Is Ilkay Gundogan Manchester City’s unsung hero?

If Manchester City go on to win the Premier League title this season, Kevin de Bruyne will likely be hailed as the player to drive them there. The Belgian is, after all, the most influential player at the Etihad Stadium. The player who best embodies Pep Guardiola’s ideas and methods. De Bruyne might even be the best player in the country right now and is recognised as one of the best Premier League midfielders of all time. And yet the contribution of Ilkay Gundogan to City’s recent resurgence has also been of great note. The German is often overlooked at the Etihad Stadium, but it’s been difficult to ignore his performances of late. Behind de Bruyne, Gundogan might well be Manchester City’s player of the season so far.

Most commonly used as a double pivot over the course of his City career, Guardiola has more recently pushed Gundogan higher up the pitch. This is reflected in the German’s tally of six goals for the season with one of his best performances of the 2020/21 campaign coming in the 3-1 away win over Chelsea in early January.

This was a performance and a result that signified the changes Manchester City have made as a whole in recent weeks. Their struggles of the early part of the season have been left behind as Guardiola has systematically addressed certain areas of his team. First, he restructured City’s defence. Then he rebuilt the City with Gundogan a key part of the solution.

On the left side of a midfield three, Ilkay Gundogan is now afforded more freedom to burst forward. At times, he is even the furthest forward City player, breaking beyond de Bruyne, Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva. Gundogan has long been renowned for his intelligent movement and awareness of space, but now Guardiola is using this to open up opposition defences.

“To be honest, in the last few games where I scored, I played more of a number eight than a number six,” Gundogan himself explained earlier in the season. “Before that, I played more of a holding midfielder role together with Rodri. It is different and every position needs a little bit of adaptation. I think I am a player that can adapt quickly and well into a system and the manager knows I am quite flexible.”

Of course, necessity has played a role in Guardiola moving Gundogan further forward. The injuries suffered by both Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus have forced City find other ways to construct attacks. While they could still use an orthodox number nine to finish opportunities in the penalty box, City are more fluid and interchangeable in the final third than they have ever been under Guardiola.

“You cannot believe how good he is,” Guardiola gushed after a particularly impressive performance by Gundogan in the Champions League earlier in the season. “He is exceptional. He is one of the best signings in this club’s history.”

The freedom to break forward which Ilkay Gundogan is enjoying this season depends on the protection provided by Fernandinho or Rodrigo behind him in the role of midfield anchor. Without that safety net, City would be left exposed through the centre of the pitch. In this sense, deploying Gundogan in a more attacking position comes with significant risk attached.

As long as there is a player capable of covering the area in front of the back four in City’s team, though, Ilkay Gundogan can thrive in his new role. Whether or not this is Guardiola’s long-term plan for his side, or just a short-term solution to make up for problems and absent, unfit players elsewhere, is unclear, but for the time being his German maestro is proving himself in a new way. With Kevin de Bruyne picking up an injury against Aston Villa, Pep Guardiola will turn to Gundogan to continue City’s good form.

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