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Searching For Comfort In City’s Defensive Midfield Depth

Ilkay Gundogan has been great as Fernandinho’s replacement, but should the circumstances over the last three matches give us pause to be overly confident?

AFC Bournemouth v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

If you asked Manchester City fans who the club’s most indispensable player was, a healthy portion of the responses would select Fernandinho. And it’s difficult to argue with that choice. Not only is the Brazilian fundamental to what City do on both sides of the ball, but he also plays one of the only positions (in addition to left back) that does not have a clear and reliable replacement for Pep Guardiola to plug in.

So when Fernandinho was forced to leave the League Cup final with a muscle injury, the collective concern was more than justified. The last time City were without the defensive midfielder for an extended period, the Blues lost to Crystal Palace and Leicester City. With a challenging slate of fixtures on the horizon (West Ham, Bournemouth, and Watford), it was evident how important it would be to fill the Fernandinho-sized hole in the squad.

In steps Ilkay Gundogan.

The German midfielder was always the obvious choice to replace Fernandinho in situations like this, despite the fact that he is most naturally a box-to-box player. There are no doubts he can be effective as a deep lying playmaker, but his fit in the defensive midfield was questioned due to concerns about his ability to contain counterattacks and provide the necessary “bite” often needed from that position. After all, Fernandinho’s ability to destroy transition opportunities is what sets him apart. Gundogan, on the other hand, tends to lack aggression and is characterized as having “very weak” tackling skills according to WhoScored.

However, Gundogan has been fantastic by every measure over the last three matches for City, all of which ended in victory. And the most promising aspect has been how dominant the Blues have been defensively against West Ham, Bournemouth, and Watford with him patrolling the defensive midfield. It begs the question, have we underestimated Ilkay Gundogan’s ability to be a Fernandinho replacement this whole time?

Ultimately, this question is still a difficult one to answer depending on where you fall on the pessimist-realist-optimist scale, but there are definite signs that Gundogan is growing into the player City need him to be right now.

Defensively, Gundogan has displayed an increased physicality and work rate, which is quite the promising development. Against Watford on Saturday, he snuffed out a potential counter before it could even begin with a Fernandinho-esque professional foul on Isaac Success in the 19th minute. Not long after (21’), he went shoulder to shoulder with Abdoulaye Doucouré to win the ball, bodying the opposing midfielder right off the pitch. City’s primary weakness is getting caught on the break with numbers forward, making this the one area he needs to improve the most, so seeing him throw his body around is a great sign. Furthermore, he continues to have a strong defensive awareness that allows him to read opponent buildups and intercept passes through the lines.

This isn’t to say Gundogan has been perfect by any means though. He stepped into two challenges against Bournemouth and was dribbled past both times, though the Cherries were unable to capitalize. It also must be noted that Fernandinho’s absence has coincided with an apparent league wide initiative to have no attacking ambition against City. Gundogan simply hasn’t had to face many challenges recently because their opponents have made little to no effort to leave their own half. The challenge for the German will be to maintain the necessary physicality throughout 90 minutes against higher quality sides.

Regardless, Gundogan does deserve credit for shepherding the midfield across three matches where City have given up a combined 0.81 expected goals and 4 total shots. Those statistics are downright ridiculous, no matter what the other team’s game plan is, and hopefully will be a foundation he can continue to build on.

AFC Bournemouth v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

The offensive workload Ilkay Gundogan has taken on, particularly against Watford, has been the most impressive part of his recent form. Opponent’s tactics over the last three matches have been defined by a narrow and compact low block, forcing Guardiola to get creative with his attacking strategy. The fullbacks and wingers have both been incredibly flexible in their positioning in an attempt to pull defenders out of their shape, forcing Gundogan to be the conduit between them all.

Gundogan has been the focal point throughout the elements of the attack, doing so by abandoning some of his natural tendencies. The German reads the game very well, and is well known for making runs in behind the defense as an attacker drops into the hole. His movement into pockets of space like this can often go unnoticed, but is influential in disorganizing the midfield/backline. Gundogan hasn’t been able to play this style recently though, as he has been forced to sit in as a deep lying playmaker. Him occupying this role is even more important given the injuries to Aymeric Laporte and John Stones. With a center back pairing of Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi, the Blues need a distributive player that can pick out a pass through/over the lines.

He did just that and then some, dictating City’s possession throughout. Gundogan’s heat map against Watford is quite impressive on a number of levels.

Gundogan heat map in Watford match, 148 touches (Attacking left to right).

The sheer amount of ground he covered with the ball at his feet is uncommon, to say the least. With the fullbacks encouraged to get forward and his fellow midfielders floating wide/upfield, he was the lone central presence on the edge of the attacking third for long stretches and needed to play sideline-to-sideline. His presence and passing skills in the deep midfield were critical because it allowed for a more malleable attacking group.

Against Watford, Gundogan ended up with 148 touches (35 more than any other player), controlling 12.9% of the possession by himself! Moreover, he completed 137 passes (37 more than any other player), 48 of which were towards goal in the final third. Across the last three matches, Gundogan has had a minimum passing percentage of 90% and completed 8 key passes. He has truly been the fulcrum of City’s attack and more than suitable replacing Fernandinho’s offensive responsibilities.

Through and through, you have to feel more confident in City’s defensive midfield depth after Ilkay Gundogan’s play. Granted, it’s unfair to expect him to step in for Fernandinho and be just as good. That is an unrealistic expectation, especially when only a handful (maybe) of players are capable of doing what Fernandinho does on the pitch. Gundogan’s growth does lead to the conclusion that City may have the depth behind the Brazilian that many have doubted this entire season though.

There are still improvements to be made, there is no debate there. But Ilkay Gundogan already has the offensive skill set to step in immediately and shown flashes of the required physicality/mentality on the defensive end. However, for as much as I would like his recent form to settle the concerns here, the sheer indifference to attack from West Ham, Bournemouth, and Watford can’t be completely overlooked. Gundogan will face tougher tests as a defensive midfielder eventually, and the question remains whether he’ll be able to sustain those flashes for 90 minutes when the opposition brings offensive ambitions. I’m confident in him simply because that’s where I naturally reside on the pessimist-realist-optimist scale, but only time will tell.