At first, City’s new £20m signing resembled a businessman, lost, yet still maintaining a calm expression, on a cluttered London Underground platform. He looked the part, but didn’t really seem to know where he was or what he was meant to be doing. When you’re the subject of what was meant to be a private meeting between Txiki Begiristain and Pep Guardiola in Amsterdam, don’t expect the average football fan to be patient.
But now, finally, things appear to be clicking into place. İlkay Gündoğan has been Manchester City’s star performer of the last month, showcasing Paul Scholes and Frank Lampard-like qualities to lead the side to victories over West Brom and Barcelona. Not only is the German a calming influence in the middle of the park – the eye of the storm between the less subtle talent of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne – he’s also a terrific finisher. Wherever Guardiola may have ended up this summer, he would have done all he could to make sure the former Borussia Dortmund man followed him. And now, with 5 goals and 3 assists to his name, it’s easy to see why Gündoğan was Pep’s primary target.
Adam: Sean, here we are again. Have you been impressed with Gündoğan, and how would you describe his role in the side?
Sean: I think it’s more than fair to say that Gündoğan struggled initially, though I’d say this was more down to his injury than a lack of tactical understanding. In recent weeks, however, he’s been phenomenal and has developed into the midfielder we all hoped he would be: fast, and yet very elegant, Gündoğan is able to dictate games effortlessly and his passing range is vital to our control.
As for his position, he’s been used in various different roles. Away at Swansea, he was one of the free no8’s, given license to get forward and provide those killer passes. In recent weeks however, he’s sat alongside Fernandinho in a two man pivot, though again, he has been given license to get forward and has caused the opposition plenty of problems. I do believe the pivot suits him best and the relationship he seems to be developing with Fernandinho is looking very positive.
Adam: Personally, I think it’s perhaps a little harsh to say that he ‘struggled’. Combine the injury, the fact he was expected to settle instantly and pretty much direct the play in a new side, and the fact City have never really played with a proper number eight, and you have your reasons for why things may have looked a little uncertain at the start.
As Guardiola’s alluded to in the past, he’d have a team full of midfielders if he could and the club has never played with a midfield set-up as complex as the one we play with today. We’ve always had a holding midfielder (Fernandinho), an attacking-minded central midfielder (Yaya) and a creator (Silva/De Bruyne), but never one as versatile as Gündoğan whose job is to sort of link everything together. Nasri is the closest I can think of, and he was never as defensively minded or capable as Gündoğan is. So I think the initial ‘struggle’ can be attributed to the side not really having any experience of playing with a no.8.
Of course, things are now starting to click and as we saw against Barcelona, that midfield really is capable of brilliance.
Sean: I think you’re spot on about his versatility. Like you, I really do see him as the complete, all-round player. I remember watching him for Dortmund against us in 2012 and he was the best player on the pitch by a country mile. What’s impressive is, like Fernandinho, he has an unbelievable amount of energy.
I think his performance against Barcelona was tremendous. As you say, there were so many moments of brilliance. He completely destroyed Rakitić and Gomes, and when he had the ball it stuck to him like glue. What I’ve noticed about Gündoğan is that he’s very similar in his body shape to Silva – he’s always on the half turn when receiving the ball, making it impossible for opposition players to get close to him. What looks certain for the rest of the league is how much better he’ll become with more time and fitness.
Adam: Yeah, like you say, I think there’s much more to come from him and we’re now starting to see just how good he is in front of goal, too. I’ve said it before, but at times he reminds me of Lampard with the positions he takes up on the edge of the box. There was always a slight worry about how we’d replace Yaya’s goals, but I think Gündoğan’s got it in him to be a 15-goal-a-season man.
A potential problem Guardiola may have to arrest, however, is getting the best out of Gündoğan, Silva and De Bruyne when they’re all on the same pitch at the same time. At times it’s looked like the trio have been competing for space in the final third and things have looked a little messy. Do you think that, with time, they’ll form a better understanding and things will work out, or is it a case of Guardiola trying to shoehorn them (ineffectively) all into the same team?
Sean: It’s a very interesting point. I think Pep values ball retention very highly in his sides, so I believe Silva, De Bruyne and Gündoğan will all continue to start. The slight problem is the balance. To get the best out of all three you need to find a system which deploys them centrally. I thought the back three against Everton and Southampton worked perfectly, even if the result wasn’t.
I also thought at one point we’d see Gündoğan occupy the Fernandinho role, collecting the ball from deep and then feeding Silva and De Bruyne in those no8 positions. I think it’s also worth noting that if Pep is to drop one of them, then maybe Silva should drop out. His ankle issues combined with the rising intensity of the Premier League mean that his effectiveness at playing three games a week is diminishing, whereas Gündoğan seems to have plenty of fuel in the tank.
Adam: I’d reluctantly agree with that. Silva is an unbelievable player, but I think De Bruyne and Gündoğan are far more important to the way we want to play football. But if we keep that back three in place, dropping one of them isn’t likely to be an issue.
So, anyway, I think we can agree that we’ve got our hands on a seriously good player. Bargain of the summer?
Sean: I think it’s fair to say we’ll be looking at the fee in a few years time as an absolute bargain. £20m for a German international certainly feels like a steal. But if we’re talking bargain of the summer, I’d look no further than Nolito. That’s a discussion for another time!