Saturday 15 December 2018

Classy Gundogan shows City what they missed last season

Gundogan: Impressing his manager Photo: Reuters/Andrew Boyers
Gundogan: Impressing his manager Photo: Reuters/Andrew Boyers

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Who is the best player in the Premier League who is not an automatic starter for his team? With all due respect to Marcus Rashford, Willian, Juan Mata and Son Heung-min, the answer must surely come from Manchester City. And if it is not Gabriel Jesus or Bernardo Silva then it would surely be Ilkay Gundogan.

Ask anyone to name City's strongest team and Gundogan would not be in it. In their 4-3-3 , Kevin de Bruyne is the best midfielder in the country and David Silva and Fernandinho are unparalleled at their own jobs.

And yet Guardiola loves Gundogan, and given his performance in Basel on Tuesday night it was easy to see why.

Gundogan will never be a replacement for David Silva - there is no such thing - but he gives City a flow. Always on the move, wanting the ball, and happy to play in the tightest spaces; now fit, he is up to speed with the Guardiola game.

If there was one criticism of Gundogan this season it was that he is not decisive enough in the final third. Given how he ghosts into good positions, and his technical level, he should have more than two goals for the season.

But he doubled his tally on Tuesday: heading City ahead from an early corner and then curling in a perfect second in the second half. He should have had a hat-trick too.

Guardiola was delighted Gundogan had added goals.

"Ilkay is a guy with special quality," Guardiola said. "An amazing midfield player who has the sense of goal, and who likes to go to the box. When I see him play, I realise how much we missed him last season. He was out for nine months, and we missed him a lot.

"He's a special player, with a lot of personality. He's a top, top, top, top player."

That point about last season is a surprising one. Because City played their best football last year with the same midfield three they have this year: David Silva, De Bruyne and Fernandinho. Gundogan is basically a spare part when you have those players, even if Guardiola added that City now have "three outstanding, attacking midfielders", with Gundogan, Silva and De Bruyne.

So last season Guardiola ripped up the whole team to fit Gundogan in, abandoning the 4-3-3 for a 3-4-3 with a box midfield to get Gundogan, Silva, De Bruyne and Fernandinho on the pitch together. It produced brilliant football, not least the 3-1 win over Barcelona, but it unbalanced the team as they lost 3-1 at home to Chelsea and 4-2, worst of all, at Leicester City.

This season the absence of David Silva has allowed Gundogan to fit straight in. But now Silva is coming back, there is still a sense that Guardiola would like to play the four together if he could.

With his team still in the mix for four trophies, should he take the risk?

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