subsequently extended to two when in his disciplinary hearing he walked up to each member of the committee individually to call them an idiot.

Michel Platini, along with Cantona's psychoanalyst, talked him out of hanging up boots he had once flung into the face of a team-mate at Montpellier and recommended moving to England.

He cost Leeds £900,000 and made 15 appearances in their championship-winning campaign. The Elland Road faithful took to him instantly, coining the "Ooh Aah Cantona" chant. His manager Howard Wilkinson, a gruff Yorkshire disciplinarian, found some of his idiosyncrasies less endearing.

Manchester United were eighth and without a title win in 25 years when Sir Alex Ferguson, probably closer to the sack than becoming a Sir back then, sanctioned surely the finest transfer in the history of the English game. For £1.2 million, Manchester United acquired a player who could have stepped straight from club's crest on to the field.

Great players in the past have been cowed by playing at Old Trafford. Cantona less asked the question of whether he was big enough for Manchester United, than if they were big enough for him.

"Collar turned up, back straight, chest struck out, Eric glided into the arena as if he owned the place," was Roy Keane's assessment, via the Daily Mail's Adam Shergold, of a man he would on occasion enjoy lengthy afternoon drinking sessions with. Apparently, Cantona drank champagne and never carried cash, like the Queen.

In Ferguson, Cantona found someone who would not just take an almost paternal interest in him, but treat him as an equal. Cantona is not alone in being an artist with authority issues. The Scot instantly recognised his genius and knew exactly how to harness it. Ferguson's greatest gift as a man-manager was not that he treated everyone the same, but everyone differently.

He trusted Cantona implicitly. The reward was four Premier League titles in his talisman's five years at Manchester United. Were it not for his kung-fu demonstration at Selhurst Park in 1995, chances are it would have been a clean sweep. He retired at 30 in 1997 with a year still to run on his contract. It's a measure of the respect Ferguson held for him that he gave the decision his reluctant blessing.

As hard as he was skilful, Cantona could do the lot. He was as happy taking kicks with his back to goal as he was dropping deep to orchestrate. Brutally brilliant, he had a poetic elegance to his play that managed to eschew overindulgence. In 185 games for United, he scored 82 goals. That's some record for a player anything but just a goalscorer.

The best came against Sunderland at Old Trafford in 1996. After pirouetting past two players on the halfway line and exchanging passes with Brian McClair, he executed a chip over Lionel Perez so outlandish it was borderline obnoxious.

When United eventually commission a statue of him at Old Trafford, as they surely will, it must be the pose he pulled in celebration immortalised in steel or clay. He stood on the spot as though allowing everyone to soak him in, the sun to which the rest of the earth orbits.

Cantona and Manchester, a match made in heaven. Overseen by the devil. 

Ferguson on Cantona: "Many people have justifiably acclaimed Cantona as a catalyst who had a crucial impact on our successes while he was at the club but nothing he did in matches meant more than the way he opened my eyes to the indispensability of practise. Practise makes players."

Cantona on Cantona: "I am not a man, I am Cantona."

         

4. Sergio Aguero

Sergio Aguero is now Manchester City's joint-top all-time leading goalscorer with Eric Brook. His goal on Saturday against Burnley was number 177 (130 with his right foot, 32 with left, 15 headers) for the club, equalling a record that had stood for 77 years.

He reached the milestone of 100 Premier League goals in 129 starts, 147 appearances in total, which is the second quickest behind Shearer. Aguero's goals per minute ratio, however, tops the lot of those to have reached a century.

A goal against Brighton & Hove Albion on the opening day of this season means he has scored against 30 of the 31 clubs he has played against in the Premier League. Bolton Wanderers are the only club to have kept him out entirely.

Over his six full seasons in Manchester, he averages 28.16 goals, with 30, 17, 28, 32, 29 and 33-goal hauls demonstrating unprecedented consistency. He was the Premier League Golden Boot winner in 2014/15.

To date this season, he has scored seven Premier League goals in 543 minutes of football, at an average of 78 minutes per goal, the best of any player with three or more goals. His career average of 0.69 goals per game is exactly the same as Kane's, 0.1 better than Henry's.

The five goals he scored against Newcastle United in October 2015 is the joint-highest in a single Premier League match and certainly came during the shortest period at a remarkable 23 minutes and 34 seconds.

He has top-scored in two Premier League title-winning sides (2011/12 and 2013/14) and has a couple of League Cup winners' medals to boot.

Apologies for being so matter of fact, it's just something is amiss. Digest those numbers for just a second and ponder how on earth Aguero has never been named in the PFA Team of the Season. He has never won the PFA Players' Player of the Year award, or the FWA's Player of the Year.

If Netflix are on the lookout for their next true crime series, look no further.

If he were just a goalscorer, such ambivalence would be more understandable. On a purely aesthetic level, though, he's a beautiful player to watch. He is one of few who when in possession draw from the crowd the unmistakable low hum of anticipation, whether voluntarily offered or otherwise.

Back in November last year, in a piece titled "Why Is Sergio Aguero So Criminally Underrated", I wrote:

"His role at Manchester City has always been more about playing between the whites of the posts. It's hard to think of a player who takes possession in a crowded penalty area so comfortably. The tighter the situation, the more he likes it. There's certainly no one better in England. He could dribble a football in an under-the-stairs cupboard that houses a vacuum cleaner and not touch the walls. 

"With a bow-legged gait, low centre of gravity, legs like a bison, the acceleration of a gazelle and an arse like a Kardashian, Aguero has often been compared to Brazil legend Romario."

There was definitely shades of Romario about his most important strike. Few would dispute Aguero was the scorer of the most iconic Premier League goal of them all, with his title-winning effort against Queens Park Rangers in the final seconds of the 2011/12 season forever stitched into English football's rich tapestry. 

Aguero has been just as big a catalyst for City's recent success in the Sheikh Mansour-era as Cantona was across the city during his half-decade in Manchester. In hindsight, maybe it's wrong to say he is underrated. It's less that than underappreciated. 

No one doubts his quality, it's just few seem moved to champion it. Numberswise, he trails his peers in only one category. His words-per-goal rate is significantly shy of the likes of Kane. 

Loved in Manchester, admired elsewhere. As epitaphs go, maybe it's one he has long-since made peace with.

Lampard on Aguero: "In terms of an out-and-out goal scorer and finisher, Aguero is the best I've played with."

Aguero on Aguero: "I like tricks; I like to dazzle. Dribbling and leaving your opponent on his backside is what life is for. If I achieve what I want to, then I'll mark a distinct era in football. I'm the Che Guevara of modern soccer."

           

=5. Honourable mentions to Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Dennis Bergkamp, Didier Drogba, Wayne Rooney, Robin Van Persie, Robbie Fowler, Andy Cole, Luis Suarez

           

All statistics provided by the official Premier League website or WhoScored.com unless otherwise stated