The Germany midfielder was expected to take up a deep-lying role when he arrived at Manchester City but he has been forced to play further forward and looks right at home
Not Gundogan himself, and perhaps not even Pep Guardiola.
As predictions were made about how Guardiola’s latest project would pan out, Gundogan was identified as the fulcrum of the side by fans and pundits alike.
At Borussia Dortmund, Gundogan played in a deep role and made an average of 70 passes per game in the 2014-15 campaign, and 78.5 last season. With many anticipating an overhaul of City’s central midfield, it made complete sense that the only new arrival in that position would dictate the tempo for Guardiola’s team.
Instead, he has changed his game completely: so far at City he has made 50.7 passes per game, 28 fewer than his last campaign in Germany.
In his best games, he has been Guardiola’s match-winner.
In 11 matches for City so far he has either surpassed or almost matched the tallies he set in full seasons with Dortmund. For City he has scored five goals, created 18 chances from open play, and laid on one assist.
In 31 games in the Bundesliga and Europa League last season, he scored one goal, created 24 chances from open play, and made three assists.
In 29 Bundesliga and Champions League games the season before that, he scored three goals, created 30 chances from open play, and made five assists.
The numbers are striking and perfectly illustrate how well he has adjusted to a new role since returning from injury in September.
Guardiola is no stranger to asking players to take up alien roles but perhaps Gundogan’s transformation came about by accident rather than design. The City boss may well have signed the German to sit deep, but he was won over by Fernandinho in pre-season and the Brazilian has been undroppable ever since.
“He can play in Fernandinho’s position,” Guardiola said of Gundogan in September. “If Fernandinho doesn’t play, maybe he can play in that position. But if Fernandinho plays, Ilkay plays in front. Fernandinho is the first choice in that position until now. He gives us a lot. He is such an important player for us in that role.”
Gundogan has had to be rehoused, and he himself seems surprised by the result.
Having scored five goals in 11 City appearances compared to six in 73 in his last two seasons at Dortmund, it was put to him that he now has a nose for goals.
“Maybe that’s true,” he told Kicker recently, “but during my time at Dortmund, I was also well positioned and free, but somehow the balls wouldn’t deflect to me. At least against West Brom and Barcelona it was different, I hope it continues like that.
“It’s incredible fun to play that position. It just fits right now.”
He added: “I know that I have a defensive holding midfielder behind me in Fernandinho. He’s there and he has my back. That’s why I play more attacking, usually in the No.8 position, and sometimes even in the No.10 and I just get into the box more often.”
But there were no guarantees that he would take to the role as well as he has done.
After missing a presentable chance against Borussia Monchengladbach on his debut, he joked that it was proof that he is not used to scoring goals. In his very next game, though, he found himself in the same position and finished like a seasoned pro. He has looked right at home in the box ever since.
There have been quiet games, of course, and not long ago he was criticised by some for lacking a killer instinct.
Guardiola has fielded Gundogan, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne in the central attacking areas on two occasions and each have looked stifled as City could only muster 1-1 draws with Southampton and Everton.
And against Middlesbrough before the international break – another 1-1 draw – Gundogan found space in the box on two occasions but could not finish.
But Guardiola, who started coaching his players to arrive at goalscoring positions on the edge of the box during his time at Bayern Munich, is sure Gundogan & Co. will soon hit it off: “I think the more talented players you have, the more chances you have to create options.”
And when Gundogan has found form, he has been devastating.
His through ball for Sergio Aguero’s first goal at West Brom was perfectly weighted, and he was in the right place at the right time twice to convert a fine double himself. Against Barcelona a few days later he arrived at exactly the right moments to add another two to his tally.
There are sure to be ups and downs, both in his individual game and in City’s evolution under Guardiola, but it cannot be disputed that Gundogan has already impressed at the Etihad Stadium.
It’s just that nobody quite expected he would do it like this.