“He has the right tempo to make the run. So, he doesn’t arrive in the box ten times or twenty times, doesn’t arrive one meter before or one meter later. He had to arrive in the right tempo, in the right time. When he arrives he has the calm, the slowdown, that action to make a decision.”
Pep Guardiola wasn’t talking about the perfect Uber driver. It was about Ilkay Gundogan. The German’s current scoring spree has showed his importance to Manchester City’s attack.
Topping Manchester City’s goal scoring charts in all competition with nine goals alongside Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden, while running away with first place in the league category with seven goals.
Six of those seven have come in the space of a month, last month to be specific. The trigger that ignited the fire was Gundogan being given a more advanced role within Guardiola’s jigsaw.
Manchester City’s improvement in possession coincided with the beginning of Gundogan’s scoring spree, so how does Gundogan regularly get into these scoring positions?
Ever since Manchester City have been executing their attacking principles flawlessly on the field, the most eye-grabbing feature was Joao Cancelo’s positioning. A half vampire, half werewolf. A full back out of possession and a creative midfielder in possession.
On the other side however is the man of this article. A silent assassin, creeping up towards the space while the opponent’s midfield is busy with the creativity of Cancelo and Kevin De Bruyne.
Manchester City’s second principle in attack is to overload the midfield. Cancelo moving in, De Bruyne overloading a channel and the false nine dropping. All for the purpose of getting Gundogan in the right position. At first the opposition midfield is marking him.
Then when the ball is rolling on the overloaded side, Gundogan fades into the dark….
….seeking to make a run into the space while everyone else is occupied.
The run might be tracked, but that frees another Manchester City player. Gundogan’s runs behind the opposition’s midfield often leaves the opposition right back in a dilemma, mark Gundogan and City’s wide left player is free, mark the wide left player and Gundogan is free.
That was the case in the disallowed goal against Manchester United in the Carabao Cup, the right side overload from De Bruyne forced Fred out of position. Then with Cancelo and Sterling attacking the space, Scott McTominay had to shift his focus towards them leaving Gundogan entirely free.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka was now in the aforementioned unlucky position with Gundogan making a run inside and Foden out wide. The right back stuck with Gundogan this time…
….which meant free reign for Foden out wide to pick his pass. Unfortunately for Manchester City, Gundogan was offside when he put Foden’s cross into the net.
At other times the run isn’t tracked. Here, Jake Livermore and Romain Sawyers (highlighted in red) are attracted to Bernardo Silva and Cancelo in midfield. Meanwhile, Gundogan is making a penetrative run into the box behind the midfield duo and the defensive line. The important thing to note here is how Riyad Mahrez helps in freeing that central space by moving out and the freedom Foden has out wide. The later provides Manchester City with options. If Darnell Furlong, West Brom’s right back, tracks Gundogan inside then the ball into Foden is on.
Cancelo found Gundogan’s run and the German calmly placed it into the back of the net. This attack was City’s first goal against West Brom, but even if Gundogan hadn’t scored from it, these type of attacks destabilizes the opponent. Sometimes causing arguments between members of the opponent’s defensive line.
Gundogan’s positioning is smart. He is often trying to make runs behind the opponent’s midfield, starting on the left side. That’s mainly because Manchester City overload the right channel with Cancelo and a roaming De Bruyne, tilting the opposition midfield to this side so that the opponent’s right back is left in a 1 v 2 scenario against Gundogan’s runs and Foden’s width.
But if the overload is on the other side as was the case in the opener against Chelsea, Gundogan will start his run from the right side which is in this moment the midfield’s blind side.
As always Gundogan will creep his way into the box unnoticed.
Until the ball reaches him and with minimal — two here — touches he puts City into the lead.
Another simple explanation is that with Cancelo going inside and City overloading the midfield, Gundogan isn’t leaving space in midfield when he is making these runs. If he is the one making the run into the box, then there is a minimum of three Manchester City players covering in midfield.
The ball might not be directly played into him, but the runs position him closer to the goal and provides City’s wide players with another option in the box as seen here in Gundogan’s goal against Newcastle United.
Manchester City’s application of their attacking principles work in conjunction with each other to benefit Gundogan. The width from the wide players stretches the opponent’s defence creating gaps for Gundogan to attack, while the overload in midfield distracts the opponent’s midfield and acts as a safety net for the German’s runs.
Guardiola’s comments weren’t about the perfect Uber driver, no. It was about the perfect assassin.