Ilkay Gundogan finds form of his life to turn into Man City’s unlikely talisman

Gundogan has starred in City’s recent run

He has always had the technical ability and the ball-striking prowess. Now he is getting in the penalty box more. “He has the sense,” said Guardiola. “Sometimes he played as a holding midfielder or in behind but when he plays close to the box he has this sense to make these good runs into the box and the quality with the ball is always there. When he arrives he has the calm, the slow down to make that decision.” More than most, Gundogan can pass the ball into the back of the net.

Yet that nose for a goal has come relatively late in a career, at 30. A player who has suffered from injuries has rediscovered a sharpness, an unselfish team man has revealed a ruthlessness. One who decorated games now makes the decisive contribution. He is shooting more and scoring more.

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It can be the Guardiola way not to fixate on who scores as much as how his side score. “Sometimes you have to score goals to get recognition as the football player he was all the time,” rationalised the City manager. And yet there is something revealing about the identity of the scorer. Gundogan has developed into a talismanic figure, a catalyst in a way he has not been before. He assumes the initiative. It felt altogether unsurprising when he curled in the sixth-minute opener against West Bromwich Albion from the edge of the box. His second was revealing: he had the forcefulness to win the ball off Romaine Sawyers, the skill to beat Dara O’Shea, the finish to defeat Sam Johnstone. It showed a De Bruyne-esque drive.

And that capacity to become the difference maker is what makes this the best spell of his City career. Gundogan was in fine form in the second half of the 2018-19 season, but in a team with an aura of invincibility. Now he has kickstarted their season. His display at Chelsea was arguably his finest for City, but it also included the crucial first goal.

His brace against the Baggies came a few hours after City’s greatest No. 8, Colin Bell, was buried. “I feel proud to wear his number,” the German said. “I try to represent it as good as possible. I think this is the best way to give him a tribute.”

And it came a day after the Premier League lost, in a different sense, its greatest goalscoring midfielder in its history. Gundogan rarely felt a natural successor to Frank Lampard. Until the last few weeks, and the most prolific period of his life.

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