Ilkay Gundogan: Pepped Up

Ilkay Gundogan: Pepped Up

Bundesliga, one of the two football leagues in Europe to have a better UEFA coefficient than the English Premier League. Also, now starting to be known as the shopping mall of the Premier League. Such is the flow of players, as well as a few managers from the German league to its English counterpart.

Eleven players and one manager made the move from Germany to England this summer. From £42m rated Leroy Sane to the free transfers of Alex Manninger, Joel Matip and Havard Nordtveit the players have come in at various price points and wages. Much had been made of how Henrikh Mkhitaryan was going to combine with Pogba and Zlatan to lord over the Premier League before Mourinho decided that the £26m he paid for the advanced midfielder was not enough for the Armenian to get a game. Similarly, fans in the Premier League had high expectations from the most expensive Bundesliga player from this window – Leroy Sane or from Granit Xhaka who was touted as proof that even Wenger could spend. Klopp’s overtures to his old favourite Mario Gotze also used up a lot of web space and newsprint.

But in my opinion, Ilkay Gundogan’s move from Borussia Dortmund to Manchester City had gone under the radar a little bit. Possibly because the German international was not going to be available for Pep Guardiola immediately at the start of the campaign. He suffered a knee injury in early May sitting out of the last few games for Dortmund and initial few matches for Manchester City. The injury meant that along with 10 games for his club, he also missed the Euros in France.

But Now He’s Back

With all those games that Gundogan had to sit out due to his injury, it was expected that Pep will gradually ease him into the Manchester City side. Not that during their initial incredible, unbeaten run, they missed him a lot. But nevertheless, Pep started him in the Champions League from the first match against Borussia Mönchengladbach in mid-September, about a month after the start of the season. Gundogan’s first start in the Premier League came three days later in a 4-0 victory against Bournemouth at home. Gundogan rewarded his manager’s confidence in him with an assist and a goal in his first two starts for his new club.

After Bournemouth, there were no performances of note either in the Premier League or the Champions League. During the loss against Spurs, he was played as a left midfielder by Pep and he managed his worst performance in a City shirt so far. But after being substituted in the 37th minute against Spurs, Gundogan has started and finished five matches – four in Premier League and one against Barcelona in the Champions League.

The vision, the passing range and accuracy, the continuous hustling and hassling of opponents that helped Gundogan make his mark at Dortmund, was back. For sure, Pep had found his Toure replacement and from now on, it was going to be an endless sea of pin point passes and rapid tackles for the German. Like at Dortmund, he might score a goal in a season for novelty but in a team, that has Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne, and Raheem Sterling, Gundogan’s job was going to ensure City get the ball and keep it.

But both his manager and Gundogan had other plans. In just two games against West Bromwich Albion and Barcelona (talk of contrasting styles), he scored four goals and provided one assist. In 180 minutes, he managed to score more goals than he had in the entire last season at Dortmund. And thus, he became the answer to Manchester City’s six-match winless run. What had changed for Gundogan?

Gundogan’s Peppy New Role

For Dortmund, both Klopp and in his last year Tuchel, played Gundogan in a central midfield or defensive midfield role. His main job was to retrieve the ball quickly, and pass it around with accuracy to ensure Dortmund were in control for more time across a larger part of the pitch. And he did this quite well.

In the last season, he played 88.4 passes per 90 minutes – almost one a minute, with close to 90% accuracy. The passes were a bit long and did not create many chances. He also shot slightly more often than this season but most of the shots were from outside the area, reducing his shot accuracy. All these point to a classical ball-winning midfielder’s role.

Comparison with Last Two Seasons

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But perhaps Gundogan’s German managers missed a key stat about his record at Dortmund, which did not escape Pep – in 9 games where he was played as an advanced midfielder, he scored 3 and assisted one goal for Dortmund. That is one goal delivered almost every other game, much higher than one goal delivered every fifth game (19 goals/assists in 93 games) when he was played deeper.

Perhaps it was this stat or some other observation that made Pep field Gundogan in an advanced role. Even during the draws against Everton and Southampton, while Gundogan’s starting position was in central midfield, his heatmaps suggest much advanced play. Against West Brom, Pep put him behind the striker on the right shoulder (in a 4-1-4-1). This allowed him to thread passes to Aguero, one of which was put away by the Argentine in sublime manner. It also allowed Gundogan himself to ghost into the Baggies’ area and be ready for any opportunity. For both his goals, as well as his brilliant shot deflected by Nolito, the German was in the right position at the right time. All three came from within the Baggies’ penalty box.

Against Barcelona as well, Pep put him in the same position, with the same effect. In a game where City were starved for the ball – 35% possession, least in Pep’s entire career – Gundogan had 96% passing accuracy, albeit with only 28 passes. He took three shots. The shot he took from outside the area didn’t get him a goal but the other two were examples of how he is being asked to pounce on any loose ball in the area. Both were close range efforts and he was present in the right place at the right time. For some odd reason, Pep decided to put him on the left side behind Aguero. This allowed Gundogan to shoot thrice but two of his shots were off-target and one was blocked. The blocked shot was taken from inside the area and the other two from outside. Also, Gundogan was not able to create too many chances from this  position. Although the evidence is scant as of now but perhaps the right half-space seems to give Gundogan a better route in to the opponent’s box, as compared to the left.

But one thing is sure – we are seeing the rebirth of an excellent football player. It is possible that it is just a rich vein of form and Pep will send him deeper once the form wears off. But it sure is fun to watch this new Peppy avatar of Ilkay Gundogan.