Game of Numbers #14 – Ilkay Gündoğan’s Movement Masterclass

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It’s spectacular to think that even within a midfield of Bernardo Silva, Kevin de Bruyne and Rodri, that İlkay Gündoğan remains one of City’s most important players when it matters most. He’s guaranteed a selection for 20-30 games in any given season, despite all the magnificent options operating around him. In fact, when fit, he’s often the team captain – even when more vocal players like Dias or De Bruyne remain available. This is all down to the German’s intelligence and magnificence when it comes to off-the-ball movement.

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Gündoğan has made a habit over the years of floating up toward the position of a ‘false 9’ or ’10’, despite always playing as an ‘8’. He’s afforded the ability to do so from the magnificent base in midfield provided by Rodri, not to mention the central inversions of full-backs – in this case John Stones. But even despite all the brilliance he can provide on the ball, Gündoğan’s role is less about what he can offer with his passing, precision, and technical nous. He’s not a ‘Midfield Maestro’ like Bernardo Silva and his silky smooth dribbling, and he’s not a ‘Creative Ten’ like Kevin de Bruyne and his play-making genius.

Instead, the City man fulfills the role of the ‘Box to Box Midfielder’ in the team – a role that prioritizes smart off-the-ball movement to create space at the attacking end of the pitch, and then immediately reduce space on the defensive end.

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Gündoğan fulfills the role better than just about anyone in the game, and even at the age of 32 still manages to possess a magnificent engine. But again, it’s less about the German’s physical capabilities, and more about his game understanding and acumen for surveying space.

We’ve seen less of this brilliance this season, as Norwegian superstar Erling Haaland has captivated much of the attention. But City flourished for years under a ‘False 9’ approach, in which Gündoğan often popped up in the box at the crucial moment to bang the ball into the back of the net. It’s no surprise then that with Haaland out that they’d return to their ‘False 9’ ways, and we’d see Gündoğan’s brilliance come to the forefront. In fact, three out of City’s four goals on the day against Liverpool came out of the result of taking advantage of a narrow full-back through a switch of play, and then capitalizing on a low-driven pass across the box.

Again, this has been where Gündoğan flourished over the years, even peaking at 13 goals in 2020-21. Without Haaland in the team, he then took on that old persona once more, and had one of his best performances of the season.

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Gündoğan’s troublesome behaviour against Liverpool came largely out of his ability to receive in between the lines of the defense and midfield. He floated to the right and primarily to the left of Fabinho, where Liverpool often lacked cover. He then became a central cog to change the point of the attack, and pull defenders out of position. As Fabinho often became attracted to the wide areas in transition, the City man could float into the gaps in behind.

From that left-half-space, he could often create room for himself to the left of Fabinho, and then look for gaps between Konaté and Trent Alexander-Arnold. In doing so, he constantly pushed Alexander-Arnold inside, lessening the attention on his team’s left-winger – Jack Grealish.

Gündoğan is known for making late runs into the box to finish off chances. But he’s also adept about knowing when to float up toward the team’s striker and create a second option for a cross. Here he is popping up at the back-post to cause greater havoc for Liverpool’s centre-backs, creating one of City’s first warning signs.

Notice how Gündoğan moves to the blindside of the nearest Liverpool defender, giving himself a gap to receive in space, knowing that he’ll never win the aerial battle against Ibrahima Konaté. It’s the finer details like this that often allow the German to score goals.

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But it must be remembered that the 32-year-old’s role is not just about floating up to score, but to pull others out of position and create space for others. Konaté and Fabinho could not get a grip of of the German’s movement all game, and in doing so, he often attracted even Virgil Van Dijk to come across.

Check out this sequence, where he perceives the space in between the centre-backs, and then plays a delightful flick over to Mahrez. It’s sequences like this that created so much trouble for Liverpool.

That’s because as Van Dijk narrows to pressure Gündoğan, City’s striker then becomes free. In response, Andy Robertson (the Liverpool left-back) has only seconds to close down Alvarez as that ‘9’. But in doing so, guess who’s free? The winger on Robertson’s side – Riyad Mahrez. Absolutely brilliant.

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İlkay Gündoğan had a masterclass of a performance against Liverpool, playing a massive part in their commanding 4-1 win over their title challengers from last season. It was vintage Gündoğan at his best, and showcases City’s potential to continue putting on top quality performances even without the presence of Erling Haaland.

So there it is! İlkay Gündoğan’s movement masterclass against Liverpool. Be sure to check out more from our Game of Numbers series, and follow on social media @mastermindsite and @desmondrhys to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

-> Game of Numbers #13 – Guerreiro as a ’10’
-> Game of Numbers #12 – Erik Ten Hag’s Positional Play Masterclass

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