After 73 minutes of the convincing opening day win at Newcastle United, Manuel Pellegrini replaced Stevan Jovetic with Sergio Agüero for Manchester City. The lethal Argentinian went on to claim the second goal in a 2-0 victory, and provided a snapshot of why Pellegrini believes his quartet of strikers are the division’s best – and why Brendan Rodgers has gambled on Mario Balotelli.
As Liverpool arrive at the Etihad Stadium for Monday evening’s early season showdown a spotlight is shone on the old truism that goals win games.
At St James’s Park Pellegrini could trade a £22m striker in Jovetic for Agüero, a £38m operator who played in the 2014 World Cup final and who managed 17 goals in only 23 Premier League appearances of last term’s injury-truncated season.
With Edin Dzeko (cost, £27m) and the currently injured Álvaro Negredo (£21m), Pellegrini has an embarrassment of forward riches as each week he perms two from the fab four for the double-pronged attack in his preferred 4-2-2-2.
After Luis Suárez’s departure for Barcelona and the collapse of an £8m move for Loïc Rémy due to a failed medical, Rodgers had to start the campaign with only one elite man, Daniel Sturridge, who was a bargain £12m, with the comparative journeyman and £4m signing, Rickie Lambert, the manager’s sole other option.
This is why the £16m Milan want for Balotelli seems too good for Rodgers to turn down despite the 24-year-old’s “individual” character. The manager hopes he is signing the Super Mario of muscle and pace and ruthless finishing that makes him an ideal lone gunslinger in Rodgers’s 4-2-3-1 who can help fill the void left by Suárez.
What Rodgers does not need is the Balotelli who, when previously at City, had fireworks let off in his bathroom, and who got infamously embroiled in a training ground spat with his manager, Roberto Mancini, in January last year.
While Balotelli was not signed in time to face his old club on Monday evening, last season’s numbers for the strikers each manager has at his disposal for the encounter – and the rest of the season – tell their own tale.
Agüero’s 17 goals came at the supreme elite-level rate one for every 90 minutes. Dzeko’s 17 in 31 league appearances were at an average of one per 124 minutes. Negredo, who fell away disappointingly from late January onwards in his debut City season, ended with nine in 31 at a rate of 192 minutes for each time he scored. Jovetic, who endured an injury nightmare in his first City campaign, still managed a better hit-rate than Negredo or Dzeko, his three in 13 appearances coming at 120 minutes per goal.
For Liverpool, Sturridge’s superb 21 in 29 outings were still at an inferior rate to Agüero’s, as the England man required 108 minutes for each of these, while Lambert’s 13 in 37 appearances is the poorest ratio of all, requiring 217 minutes per goal. For Milan in last year’s Serie A campaign, Balotelli scored 14 in 30 appearances at a strike rate of one every 163 minutes.
As much as Suárez would have relished facing City on their own patch, his loss deprives Rodgers of his talisman and a marksman who last term returned 31 in 33 games, though at 96 minutes for each finish is again behind Agüero’s ratio.
Pellegrini’s biggest feat has been to finally transform Dzeko into a consistent force, more than three years after he arrived in January 2011. These days the City manager writes the Bosnian’s name down as one of the first on the team sheet.
Pellegrini’s explanation of why Dzeko has flowered under him is illuminating: “Because Edin has convinced himself that he can’t wait as a striker just to score one goal,” says the manager. “He has to play for 95 minutes every game, not always scoring but working for the team and making the movements. I think he is one of the players who has improved most in his attitude in the game.”
Last term Dzeko dislodged Negredo after the Spaniard’s barnstorming early-season form that grabbed him nine goals in the first 20 outings of his Premier League career. Dzeko’s answer was to register vital strikes in the final stages of City’s title-winning charge to end with 16 goals in 31 appearances, 11 of these coming after Negredo’s last in any competition, the two he collected at West Ham United on 21 January in a Capital One Cup tie.
Dzeko’s reward was to sign a new four-year deal last week. Pellegrini says: “Yes, very pleased because I think that Edin is a very important player for our squad, he is playing very well and so he deserved to renew his contract with the club.”
Jovetic may start against Liverpool as Pellegrini hints that Agüero may require more time to attain match fitness after the World Cup. The 24-year-old once scored twice against Liverpool for Fiorentina to knock them out of the 2009-10 Champions League. While this moved Rafael Benitez to want to sign him for the Merseysiders, Pellegrini says: “I think Stevan is playing very well. He is in a very good moment with us and I hope he will continue in the same way because he is a very important and very good player for us. He has a lot of movement and if you review what happened last season every time he went from the bench on the pitch he always scored. He is a very good finisher and we will see the real Stevan Jovetic this season.”