Ilkay Gundogan was not the obvious or most exciting answer to the question of how Manchester City would replace their midfield talisman David Silva, but after doing that he has now turned into their new Sergio Aguero too.
The versatile Germany international has stepped into Silva’s silky shoes to set the tempo for Pep Guardiola’s side since the Spaniard left last summer and, even more surprisingly, he has also borrowed Aguero’s shooting boots to help fire City to the top of the Premier League.
Previously, the 30-year-old had not managed more than six league goals in a single season, either with City or back in the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund or Nuremberg, but his two goals in Tuesday’s thumping win over West Brom mean he has hit seven in his past eight league appearances.
Where have his goals come from? “I don’t know to be honest, there is not really a secret,” Gundogan said at full-time.
“We try to be a bit flexible [with our positions], especially when we see our centre-backs or holding midfielder building up and, if the player has the time and the space to put in the right ball, we try to make movements – which is exactly how we scored our first goal here.
“I just try to be in the right spaces at the right moment. I have played the past few weeks in a bit more offensive role and, if I get the chance close to the opponent’s box, then I try to be there and try to take the right decisions.”
‘Gundo is a guy with an incredible sense of goal’
Gundogan’s goal rush has coincided with City’s rise to the summit on the back of seven straight league wins, and 11 in a row in all competitions, scoring 30 goals in the process.
He is not the only reason Guardiola’s side have brushed aside the continuing absence of Aguero, their all-time top scorer, to hit form in such devastating fashion, but he has certainly played a big part with some key contributions – four of his goals have been City’s first of a game.
There have been a variety of finishes too, from the spectacular – like his sumptuous strikes from the edge of the box against the Baggies and Crystal Palace – to proper poachers’ efforts like his close-range finish from a Raheem Sterling cut-back against Newcastle.
That goal was an example of how much further forward he is getting these days, in a new advanced role, to have more shots per game than ever before since he arrived at Etihad Stadium for £20m from Borussia Dortmund as Guardiola’s first signing in June 2016. He is also making them count.
“Gundo is a guy who has an incredible sense of goal,” Guardiola explained after his side’s stylish win at The Hawthorns.
“It is not just knowing the right time to arrive at the box, it is the right second. This is the most difficult thing – not to arrive one metre before, or one metre later, but at exactly the right time, and Gundo has this sense.
“And it’s not just that – with his finishing too he has this way to control the ball, slow down and take a second to compose himself and see what happens, and be clinical.”
From stop-gap to main man
The problem for Gundogan in the past has been finding a place in the team, but not any more.
“He’s under-rated but it’s always been difficult for him at City because of the players ahead of him,” says former City defender Micah Richards. “Sometimes he has just had to fill in where he could, often just instead of Fernandinho or Rodri.
“But he always had a lot more to his game than just being a holding midfielder and now he is showing it.
“He can score goals, he can create goals, and if you look at the timing of his runs into the box, he is very intelligent as well – and he is a team player.
“I’ve been critical of Rodri in the past because sometimes it feels like he doesn’t make that killer pass forward – it almost goes side to side – but Gundogan affects the game with passes and goals, so no wonder Pep loves him.”
A ‘safety-first’ pick? Not any more
Rather than goalscoring, it is the balance and discipline that Gundogan brings to the team that remain his best attributes, however. They have always been appreciated by his manager, but sometimes less so by City’s supporters.
Gundogan, who suffered a serious knee injury early in his City career and was sidelined by Covid-19 at the start of this season, has now played 185 games for the club.
He is clearly trusted by Guardiola, who called him “an incredible player and incredible human” after December’s win over Newcastle, explaining “he gives us the right tempo”, but he has spent much of the past four years seen as something of a back-up plan by his side’s fans.
That might sound unfair, but then City’s first-choice midfield for most of that period was Fernandinho, David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne so it is not too much of a slur for anyone to have been viewed as an unfavourable option to any of them.
Gundogan has always been able to play across midfield but because he could ably replace Fernandinho or, later, Rodri in the holding position, seeing his name on the team-sheet suggested a more conservative approach by Guardiola, no matter what role he was being asked to fill.
He first got that tag of being a safety-first pick when he was surprisingly preferred to Sterling for City’s 3-0 defeat by Liverpool at Anfield in the first leg of their Champions League defeat in 2018. It persisted when he was played ahead of Leroy Sane and De Bruyne at the same stage in Europe in 2019 and City lost at Tottenham.
This run of form should end any such negative perceptions for good – and also allay any fears about the impact De Bruyne’s absence will have on City’s attacking output in the next few weeks. On this evidence, Gundogan is capable of replacing him too.
“First of all I am so happy about Gundo’s performances – but also the recognition that he is starting to have,” Guardiola added. “We are more delighted with what he is doing but not just this moment of time.
“In 2018-19, when we won our second Premier League title in a row, he played holding midfielder when Fernandinho was injured and he did incredibly well.
“The first season he had an ACL [anterior cruciate injury] and we missed him a lot, but since then we have seen his performances like this and also his personality – on the biggest stages, the personality he plays with is outstanding.”