Manchester City are a joy to watch this season, with Kevin De Bruyne, Leroy Sané, David Silva and Sergio Agüero firing on all cylinders as Pep Guardiola’s team charge towards to the Premier League title.
In 2018, somewhat under the radar, İlkay Gündoğan has quietly established himself as a key component in the Catalan coach’s midfield, starting five of six league fixtures this year.
Even in the game he started on the bench he played 51 minutes, coming on for Silva against West Bromwich Albion.
Signed back in July 2016 in a blaze of glory from Borussia Dortmund, the midfielder had made a name for himself at Nuremberg, and was a huge part of Jürgen Klopp’s success at Signal Iduna Park.
His first campaign was an anti-climax. Starting injured, he scored on his league debut against Bournemouth and made ten appearances before his season was ended by a horrible cruciate ligament injury.
It wasn’t until the away visit to Watford earlier this term that the German international was able to come off the bench and make his return, picking up 24 minutes in the 6-0 win.
As Fernandinho continued to impress at the base of the City midfield, Gündoğan had to content himself with opportunities as a substitute.
Going into the new year, he’d only managed five starts, including a superb goal and assist display as City thumped Tottenham Hotspur 4-1 at the Etihad Stadium.
Arguably, the 27-year-old is currently playing the best football he’s managed at City, where his versatility has become key for Guardiola.
When his Brazilian team-mate gets the nod as the defensive midfielder, Gündoğan can push up beside De Bruyne or Silva and play a box-to-box role.
“He is an extraordinary player,” declared Guardiola to BT Sport. “We missed him a lot last season, he was out six months injured. That is why we are so satisfied with his performances, the quality of his play.”
With four goals and seven assists in all competitions, he is a proven threat in the final third.
He may not be as creative a force as the Belgian, or as smooth as the Spaniard, but he has his own unique style and demonstrates a powerful drive and determination, which is also a great weapon for the champions-elect.
However, recently he’s been playing as the deepest midfielder and has again raised his game. Although it looked like walking football at times, he completed 174 passes against Antonio Conte’s Chelsea in the 1-0 win last weekend, which is the most recorded since Premier League records began.
“I see myself wherever my manager sees me. If I have to play this position, If I have to be more disciplined in a defensive way, I want to fulfil it 100 per cent in a perfect way,” admitted the Germany midfielder.
“But if I have to play in a more offensive role, I am happy with that. I am a different player right now because of all the experiences I had and all the injuries I had.
“Every game helps me to be more and more in form. Hard work definitely pays off and that is what I did in the last few months.”
Declaring he has been at his best is one thing, but his numbers in 2018 back up the argument.
Looking at what he has done with the ball at his feet and his defensive contributions – comparing his averages over this season and what he did in the ten games he managed last season – Gündoğan has improved in almost every category.
He is making more key passes and he’s beating more people off the dribble.
Even without the ball he’s winning more tackles, intercepting danger and managing more clearances. Helped by his passing display against Chelsea, his average passes per 90 has gone from 82.2 to 87.6.
What makes it even more impressive is that he has faced the Blues, Arsenal and Liverpool over their last six fixtures.
Fernandinho returned to training this week, trying to get over the hamstring injury that has seen him miss games recently. However, Guardiola will be delighted with how Gündoğan has filled the void.
Linked with the likes of Fred at Shakhtar Donetsk and Julien Weigl at the German’s former club, perhaps the Catalan coach doesn’t need to find a long-term defensive midfield option after all.