Gundogan’s transformation has Man City on top again

At half-time on Sunday at Anfield, as the Liverpool and Manchester City players were making their way back down the tunnel en route to the dressing room, Ilkay Gundogan grabbed Phil Foden by the shoulder with a smile on his face. You would not have guessed that he had missed a penalty just a few minutes earlier, with the score level at 0-0, in the biggest game of City’s season so far. It looked like that miss — City’s third of six penalties in the league this season — had no impact on the Germany international’s mood.

It was almost as if he knew that he would have another chance to make up for it, and he did, scoring twice after the break as City thrashed the defending Premier League champions 4-1 to put Pep Guardiola’s side a little closer to reclaiming the title.

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The whole scene was further proof of how confident and sure of his talent Gundogan is at the moment. Right now, he’s arguably the most in-form player in the Premier League, even ahead of Man United’s Bruno Fernandes.

“He has such great confidence. Nothing fazes him, he doesn’t doubt,” a source tells ESPN. “And right now, he is playing at such a level that he knows he will influence the game and be decisive.”

In his past 11 Premier League games, going back to the middle of December, he has nine goals and one assist. That’s more goals than he’s contributed in the past two seasons put together. After City’s emphatic win at Anfield, Gundogan was asked if he was in the best form of his life. His response was typically honest and humble.

“In terms of numbers, yes,” he told RMC Sport. “It is always nice to score or to assist. If you follow my career, you can see that in other seasons, in recent seasons, I have played on the same level, even maybe better, but I didn’t score or assist a lot. For me, it is always leaving the pitch after 90 minutes with a good feeling about myself. It doesn’t really matter if I score or not. There are different parts of the game where you can influence a game. So it is about how I feel. That’s how I judge myself and right now, I feel great.”

Gundogan’s evolution — perhaps more of a transformation — is due largely to a change in role more than a change in position. He is still a No. 8 and still to the left of Rodri in City’s midfield, but he has a different aim now.

Juanma Lillo, Pep Guardiola’s assistant, has put in a lot of work to define Gundogan’s new brief. After hours in the film room and on the training pitch, Lillo saw the potential of Gundogan stationed higher up the pitch whenever City were in possession: the German’s intelligence and ability frequently put him in good scoring positions. When Joao Cancelo pushes from right-back into midfield while City have the ball, Gundogan is free to make runs inside the box and be in the left half-space, where he can be more efficient and contribute more to attacking build-up play.

This “new” Gundogan hasn’t taken long to produce, either — especially when Man City don’t play with a recognised striker, which gives him even more freedom. In the four league games since Dec. 15 in which Gundogan didn’t score, three of them featured a centre-forward.

“The more freedom he has, the more efficient he is going to be,” the source added. “He is so clever in how he moves and makes runs that he is almost impossible to pick up for the opposition. Liverpool had no idea how to mark him or deal with his movement. And the two goals he scored [at Liverpool] were pure No. 9 goals.”

A quick look at the stats proves how much Gundogan’s numbers have improved in the attacking third. He maybe doesn’t cover as much ground as he used to, but with the ball, it’s a different story. Compared to 2019-20, he’s taking more shots per 90 minutes (2.2 to 1.9) and has a better shot-conversion rate (28% to 6%). More of his shots are happening inside the penalty area (72% to 39%), he’s enjoying more touches in the opposition box per 90 (3.0 to 1.9) and has a higher expected goals per shot (0.19 to 0.12).

Manchester City have won 14 straight in all competitions, thanks in no small part to Gundogan’s form and fit. He doesn’t want to take all the credit — he is far too humble for that — but he also underscored that he doesn’t want to stop there.

“We have to stay humble now and approach every game like we have done the last few weeks, the last few months. We know we are in a very good moment but we should not take it for granted. But if we keep doing well the things that we have been doing lately, it can be a great and successful season for us.”

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