28 years old.
Born in South America.
Atlético Madrid starlets.
Big money moves to the Premier League.
A propensity to score A LOT of goals
There are a laundry list of things that Sergio ‘Kun’ Agüero and Diego ‘Beast’ Costa have in common, not the least of which is their ability in and around the penalty box.
As two of the most lethal strikers in the Premier League, and the world for that matter, whenever Chelsea and Manchester City get together to do battle, the focus is inevitably shifted towards these two mercurial strikers, and currently being tied for the lead in goals in the league at 10 a piece only increases the intensity of the spotlight.
How can anyone think (the other team’s player) is better than (my team’s player)?!
Well... quite easily, in fact.
Both players are all-around quality strikers who contribute greatly to their respective teams' success in a multitude of ways. They are not one-trick ponies *cough* Giroud *cough*, but rather true footballers who contribute to their squads' play in a variety of ways.
So instead of just arguing about who is better (Agüero), let’s take a closer look at how these two achieve their success, and how we apply it to this weekend’s monumental matchup.
By looking at the specific in-game contributions of each we can get a good idea of how each team is trying to play through their respective strikers, and to what extent they are having success.
We will see that both go about taking care of the same job with very different approaches, but even more similar results.
EXPECTATIONS ON THE PITCH
Lucky for us, both City and Chelsea have consistently played similar formations in the attacking end, including their striker’s responsibilities, so tactics won’t skew statistics unfavorably for either one.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at the comparison of their areas of influence versus the same opponent, West Ham United. Both teams expect their front man to stay high and connect with midfielders both wide and centrally.
The midfield make up is similar as well, with each team packing serious punching power (De Bruyne/Silva for City and Hazard/Pedro for Chelsea) making overlapping runs and feeding their forwards.
Additionally, both the Citizens and Blues are anchored by STRONG holding midfielders (Kanté/Fernandinho), giving each squad a truly enviable balance.
Both strikers are tasked with providing an outlet for the backs and midfielders, hold the ball up to combine with runners, and finally, get in the box to finish off the move with a goal.
Taking a look at how each completed this task against Swansea City (against whom both scored a brace) we see how effective they both are at providing a middle-third outlet for teammates under pressure in the back.
Against Swansea, both Costa and Agüero found their teammates 8 times, though Costa included a few more errant balls. Both players were able to come back effectively into the middle third to combine with their teammates and bring the team forward.
It is in the attacking third against the Swans where we start to see cleavages in the two player’s games. First, Costa’s passing percentage is less than 50% (8/18), while Agüero connected on twice as many passes in the same amount of chances (16/18).
This doesn’t necessarily mean Costa is a poor passer, but as you can see, often looks to play longer passes than Agüero. In fact, this season, Costa’s average pass length is over two yards longer than Agüero’s.
So where are those longer passes going?
Well, simply put, Costa has a propensity to play his passes to the widest available player in Chelsea’s back-three formation, thus explaining his extended pass length. This distribution pattern also allows Costa to have time to situate himself appropriately for the late run into the box for impending crosses, perfectly suited to the aerial and poaching talents of a player known affectionately as ‘Beast’.
Agüero, on the other hand, was far more diverse in the distribution of his passes. Playing in the channels outside of the center-backs he found overlapping runs, and he also effectively got to the end line himself and pulled the ball back. Vastly different in his approach in the final third than his rival Costa.
Finally, looking right at the top of the 18, we see Agüero combining a number of small passes together, while Costa’s presence in the same area is far less apparent.
This is not an aberration.
When you compare these two’s passing performances in the final third against Middlesbrough, the same pattern appears, with Costa getting on the ball even more than against the Swans, and sending it wide just as often.
Agüero, on the other hand, uses shorter combination passing in the middle of the pitch to create enough space for himself to finish outside the box, make a run in himself, or setup the midfielders making runs past him.
These two snipers understand that if they are to get any chances on goal, they will have to contribute by helping the team bring the ball up the pitch.
In this regard, they are strikingly similar. So far this season, their contribution to the possession game of their respective teams is almost identical, with each averaging approximately 25 passes per game.
The piece of the build-up play, though, is creating chances with those passes.
So how have they fared in making chances for themselves and others?
While tied on 10 goals, Costa has chipped in with four assists while Agüero has yet to get off the mark in that area. Additionally, Costa bests Kun in key passes.
Putting that info together, one would deduce that Costa has been a better teammate in the final third, but a closer look shifts the balance back in Agüero’s direction.
First, the Argentine is getting off almost two more shots per game that Costa, which makes sense given his propensity for combination play in and around the box, versus Costa tendency to look to wide areas. Additionally, Agüero is renowned for his ability to get off effective shots in very tight spaces, lowering his number of passes per game. Finally, Agüero beats Costa in dribbles per game, neutralizing Costa’s edge in key passes.
Just like those passes, Agüero’s dribbles beat a line of defense and put a team in a dangerous area. Add in the fact that Costa is dispossessed and takes more poor touches per game that Agüero and the diminutive Argentine’s lack of assists makes sense. He doesn’t lose the ball as often, and shoots more when he has it.
Okay, so that’s how they contribute to the attack, but what about finishing it off with a goal? Well, there are few in the world that are better than these two.
As noted, Agüero is getting off more shots per game, but where are those shots coming from and are they effective?
Using their respective matchups with Swansea and Middlesborough as a guide, we get confirmation of their contrasting styles.
Agüero’s shooting pattern reflects his tendency towards shorter, tighter combination play in around the top of the box. In these two games, he got off 12 shots, with six of those being on target, and three finding the back of the net.
His shot chart shows his willingness to shoot from anywhere, and being effective while doing so. But it isn’t just his long range shooting that defines Agüero. As we can see against Middlesborough, his goal came when he finished off a quality team move with a close range finish.
Earlier hypotheses are confirmed when Costa’s shots in the same match ups are scrutinized.
He scored the same amount of goals as Agüero in the two games, but on four fewer shots than the City striker.
As we would expect to see, five of Costa’s eight attempts came from within 8 yards. His only two attempts from outside the box were blocked (further proof of Agüero’s edge in creating space for his own shot) and only found the target from beyond the penalty spot once, albeit to his credit, for a goal.
So now that we have a pretty good idea of how each one of these star strikers have found their way to the top of the scoring charts, we are left to ponder the implications for this weekend’s huge match up.
For Manchester City, stopping Costa poses a number of challenges.
First, can City shut down service to Costa and force Chelsea to alter their pattern of play? Fernandinho will be tasked with cutting off the passing lanes into the big Blues striker, but will also be keeping an eye on Eden Hazard, Pedro and the other attacking midfielders.
Second, if they aren’t able to stop Costa from getting on the ball, can they force him to play back into the deep midfielders, Kanté and Matic, as opposed to the wide areas, where Chelsea are so dangerous?
How the City center-back duo of Otamendi and John Stones (maybe Kolarov?) deal with the initial ball into Costa is only half of the story. Assuming he is able to get on the ball and find a teammate, can they pick him up as he makes his late runs into the box, which as we saw earlier were his bread and butter? Or can Gaël Clichy, Bacary Sagna and the other full-backs negate the threat by preventing Chelsea wing-backs, Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso, from getting off service when they do have the ball?
With these threats, it will be interesting to see if City pair Fernandihno with another big body like Yaya Touré, more of a box-to-box #8 like Ilkay Gundogan, or goes with a more fleet-footed deep playmaker like David Silva. The ability to keep Costa off the ball should be the biggest concern for Pep Guardiola.
Can City answer the call? I certainly think so.
One the other end of the pitch, Chelsea’s defensive system, anchored centrally by David Luiz, will try and prevent Agüero from combining around the top of the box. While Luiz is not known for his defensive commitment, Chelsea have only allowed a single Tottenham Hotspur goal in the seven Premier League matches since switching to a three-man back line.
If Chelsea are able to keep Agüero out of central positions, can he make the dangerous runs into the channels outside of the wider center-backs and force them to play him face up? This will be especially important on the counter when Chelsea’s wing-backs have bombed forward.
City fans mouths are watering at the prospect of Agüero running at Gary Cahill, and even when the English defender is in good positions, using overlapping runs from central midfielders to create the tiny space Agüero needs to get his shot off.
This is where Kanté and Matic will be so crucial for Chelsea. They must make sure that Agüero’s passing lanes are closed off and he is closely tracked, even when Chelsea have the ball.
If they don’t, Agüero will have a field day.
Both of these strikers are going to be a handful when these two sides take the pitch this weekend. Each has a variety of skills from which to choose, and have proven themselves ruthless in the box. If their respective teams are to have any success their forwards must be the focus.
I believe that Costa’s propensity to get revved up and lose tactical discipline during matches when he is not involved in the play early in the game will be exploited by Pep.
I expect City to sit deep at times, preventing Costa from getting involved in Chelsea's passing patterns, and drawing the wing-backs forward for the flat balls from deep midfielders to create space for the counter. Antonio Conte will counter by crowding the middle of the pitch and trusting his midfielders to cut out passes when Agüero floats out wide.
I expect to see City's attacking midfielders having space out wide to exploit. It is imperative that City’s full-backs get involved in the attack while still denying the Blues wing-backs proper space to get off crosses into Costa.
I think that City’s willingness to be flexible in formation and tactics will prove fortuitous, Costa will be able to have mild success against Stones, and I expect both players to find the back of the net. Whoever can do it more often Saturday will find their team celebrating a big three points.