Ilkay Gundogan spent the first four years of his Manchester City career mostly filling in as backup holding midfielder.
In his fifth season, he’s the team’s most potent goal-scorer.
One of the more curious statistics of an English Premier League that refuses to follow the script sees Gundogan — a player with a previously ho-hum goal record — as the leading scorer in the division from rounds 10 to 20, with seven goals coming in his last eight games.
Tap-ins, long-range screamers into the top corner, shots on the turn inside the box, and even a penalty feature in his highlights reel. It seems there’s nothing the Germany international cannot do in front of goal.
It’s just as well, since City’s two senior strikers — Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus — have just two league goals between them this season.
“We cannot deny he has a special sense to his finishing,” Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola said of Gundogan on Friday. “It’s a quality in itself.
“There are players who, I don’t know why, are in front of the keeper and could take a coffee and even with that have time to do a good finish. And then the other ones, they get nervous and aren’t a good finisher.”
It’s not the first time goals from a box-to-box midfielder has led City’s charge to a Premier League title.
In the 2013-14 season, Yaya Toure produced a burst of scoring pretty much out of nowhere, netting 20 in 35 games to inspire Manuel Pellegrini’s side. While Toure was largely about powerful runs from deep and converting set-pieces — six of his goals were penalties and four were free kicks — Gundogan has mastered the art of timing his run toward or into the penalty area.
Just like against West Bromwich Albion on Tuesday, when he produced two expert finishes from inside the area that left goalkeeper Sam Johnstone rooted to the spot. Picking his moments, Gundogan got so far forward from his central-midfield position that it felt like he was a false nine at times.
“There’s not really a secret,” Gundogan said after the 5-0 win that lifted City to first place for the first time.
“I just try to be in the right spaces at the right moment.”
The departure in July of David Silva, City’s creator-in-chief for 10 years, left a hole in midfield which Guardiola decided not to fill with a new signing, even though Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish was linked and Thiago Alcantara was available to sign from Bayern Munich before eventually joining Liverpool.
Instead, Guardiola decided he already had a replacement in his squad. Not in the similarly impish and technically gifted Bernardo Silva. Not in Phil Foden, widely regarded as David Silva’s natural heir.
But in Gundogan, someone who has never been a first-choice pick at City despite having the vision and technical qualities that make him an ideal Guardiola-style player.
“The quality of his finishing, we’ve seen it,” Guardiola said, “but before he maybe played as a holding midfielder and the distance to get to the box was way too difficult.”
Indeed, after a first season that was ruined by an ACL injury that sidelined him for nine months, Gundogan’s biggest impact came in the 2018-19 season when he played as an anchorman in place of the injured Fernandinho late in the campaign as City held off Liverpool to win a second league title under Guardiola.
His emergence this season as a goal-scoring attacking midfielder is striking because Gundogan was initially deployed in deep-lying double pivot alongside Rodri, with Guardiola setting up more defensively to protect City’s back four.
It’s only since mid-December, after drawing at Manchester United 0-0, that Guardiola switched his approach by using one anchorman, bringing his full backs more inside, and playing his wingers wider to allow Gundogan more space and license to play further forward.
Starting from a 1-1 draw against West Brom, Gundogan has netted at least one goal in seven of City’s eight league outings.
That’s taken him past his previous biggest haul in a single league, six in 2018-19. In seven years in German soccer, with Nuremberg and then Borussia Dortmund, he never scored more than five in a league campaign.
“We’re delighted because it’s not easy to control players who come from behind, from the second line,” Guardiola said. “He’s exceptional at that.”
With Aguero still recovering from COVID-19 and Jesus proving wasteful and often starting on the bench, Guardiola will continue to rely on goals from Gundogan and wingers Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez to spearhead City’s run at the title.
Next up is last-placed Sheffield United on Saturday.
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80