Manchester City have looked back to their brilliant best in recent weeks, this season’s newfound defensive solidity balanced with their old attacking flair taking them to within touching distance of the Premier League summit.
Key to their upturn in fortunes of late has been Ilkay Gundogan. The Germany international has been deployed in a more advanced midfield role since December’s drab Manchester derby draw – and both City and Gundogan have thrived as a result.
The midfielder has been absent for all of City’s horror shows this season: the 5-2 loss to Leicester, the defeat to Tottenham, the dire stalemate with Manchester United. Pep Guardiola’s side have only won once without him this term – against Wolves on the opening day of the season.
In recent weeks, with the central defensive partnership of John Stones and Ruben Dias thriving and Guardiola prepared to commit more players forward in a less conservative 4-3-3 formation, Gundogan has really thrived.
Now fully fit after a Covid-19 layoff earlier in the season, he has five goals in his last seven Premier League matches – more than he managed during the entirety of last season. One more goal and he will have registered a career-best tally.
Two of his goals – the openers against West Brom and Newcastle in December – were a result of smart, instinctive movement in and around the box.
Against the Baggies, Gundogan hovered on the edge of the area before ghosting into the box, arriving late and completely unmarked just as Raheem Sterling got to the byline. The England man picked out Gundogan, who buried the ball in the net.
Against the Magpies, he made three separate runs in and around the box before he received Sterling’s cut back: the first, a darting run in behind, the second, a peel off to the back post and the third he came short and tucked home.
Gundogan’s second two Premier League goals this season were absolute stunners. The sublime one touch turn and finish from the edge of the box against Chelsea was bettered a fortnight later as he dispossessed Andros Townsend on the edge of the Crystal Palace box and sent a fabulous curling effort flying into the top corner.
They were two rare moments of headline stealing, match winning quality for a man more adept at playing a slightly understated role and making others look good.
Having previously blossomed in the Fernandinho holding midfield role – most notably during City’s run in towards the back end of their 2018/19 title winning campaign – he is now blossoming in the David Silva role, occupying little pockets of space, playing the signature, intelligent Guardiola passes and bringing the best out of others.
“You cannot believe how good he is,” Guardiola said of Gundogan in October. “He is exceptional. He is one of the best signings in this club’s history.”