Ilkay Gundogan: The unlikely spearhead of Man City’s title charge

Ilkay Gundogan: The unlikely spearhead of Man City’s title charge

In a Premier League title race which is beginning to look like Manchester City’s to lose, Pep Guardiola’s side have been challenged to find alternative solutions following the long-term absence of Sergio Aguero and the more recent injury to Kevin De Bruyne. İlkay Gündoğan has been the man to step up. 

Only two midfielders in the Premier League have scored more goals than İlkay Gündoğan this season – set-piece specialist Bruno Fernandes and the in-form Tomas Soucek. The German international also sits comfortably in the top ten for expected assists.

The former Borussia Dortmund man has been playing at Manchester City for nearly five years and has never been one of the star names, but this season, his rising standards make him the man leading the club’s charge for the title. 

 

 

After a tricky start to the season for Guardiola’s team, Gündoğan’s imperious form has coincided with City’s turnaround in fortunes. With nine victories in a row, the team are having to deal without talismanic striker Aguero, have spent long periods without second-choice striker Gabriel Jesus, and have recently lost De Bruyne for over a month.

It’s the No.8 that has responded and filled that void, scoring seven and assisting one in his last ten games – as many as in his previous 61 appearances combined. 

At 30-years-old Gündoğan is hitting his best form in a sky blue shirt. When the German first arrived at the club, City legends Yaya Toure and David Silva occupied the central midfield positions, and just as they began to play less significant roles, Fernandinho and Kevin De Bruyne’s fine form made them undroppable. Although Gündoğan was always valued – he has never been nailed-on first-choice. 

However, this season Gündoğan stands up against his peers. He has more goals than any other City midfielder this season. Only Rodri has achieved a higher pass completion rate or has made more passes into the final third.

The elegant midfielder has been involved in over four shot-creating actions per 90 minutes, bettered only by assist-king De Bruyne (6). Gündoğan is not just a good option for the squad anymore, he has cemented a key role for himself. 

Much of Gündoğan’s success this season could be accredited to his adjustment in position. Having played the majority of his Man City career as the defensive midfielder, in a double pivot, or as part of a midfield three, Gündoğan has rarely been permitted the attacking license he has this year.

In the system Guardiola has adopted in this impressive run, the inverted right-back Joao Cancelo moves inside when the team is in possession and forms a deep midfield two with Rodri. That means Gündoğan’s defensive responsibilities are limited and he plays a more advanced role as part of an offensive five.

His new starting position, high-up in the left half-space, is helping the German get into the opposition’s box more than he ever has during his time in the North-East, where he can exercise his greatest trait. His well-timed runs and ability to get on the end of things has never been more prevalent.

When Aguero undertook knee surgery in June, Guardiola was quizzed over who could fill the void at centre-forward. “We have Gabriel, Raheem Sterling can play in this position, İlkay Gündoğan can play in this position, Bernardo Silva can play in this position. We have different options – not like a striker, striker but we can use them,” the Catalan coach replied.

The manager’s mooting of Gündoğan up-front originally drew confusion, but it is starting to make much more sense. Despite having spent the majority of his career as a true central midfielder when he gets near the box, he behaves like a ruthless striker. 

Attacking the wide edges of the box and driving to the by-line for cut-backs has been a mainstay in Guardiola’s football since he arrived at City. That is why an instinctive and intelligent goal-scoring midfielder like Gündoğan excels. His goal against West Brom in the 1-1 draw at the Etihad, and his constant threat in the 3-1 win over Chelsea all came from attacking the cut-backs. 

On Wednesday evening against Burnley, although Gündoğan didn’t get his customary goal – he dominated the play, exhibiting his skill-set outside of just his recent goal-scoring exploits by putting on an exemplary midfield performance.

In the first-half, when he did get into the box and in-behind the Claret’s defence, he fired the ball across goal to assist Raheem Sterling and double City’s lead. In the highlight of the second-half, Gündoğan won the ball centrally and delivered a defence-splitting pass to send Sterling through on goal. It was a ball comparable to what De Bruyne produces for City frequently, and revealed yet another string to the German’s bow.   

With De Bruyne’s return not imminent, and Aguero’s availability looking increasingly unreliable, Gündoğan’s importance to Man City looks set to grow even further this season. Gabriel Jesus has failed to score with the same efficiency as Aguero has done in times gone by, so goals from midfield will be essential in City’s title tilt. As the joint-second top goalscorer in the team, the importance of his role can not be understated. 

When discussing the players of the season so far, it would be harsh to ignore Gündoğan. After years of playing second fiddle to the star names scattered across the City midfield, the 2020/21 season looks like it could be his time to grab the headlines and drive his team to Premier League success.

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