BEFORE the turn of the year, there was a chaotic feel to the 2020-21 Premier League season. As each week threw up a new leader and a fresh fallen contender, the uncertainty spawned by the coronavirus pandemic – with closed stadiums, mass testing and girded transfer spending – was reflected in the title race.
Now, though, with the campaign almost two-thirds complete, there is a familiar sense of inevitability at the top end of the table. Manchester City’s stunning 4-1 win over Liverpool at Anfield last weekend took them five points clear of second-placed Manchester United, having played one game fewer than their cross-city rivals.
In their current form, it’s difficult to picture anyone stopping Pep Guardiola’s side from claiming a third title in four years, and no player has been more pivotal to their surge to top spot than Ilkay Gundogan.
Gundogan was signed from Borussia Dortmund for around £20m in the summer of 2016, the first arrival of the Guardiola era, and the German midfielder has always been a dependable and valued member of the City squad for his versatility and technical quality. But he has been producing at a level of late that exceeds anything he’s previously shown, even ensuring Kevin De Bruyne’s recent absence has barely registered.
After overcoming a first-half penalty miss to register a brace against Liverpool last time out, Gundogan took his Premier League goals tally for the season to nine, all of which coming in his last 11 appearances. In the time since that run began, on 15 December, no other player in England’s top flight has scored more than six.
Injuries have prevented Gundogan from sooner establishing himself as one of City’s very best players, but so too, it could be argued, has his ability to slot into a number of roles. Comfortable in almost any position within the midfield, the 30-year-old has often been deployed either as a defensive midfielder or in a conservative No.8 role, with greater attacking freedom afforded to colleagues such as De Bruyne, David Silva and Bernardo Silva.
This season, though, with City’s defence shored up by the addition of Ruben Dias and Rodri settling into the holding role at the base of midfield, Gundogan has been able to better express his attacking talents.
His ability to break forward into scoring positions is evidenced by the fact his average for expected goals per 90 minutes in the Premier League this season has more than doubled compared to last term – up to 0.41 from 0.2.
Likewise, given greater responsibility for finding chance-creating passes in the final third, he is flourishing as a creative force, his expected assists per 90 jumping up to 0.23 from last season’s 0.12.
"He is taking them from better areas and better positions and getting in the box more"@Carra23 breaks down İlkay Gündoğan's role in the Manchester City side as he has chipped in with 9 goals since December 15
But Carra can't say his name right just yet! pic.twitter.com/Mtwjb1zXaw
— Football Daily (@footballdaily) February 8, 2021
Among last Sunday’s opponents, Gundogan counts one of his keenest admirers. Jurgen Klopp coached the 42-cap Germany midfielder with Dortmund and, having seen his vast abilities up close, is not surprised by the City star’s recent form.
“Ilkay was one of the best players I ever coached,” the Liverpool manager said ahead of the Anfield game. “He was a very young player when he came from Nuremberg to Dortmund, and especially in the 2012 season he was unbelievable. And he played then pretty much like he’s playing now.
“He had unfortunately some injuries, really tough injuries, but that’s now all sorted. This is the longest period he’s been able to play without being interrupted and I wish that can continue for a long time.
“He has always been this player. And when you are experienced and smart, then that’s another jump you can make on your performance level. I’m not surprised at all.”
His scoring form will likely level off somewhat before the season ends, but if the overall quality of his performances holds steady and he remains key to City’s title charge, Gundogan will be a frontrunner in Player of the Year discussions. At 30 years of age and after an injury-plagued career, Gundogan having at last fulfilled his vast potential is a satisfying sight even for non-City supporters.
And Guardiola has always understood the magnificent midfielder’s ability.
“You cannot believe how good he is,” Guardiola said in 2019, after a 2-0 win over Dinamo Zagreb in the Champions League. “He is an exceptional player who can play in different positions. I missed him a lot in my first year here; after a few months he had an ACL injury. We missed him a lot.
“He is an exceptional player, one of the best signings this club has done in its history.”