The Manchester City top scorer. It is a phrase that conjures images of Sergio Aguero. Perhaps even Raheem Sterling. And maybe, this season, of Phil Foden. But not Ilkay Gundogan. Nice, but ultimately ineffectual, a passer rather than a finisher, a man who has often seemed to belong outside their strongest side, he may be the purist but he is no predator.
But after half an hour at the Hawthorns, Gundogan was City’s leading marksman in the Premier League. Indeed, he was the division’s top-scoring central midfielder (assuming Bruno Fernandes, as a No. 10, does not count). The box-to-box goalscoring midfielder has felt an endangered species. Few thought it would be Gundogan who brought it back to life.
But there he was with seven goals in eight league games, as many as Aguero, Gabriel Jesus, Ferran Torres and Kevin de Bruyne have between them all season. By way of comparison, they outscored him 47-2 last season. If the decline in their return reflects injuries and impotence, his development into a scorer is a welcome surprise.
“There is not really a secret,” Gundogan said. “I try to be in the right spaces at the right moment. I played the last few weeks a bit more offensive role.”
For much of his first four years in Manchester, he felt a talented footballer who was an imperfect fit for two different roles, not offering the defensive solidity off the ball to excel as a No. 6 or the incision and invention in the final third to rival De Bruyne or David Silva as a No. 8. If the sense was that Foden would be the beneficiary of Silva’s departure, actually Gundogan has been.
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.
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.