Ilkay Gündogan, despite not playing against Everton on Wednesday, remains Manchester City’s top scorer this season, with eleven goals. Huge credit must go to the revitalised German, whose performances, most notably against Tottenham and Liverpool, have been superb. But the renaissance of both Gündogan and City finds its chief inspiration in Pep Guardiola.
To venerate Guardiola’s ability is wildly uncontroversial, but with criticism surrounding his tenure at the start of the season and doubts over the sustainability of his success, it is certainly worth slamming claims he is a “fraud” and reinforcing just how good he is.
Gündogan, as clinical as he has been, has found himself the beneficiary of a perfectly functioning tactical machine in the past month and a half. Defensively, City have been magnificent, conceding 0.63 goals per game.
John Stones has been transformed by the excellent signing of Ruben Dias and City look as formidable off the ball as they do on it as a result. Joao Cancelo, being encouraged to wonder into midfield when City go forward, has had his potential maximised by Guardiola, his flexibility encapsulating the essence of this most malleable of sides.
Rodri, perhaps the next “unsung hero” that pundits will look to gain some individuality through, has taken up Gündogan’s former holding role, spraying passes and sitting in. With Cancelo and Rodri roaming around in behind, Gündogan has ventured into an unconventional number 10 role, becoming City’s focal point in the absence of Agüero and any real potency from Gabriel Jesus.
Eight of Gündogan’s nine Premier League goals from open play have been inside the box this season, evidencing his new-found enjoyment of wondering into goal-scoring positions high up the pitch.
Interviewed after winning January player of the month, Gündogan said “We try to be a bit flexible…I just try to be in the right spaces at the right moment.” It is this that has precipitated Gündogan’s 7.0 expected goals this season, the midfielder’s “incredible sense of goal” – in Pep’s words – that has allowed him to score eleven.
Pivotal also has been the form and man-management of Bernardo Silva and Phil Foden, the former briefly falling out of favour before being backed by Pep publicly and privately, the latter seemingly the Catalan’s personal project that is yielding striking results.
Silva and Foden have been direct, offering width and subsequent space for Gündogan to drive into, providing him with accurate crosses and cute lay-offs to knock in. Guardiola also seems to be getting the best out of Mahrez, a bit-part player on his arrival at City, who is becoming multi-dimensional and devastatingly clinical.
Of course, missing Kevin de Bruyne left a hole, but City quickly adapted, Gündogan making his absence all but unfelt. It is this ability to adapt that has made City such a joy to watch in the past seventeen games. Even without Gündogan at Everton, they showed no signs of slowing.
Earlier in the season, the players had to acclimatise to a more conservative method of pressing. Questions arose of their intensity and desire, laughable notions now. The likes of Cancelo and Zinchenko have had to familiarise themselves with receiving the ball out of position, coming in off the flanks and oozing into midfield.
Pep himself has had to adapt to a slightly new-look side, to the lack of a fully fit striker and to pressure from challengers around him. He has done so with aplomb.
Gündogan’s form has attracted some reflection from football fans, doubting their own knowledge of the German’s talent. Questions over his potential were fair enough given a slow start after injury at City.
But, after a period of adapting to Klopp’s vigorous pressing system at Dortmund, he became indispensable, CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke addressing Barcelona rumours in 2013 by stating “We won’t sell Ilkay for any price in the world.”
City would probably say the same thing now, with Gündogan embodying the side’s admirable ability to adapt and thrive within fixtures affected by COVID and fatigue, playing a brand of football that at the moment is more consistent and productive than any other team in Europe.
Although special mention must go to Gündogan, he has been a ruthless executor of Guardiola’s master plan. As Mourinho’s problems snowball at Tottenham and Liverpool show their vulnerability in the League, his is a model for overcoming adversity and reversing fortunes in an era where such is so difficult.
In his fifth season at the club, his transformation of the side rubbishes suggestions he can only manage the best of the best. Should City’s form continue towards Premier League triumph, it would surely represent his greatest managerial achievement and ram home his status as the world’s foremost footballing tactician.
Image: petr.pavel via Flickr