When Pep Guardiola choked back the tears in May and explained how “we cannot replace” Sergio Aguero, many fans did not realise how literal his emotional pronouncement would prove to be.
Of course, Manchester City’s all-time record goalscorer is an irreplaceable one-off for reasons beyond the number of times he stuck the ball in the back of the net.
But the Blues’ summer pursuit of Harry Kane fell short and, when they began the campaign without a recognised striker, there was understandable trepidation.
Fast forward three months and City are in the thick of a gripping title race, having claimed positive results at Anfield, Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford, while they won their Champions League Group with a game to spare.
All this has been accomplished thanks to a remarkable 16 players in the first-team squad weighing in with goals so far.
“Without it we would not even qualify for the Champions League,” Guardiola said of this incredible collective contribution ahead of Wednesday’s trip to Aston Villa.
“In the top league of scorers, we are not there. Mane, Salah and Jota – look at how many goals they score, we are not even in the best seven, eight or nine.
“We do it like this and everybody is involved, defending and attacking as a team, or we would not survive as a team.”
Gabriel Jesus can play as a striker but has been used on the City right wing this season
(Image: 2021 Getty Images)
But survive and thrive they do. Given January reinforcements upfront look unlikely, City’s top scorer this season will come from the squad already assembled.
But who will it be? We assessed the runners and riders.
City’s top scorer so far, with eight goals in all competitions. These efforts are particularly impressive given Mahrez has not been a regular starter in the Premier League. He is arguably the most reliable finisher in Guardiola’s squad and a surprise initial outing at false nine against West Ham on Sunday showcased another very useful string to Riyad’s ample bow.
City’s number nine, even if he rarely plays there nowadays. Once presumed to be Aguero’s heir, Jesus has rebuilt his form and confidence on the right-wing this term – inconveniencing Mahrez, although apparently not too much in terms of goals output. The Brazil international’s deliriously received winner against Paris Saint-Germain took him to five for the campaign, although his two Premier League strikes have come from chances with an expected goals (xG) value of 3.7 according to FBref, which amounts to the biggest underperformance in the City squad.
Despite a stop-start season due to a couple of irritating injuries, Foden has weighed in with his fair share. He is on five overall, averaging 0.48 goals per 90 minutes. A clinical equaliser in front of the Kop at Anfield showed there could be a very high ceiling for Foden the goalscorer, especially if he continues to feature predominantly in the front three.
Phil Foden leaves Aaron Wan-Bissaka in his wake during City’s dominant derby win over United at Old Trafford.
(Image: OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)
An offside flag against West Ham prevented Bernardo from scoring in a third consecutive Premier League game for the first time. That dink over Lukasz Fabianski was delicious and is the sort of thing we would love to see more often from a player with boundless technical prowess. Using a false nine means the onus is on City’s midfielders to break into the box and score goals. A tireless operator like Bernardo can use this to ease into double figures
He gave Mahrez a head start at the top of the charts but three goals in as many outings against Club Brugge, Everton and PSG got Raheem Sterling off and running. The England star relocating his scoring boots for the busiest period of the season could prove invaluable. Sterling’s 30-goal campaign in 2019/20 means he has breached ground that no one else in the squad has.
Raheem Sterling of Manchester City celebrates after scoring
(Image: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)
Last season’s surprise top scorer was at it again at the weekend, ghosting towards the six-yard box to break the deadlock against West Ham. That was only Gundogan’s third in 2021/22, suggesting last winter’s purple patch might have been a one-off, but his coolness in front of goal is something few others in Guardiola’s squad can match.
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Kevin De Bruyne
Injuries and now COVID-19 have frustrated De Bruyne’s attempts to locate his best form this season. He still has three goals in 10 starts and goalscoring is the one department where it has always felt like the masterful playmaker can do more. The superb performances of Bernardo, Gundogan and Rodri mean De Bruyne might be given a forward role more often, so don’t bet against him ending with an impressive tally.
Ferran started the season playing as a conventional centre-forward and won rave reviews before a broken metatarsal suffered on international duty with Spain. If Barcelona get their wish, his three goals in seven appearances for City this season will be his last. But the cash-strapped LaLiga giant’s ambitions of buying Ferran this winter still feel far-fetched and if he returns fit and firing in the new year he might underline why he is one of the most sought-after youngsters in Europe by out-scoring all his teammates.
Who do you think will finish the season as City’s top scorer? Follow our City Is Ours editor Dom Farrell on Twitter to get involved in the discussion and give us your thoughts in the comments section below.