With Manchester City sat top of the Premier League table after 10 games, it’s clear Manuel Pellegrini has revived his squad of players after a disappointing 2014/15 season.
They haven’t received the recognition they deserve for coping without injured players. City’s list of casualties has been long and constant, with David Silva and Sergio Aguero their most notable absentees. Vincent Kompany, Pablo Zabaleta and Gael Clichy—three quarters of their first-choice back four—have also missed large parts of the campaign. It's hurt City and disrupted their form.
Aguero is arguably the biggest loss. Silva is the most important player in the City squad, the man charged with dictating play and conducting attacks, but the Blues are blessed with an array of potential No. 10s who can, in some way, replace his talents. Kevin De Bruyne, Yaya Toure and Samir Nasri, when fit, are all capable deputies.
But when Aguero is out, as he is at present having suffered a hamstring injury during the recent round of international matches, no one in Pellegrini’s pack of players can replace his pace, movement and, most crucially, his thirst for goals.
In truth, though, his start to this campaign had been patchy before his most recent setback. A 30-minute period of absolute brilliance against Chelsea and a 22-minute purple patch against Newcastle aside, it’s been a below-par start to the season for the Argentinian.
He scored against Jose Mourinho’s side and ran them ragged during the first half, but then came a five-match run without a goal. He was struggling for movement and confidence in front of goal—two things he very rarely lacks.
The drought was brought to an end when he scored a penalty in the League Cup game with Sunderland, but once again he looked a different player to the one who finished as the Premier League’s top scorer last season. There was growing concern. Was he lacking fitness? Perhaps he was tired after a gruelling 18-month club and international calendar? Whatever the reason, City desperately needed him back to his best.
The 4-1 defeat to Tottenham represented his nadir, a performance bereft of any of his usual qualities. Against Borussia Monchengladbach he worked tirelessly, winning and scoring the last-gasp penalty that sealed a vital three points. Yet he had once again looked rusty in front of goal, lacking instinctiveness and sharpness in the area.
But then, for 22 minutes against Newcastle, everything clicked, and he scored five goals that almost singlehandedly destroyed a side that had played well for much of the game. A tap-in that couldn't be missed got the ball rolling, but as the goals went in, their quality increased. A beautiful chip over the goalkeeper for his third and a powerful, bending drive into the bottom corner for his fourth were Aguero at his very best.
But that was the last City have seen of him. A hamstring injury sustained in Argentina's 2-0 defeat to Ecuador has City, once again, paying a harsh price for their player's involvement in international football.
Aguero can often take some time after injury to get fully up to speed and back to his best. City will be hoping this time is different. In Wilfried Bony, they have a replacement yet to show he can lead the line for a side with ambitions on the scale City have.
Bony has shown flashes of genuine quality—a superb touch, vision and ability to hold the ball up. But those moments have also been punctuated by too many inept periods where he offers little. His time at City has been complicated by illness and injury, and to write him off now would be harsh, but, clearly, Aguero remains City's key striker.
They need him back. With over a quarter of the season already up, the league is beginning to settle down and take some shape. Arsenal and Manchester United look ready to go the distance, and City cannot afford to be without their goalscorer for too long during the season.
Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and will be following the club from a Manchester base throughout the 2015/16 season. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow him on Twitter @RobPollard_.