Man City being driven to title by man of the moment – and it’s not Erling Haaland
Ilkay Gundogan isn’t leaving it quite as late this year. Twelve months ago, his goals won Manchester City the title: a comeback-clinching 81st-minute decider against Aston Villa on the final day of the season sealed the trophy. Now City’s May has consisted of more Gundogan goals to set up another coronation. After the captain’s brace against Leeds came a still better double at Everton, a volley of improvisational brilliance and a free kick he made look enviably easy, sandwiched by an assist. His 300th City appearance ranks as one of his finest.
Having not struck twice in a game since last May, he has done so in successive league matches. When the business end of the season arrives, Gundogan becomes more purposeful. It is inspirational leadership, but with a velvet touch.
His excellence could render Arsenal’s results irrelevant. He is keeping the Gunners at bay while the newly-anointed Footballer of the Year, Erling Haaland, is instead waging war on Everton’s past. His 52nd goal of the campaign means he now needs 11 to equal Dixie Dean’s record for a top-flight English club, set almost a century ago. Although, as he only has one goal in his last three games, the equation is weighted in the favour of Everton’s greatest goalscorer. In one respect, Haaland produced a performance of extreme efficiency: when, in the 39th minute, he met Gundogan’s deft cross with a towering leap and an emphatic header, it was only his third touch of the afternoon. But he had scored from 33 per cent of them. He ended up with 13, and one goal.
In a sense, City reflected Haaland: nothing much happened for quite some time and then they were deadly. Half an hour of nothingness at the start suited Everton, with the league leaders not even registering a shot on target until the 35th minute, but they conceded three goals within a quarter of an hour either side of the break. They was preceded by a glaring miss, with Mason Holgate hoofing the ball over the bar from four yards, and Everton’s chances of a shock came and went with one wild swing of his right foot.
If City had lacked a little incision at the start, it was unsurprising. Pep Guardiola had rested much of his preferred midfield with Real Madrid in mind, taking out Kevin de Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Jack Grealish and the quasi-regista John Stones. But his captain was constant and catalyst.
City’s 11th straight league win stemmed from a couple of touches of class: first with Gundogan’s knee, to control Riyad Mahrez’s cross, and then with his right boot, as he hooked in a volley in a way few others could envisage, let alone execute. The paradox of City is that they have a robotic air, as though putting training ground routines into practice on the pitch, but can sometimes rely on individual virtuosity: five days after De Bruyne’s spectacular strike in the Bernabeu came a different kind of wonder goal.
And, a couple of minutes later, a far more familiar one. Haaland’s giant leap has added another dimension to the City attack and he headed in Gundogan’s cross. When the German’s free kick flew past Jordan Pickford, the goalkeeper perhaps ought to have done better. It was, though, a throwback to past title-clinching exploits. Gundogan had only scored from one previous free kick in the Premier League: at Brighton, in May 2019, as City finished one point ahead of Liverpool.
For Everton, the quest is to end up ahead of two out of Leeds, Leicester and Nottingham Forest and earn a 70th successive season in the top flight. Last week’s five-goal demolition of Brighton felt a mirage even if elite opponents called for a very different approach. They began with nine outfield players in a narrow box just outside their own area and were camped behind the ball.
The eventual scoreline represented one kind of improvement. At Burnley, Sean Dyche had a habit of losing 5-0 to City, usually playing 4-4-2. Here the gameplan was different: a scorer of two goals against Brighton and involved in four, Dwight McNeil was an auxiliary defender, dropping in at left-back to make five at the back. Dyche ended with a 5-4-1 shape, too, rather than risking any further damage.
Which, as his record now stands at 15 defeats in 16 games against Guardiola, with no wins, five goals scored and 54 conceded, is perhaps understandable. There might have been a sixth goal, when Ederson tipped Amadou Onana’s header on to the bar. Everton could question if Aymeric Laporte deserved to escape unpunished when he seemed to lash out at Yerry Mina. But they have two games now, against Wolves and Bournemouth, to ensure they evade the drop. For Gundogan, and City, the season may yet bring three trophies.