Manchester City have returned to their best results in recent weeks, this season’s new defensive solidity counterbalanced by their former offensive flair leading them a touching distance from the top of the Premier League.
Ilkay Gundogan played a key role in recovering their fortunes. The Germany international has been deployed in a more advanced midfielder role since the lackluster Manchester derby draw in December – and City and Gundogan have thrived as a result.
The midfielder has been absent for all of City’s horror shows this season: the 5-2 loss to Leicester, the loss to Tottenham, the terrible standoff with Manchester United. Pep Guardiola’s side have won only once without him this quarter – against Wolves on the opening day of the season.
In recent weeks, with the central defensive partnership of John Stones and Ruben Dias in full swing and Guardiola ready to sign more players forward in a less conservative 4-3-3 formation, Gundogan has truly thrived.
Now perfectly in shape after a Covid-19 layoff earlier in the season, he has scored five goals in his last seven Premier League games – more than he managed in all of last season. One more goal and he will have recorded a better career tally.
Two of his goals – the first against West Brom and Newcastle in December – were the result of intelligent and instinctive movement in and around the box.
Against the Baggies, Gundogan hovered over the edge of the box before stepping into the box, arriving late and completely undercover just as Raheem Sterling got to the signing. England chose Gundogan, who buried the ball in the net.
Against the Magpies he made three separate runs in and around the box before receiving the cut from Sterling: the first a dart run behind, the second a takeoff from the back post and the third he came short and came in. at home.
Gundogan’s two second Premier League goals this season have been absolutely stunning. The sublime one-touch corner-of-the-box turn and finish against Chelsea were improved a fortnight later as he dispossessed Andros Townsend on the edge of the Crystal Palace box and sent a fabulous curling effort into the top corner .
Those were two rare moments of title steal, victory quality for a man more adept at playing a slightly underrated role and making others look.
Having previously blossomed as Fernandinho’s midfielder – most notably during City’s run towards the end of their 2018/19 title campaign – he is now thriving as David Silva, occupying small pockets of ‘space, playing the signature, smart Guardiola passes and makes the best of the others.
“You can’t believe how good he is,” Guardiola said of Gundogan in October. “He is exceptional. He is one of the best rookies in the history of this club. ”