Ilkay Gündogan’s ruthless genius is keeping the City machine in tune | Manchester City
Manchester City spend most of their time in the Premier League playing against low blocks where lines of four and five do their best to slow down the leaders in the desperate hope that they can keep them out. Because of this it is very important what happens in between the lines, the small gaps where midfielders are allowed to operate. Ilkay Gündogan is the master of finding the gaps and settling tight matches but how much longer he will be doing it in blue is unknown.
Everton operated as one would expect considering their precarious league position and the fact Sean Dyche is resident in the technical area. There was a back four, which often became a back five when auxiliary left-back Dwight McNeil dropped back to help the unfortunate Mason Holgate in an attempt to halt Riyad Mahrez. Three organised central midfielders delayed City’s progress by snapping at heels, ensuring the champions were unable to break through with their customary ease, failing to register a shot on target until after the half hour.
Like Leeds last weekend, Everton found that resistance is futile against Gündogan et al. Against Sam Allardyce’s side he swept home two identical strikes but at Goodison Park he proved the variety in his armoury with two more goals and an assist. It was a moment of inspiration that brought the opener, controlling a cross and hooking it into the corner while facing away from goal. Normally Gündogan uses the eyes in the back of his head for passing, but on this occasion it was an even more ruthless genius. Gündogan’s work is often seen as industrious, but it is backed by an unrivalled intelligence and robust nature to separate him from his peers.
Many see Gündogan as a future elite-level coach because of how he reads the game, the knowledge of where his teammates always should be and the blade of grass on which the ball will drop next. After giving City the lead, within two minutes, Gündogan was pushing the hosts back again, latching onto a loose ball down the left and lifting in a cross to the exact spot he knew Erling Haaland would be to head home and end the game as a contest. Haaland’s goals are integral for City but at the moment Gündogan is rivalling him for importance.
Even the most optimistic Everton fan would have accepted the gig was up when Dominic Calvert-Lewin did not return for the second half but Gündogan was happy to compound the misery for them on 51 minutes with a sublime free-kick from 20 yards that defeated the wall and Jordan Pickford, while dipping sufficiently to land in the back of the net, to indicate another string to his bow.
Gündogan can operate anywhere in central midfield. Against Leeds he replaced Rodri as the deepest of a midfield three, allowing the Spaniard a much-needed rest. Thanks to his ability to read the game, he fitted into the role perfectly, while still using his natural attacking instincts to find the right moments for his goals.
At Goodison Park, he was in his more traditional and further advanced role, giving Gündogan greater scope to attack, while setting the example and tempo for his teammates. Despite Idrissa Gueye and James Garner trying desperately to limit the space available to City’s creative unit, Gündogan regularly popped up in pockets to open Everton up. Having someone of Rodri’s discipline aided Gündogan to relinquish the fears that City could be countered if he lost the ball, not that it is a regular occurance.
While Kevin De Bruyne was rested after a gruelling, energy-sapping 90 minutes against Real Madrid in midweek, Gündogan was maintained in midfield because Pep Guardiola knows City could not function without either of them. Gündogan made his 57th appearance of the season for club and country at Goodison Park, and his fitness levels do not appear to be diminishing in mid-May, not bad for a 32-year-old.
He arrived at City recovering from a dislocated right knee and then suffered cruciate ligament damage to the same knee but has played more than 100 matches in the past two seasons, with potentially six more to come, which City hope culminates in a Champions League triumph in Istanbul.
Age is not an immediate issue for Gündogan or City but with the German’s contract running out this summer and a new one yet to be signed, there is the possibility that player and club could part ways after seven years. Guardiola has made clear to City’s hierarchy that he wants his captain to stay, not solely for what he brings on the pitch but off it, too. He has a quiet personality, choosing to lead by example, and is highly-respected within the squad. When he talks, his teammates listen.
Gündogan is, arguably, having his best season in the Premier League and his skillset would be nigh-on impossible to replace. Bowing out with a Champions League triumph on 10 June to complete a historic treble would be a perfect ending for many but Gündogan has plenty more to offer to keep the Manchester City machine in tune for years to come.