“We need more players to arrive in the box,” Pep Guardiola told his Manchester City players at the start of last month.
Those anxious words came just before the Chelsea match after City had fired a blank in a debilitating Manchester derby and failed to clinch victory over relegation-threatened West Brom. And there was one player, in particular, who had his ears pricked up ahead of the Stamford Bridge showdown.
Ilkay Gundogan broke the deadlock against the Blues to ring in the new year, opening the floodgates in a 3-1 win. The German has since taken that scoring streak to new heights, recently bagging a brace in a comprehensive 4-1 victory over reigning champions Liverpool to take this tally to nine for the season.
Incredibly, that now makes him City’s top scorer in the Premier League this season, having outperformed the likes of Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus, Riyad Mahrez and Kevin De Bruyne in front of goal. He is also 2021’s most prolific player across the entire division so far (seven goals).
Most Premier League goals scored in 2021:
◉ Ilkay Gündogan (7)
◎ Harry Kane (4)
◎ Tomas Soucek (4)
◎ Matheus Pereira (4)
◎ Ollie Watkins (4)
Catch him if you can. pic.twitter.com/GnzkFRZsba
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 7, 2021
At one stage, City’s prospects of a genuine title challenge were up in smoke before the season ever really got going. They were misfiring and out-of-sorts in autumn, licking the wounds from Sergio Aguero’s continued absence and uncharacteristically maladroit going forward.
But Gundogan has since remedied that patchy period, heeding Guardiola’s pre-Chelsea advice, and reinventing himself from metronomic midfield presence to prolific No. 8. It’s been a tactical masterstroke from City’s Catalan coach, and now has Gundogan in genuine ‘POTY’ form.
From Klopp’s “surprise” to Guardiola’s clinical ‘coffee drinker’
It was clear something needed to be done as City approached the festive period. After capitulating in a 5-2 loss to Leicester on matchday two, they failed to score more than one goal in each of the next five league games, including that 2-0 defeat at the hands of Tottenham.
Since that limp loss in north London, City have gone 14 games unbeaten and look back to their scintillating best, with Gundogan the keystone in that resurgence. Nominally a deep-lying ‘regista’, Gundogan has since ditched those tempo-setting exploits and added a serious final-third presence to City’s game.
The German is still very much one of City’s chief dictators, but he has become an integral figure in attacking moves, adding another feather to his cap with this recent scoring surge (this being the first time he has netted double digits in a single season across his career).
Ahead of the Anfield encounter, Jurgen Klopp, who worked with Gundogan at Borussia Dortmund, winning a Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal double in 2012, waxed lyrical about his former player’s abilities but admitted even he was shocked by the midfielder’s newfound fox-in-the-box tendencies.
“Ilkay was one of the best players I ever coached. Not at all surprised [at his form]. Goalscoring? Maybe a little bit!” the German boss joked ahead of the 4-1 defeat on Merseyside.
As for Guardiola, he acknowledged Gundogan’s composure on the ball as reason for unlocking his scoring potential with this new attacking role.
“There are players who are in front of the ‘keeper and could take a coffee and still have time to finish. And the others get nervous. It is a quality in itself,” Guardiola said of Gundogan’s finishing.
The Germany international has already registered more touches in the opposition box this season (44) than last season (43) and is just one shot shy (32) of his total output in 2019/20 (33). His expected goals (xG) is nearly double (6.3 to 3.96), and as illustrated by the ‘passes received network’ visualisation below, he is collecting the ball in more advanced areas.
After that Spurs defeat, City were sleepwalking to mediocrity and the likes of West Ham, Brighton and Crystal Palace were outscoring them in the league.
They are now the competition’s third-highest scores and, more importantly, very much on track to usurp Liverpool and reclaim the Premier League title.
2020/21 Premier League outright winner odds by William Hill:
- Manchester City: 1/16
- Manchester United: 16/1
- Liverpool: 22/1
- Leicester: 40/1
- Chelsea: 80/1
From scoring zero open-play goals last season, to becoming Guardiola’s reliable goal-getter, Gundogan’s new role has put paid to City’s misfiring autumn and has his name very much in the ‘POTY’ conversation.