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There's one obvious contender for Premier League Player of the Year as it stands

Ilkay Gundogan has starred for a dominant Manchester City this season.

Manchester City's Ilkay Gundogan celebrates scoring.
Manchester City's Ilkay Gundogan celebrates scoring.
Image: PA

IF YOU WERE to single out the most dominant Premier League side of the past 10 years, there is no looking past Man City.

In that period, they have won four league titles, having triumphed in the top flight just twice over the course of their entire history before then. Their record in the last decade is superior to all their rivals: Man United (2), Chelsea (2), Liverpool and Leicester (one each).

Remarkably though, since the award’s inception in 1973-74, a City footballer has won the PFA Player of the Year award just once.

Curiously, it was during one of their weaker seasons, last campaign, when they finished 18 points behind champions Liverpool, as Kevin De Bruyne picked up the accolade.

Based on current form though, City are surely odds-on to make it two-in-a-row for this individual award.

Since drawing 1-1 with West Brom in December, they have gone on a 16-match winning run in all competitions — a record for an English top-flight team.

The achievement is all the more remarkable when you consider other factors — one being the pandemic, which was supposed to be a great leveller in alleviating the top teams’ dominance, owing to the hectic match schedules it necessitated.

They have also been without important players, such as Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and Nathan Ake, for at least part of this run. 

Many also downplayed City’s title chances at the start of the season, suggesting they are an ageing team whose best days were behind them.

And initially, it appeared these critics were right. The defeat to Tottenham on 21 November left them 11th, eight points off the lead.

There have been multiple reasons for their subsequent resurgence.

While past key players such as Aguero and Fernandinho have seen better days, a number of the less experienced individuals are beginning to flourish.

Phil Foden and Rúben Dias have been revelations. Players such as John Stones, Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling have also looked back to their best, having previously shown inconsistent form.

Pep Guardiola’s side have been so impressive that Aymeric Laporte — the player whose serious injury last season was cited as one of the main reasons for City surrendering their title to Liverpool — has been often held in reserve.

They have comfortably the best defensive record in the division, conceding just 15 goals in 24 games, with centre-back duo Stones and Dias particularly impressive.

Yet perhaps the most unlikely and important star turn during this history-making run has been performed by Ilkay Gundogan.

The 30-year-old midfielder is in his fifth season at City, and none of the previous four campaigns — statstically, at least — suggested he is capable of the form he is curently showing.

An injury-hit first year saw him score three goals in 10 games. That was followed by 4 in 30, 6 in 31, and 2 in 31. At his previous club, Dortmund, he never scored more than three goals in a single season. This year, he has registered 11 goals in 18 matches, and 14 in all competitions, including a brilliant brace in last Saturday’s impressive 3-0 win over Spurs. It is an astonishing return, particularly for someone perceived as a deep-lying playmaker and not renowned for his goalscoring feats.

An injury saw him miss the midweek defeat of Everton, but Guardiola has indicated he will be available for Sunday’s big game against Arsenal.

With City currently 10 points ahead of nearest rivals Man United, it would be a major surprise if they slipped up at this point, with 14 games remaining, and failed to claim a fifth title in 10 seasons.

And Gundogan has been as influential as any player in guiding them to this position. He is the Etihad outfit’s top scorer with a 39% goal conversion rate – higher than any striker in the division this season. In 2021 alone, Gundogan has scored nine Premier League goals, which is a better record than anyone else in Europe’s top five leagues, with his scintillating form coinciding with City’s formidable march towards glory.

Previously, he might have been considered a good squad player but far from essential. Now, he is indisputably a key figure at the club.

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Quite how or why this has suddenly happened is hard to definitively say.

At 30, Gundogan is approaching his peak as a footballer. He has had a few years now to adapt to Premier League football. Whereas previously, he might have played second fiddle to the likes of David Silva and Fernandinho, there is now more of an onus on him to perform as one of the club’s most senior figures. His career has also been hampered by serious injury on occasion, missing almost the entirety of the 2013-14 campaign for instance, but now he has had a run of 2-3 years where he has managed to avoid any major setbacks.

Moreover, the German international is widely regarded as an intelligent footballer with a capacity to learn and adapt to whatever task is asked of him, while Guardiola’s tactics also deserve some praise. City have played without a recognised striker in the team on occasion this season, affording players such as Gundogan greater licence to attack, as Jamie Carragher has expertly analysed in detail on Sky, with ‘inverted full-back’ João Cancelo, in particular, pivotal in this transformation.

“I said many times he could play as a striker, like a false nine, and people laughed,” Guardiola said after the Spurs win last week. “I understood why because he didn’t do it here. But he has the sense to arrive at the goal.

“Today it was the action for a clear penalty and after he had the quality to score the two goals. He has the tempo to arrive there. He is so good in these moments.

“He won the award for player of the month. If he keeps playing this way in February, he is going to win it again.”

Pressed on why he is suddenly scoring so many goals, Guardiola added: “He is playing closer to the box.

“When Fernandinho was out two seasons ago, he was a holding midfielder, where it was difficult to score goals.

“Now he plays close to the striker and he has an incredible sense to do movements to the box. Then there is the finishing. When a guy shoots the way he did for the second goal, Lloris cannot stop it.”

Few people would have predicted that City or any side would be capable of this run at the start of the season, and fewer still would have singled out Gundogan as its primary orchestrator.

The Gelsenkirchen native has epitomised all that has been good about City this year and with the deadline for voting usually occurring around the middle of March, Gundogan is surely now a prime candidate for PFA Player of the Year.

Upcoming fixtures

Friday

Wolves v Leeds United (20.00)

Saturday

Southampton v Chelsea (12.30)
Burnley v West Brom (15.00)
Liverpool v Everton (17.30)
Fulham v Sheffield United (20.00)

Sunday

West Ham v Tottenham (12.00)
Aston Villa v Leicester (14.05)
Arsenal v Man City (16.30)
Man United v Newcastle (20.00)

Monday

Brighton v Crystal Palace (20.00)

Tuesday

Leeds v Southampton (18.00)

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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