Ilkay Gundogan's Injury Lays Bare the Problems in Manchester City's Midfield

David Mooney@DavidMooneyFeatured ColumnistDecember 15, 2016

Ilkay Gundogan was injured in an innocuous collision with Nordin Amrabat.
Ilkay Gundogan was injured in an innocuous collision with Nordin Amrabat.Michael Steele/Getty Images

It might not have been pretty, but the 2-0 win over Watford on Wednesday night was exactly what Manchester City needed. The questions about the manner in which the team is playing at the moment will remain, but there were some answers given to issues over the defence. 

The victory came at a cost, though. Ilkay Gundogan, a player whom manager Pep Guardiola will have been planning to use extensively over the Christmas period and in the absence of the suspended Fernandinho, limped out of the action just before half-time.

He was in tears leaving the field and looked distraught—Guardiola later confirmed it wasn’t good news: “The doctor supposes [it is ligament damage].  It doesn’t look good.”

Pep Guardiola gives Ilkay Gundogan a sympathetic pat as the midfielder departs injured.
Pep Guardiola gives Ilkay Gundogan a sympathetic pat as the midfielder departs injured.Michael Steele/Getty Images

Given the serious nature of the injury, it seems odd that the German continued. After the collision with Nordin Amrabat, Gundogan went down clutching his knee. Clearly in distress, he didn’t move for some time—often a key sign that something is seriously wrong. When someone is badly hurt, the last thing they want to do is move the body part that’s causing them pain.

He got up gingerly with the help of the physios and tried to run it off, playing on for another seven minutes after the challenge.

When he went down with nobody around him and signalled to the bench, the home fans braced themselves for the worst. The anguish on his face, reflected on the big screens, and the sympathetic pat on the head from his manager as he went down the tunnel told the rest of the story; it was serious.

“We spoke with him and he said, ‘I want to try, I want to try’,” Guardiola said afterwards, explaining why he didn’t make the substitution far sooner than he did. “When he [put his] hands up and said, ‘I cannot follow him’, we expect it’s not good.”

City fans will be worrying about the Germany international’s injury record, too. Pablo Zabaleta confirmed after the game that the suspected ligament damage was to the same knee Gundogan had dislocated in May, forcing him to undergo surgery and miss Euro 2016.

“It looks bad. It’s the same knee,” Zabaleta said, per the Manchester Evening News. “We feel so sorry for him because it’s been quite tough for him at the beginning of the season. He has been working so hard and he was playing well.”

It’s Gundogan’s third major problem in three years, after he missed 14 months with Borussia Dortmund with a back injury suffered at the start of 2013-14. The 26-year-old is now facing another long layoff.

That’s the storm cloud over the evening for Guardiola, who could have otherwise been pleased with the result and, to an extent, the performance.

Watford managed a couple of decent chances—a great save from Claudio Bravo denied Etienne Capoue, while Odion Ighalo missed a sitter when he had the opportunity to equalise—but, on the whole, City were far more solid.

It is, of course, too early to say that one clean sheet means an end to the haphazard play that saw Leicester City scythe through the back line, but it’s a start that Guardiola can build on. There were still shaky moments, but Bravo was a spectator for large periods and could go 10 minutes at a time without even touching the ball.

Pablo Zabaleta was part of the defence that kept only its third Premier League clean sheet of the season—and he scored for the first time in two years.
Pablo Zabaleta was part of the defence that kept only its third Premier League clean sheet of the season—and he scored for the first time in two years.Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

It seemed like there was an increase in work rate in the final third, probably more in part down to Nolito’s endless harrying and harassing of his opponents, and it meant Watford struggled to get the ball forward. Instead, they often gifted possession straight back by lumping it long to nobody in particular.

It was a back-to-basics approach for City. Guardiola reverted to the more orthodox back four, and he asked his defenders to take no chances on the rare occasion they were pressed. The manager even got Nicolas Otamendi to stop diving in too often and selling himself high up the pitch.

Guardiola was keen to highlight it post-match, but he also seemed to hint that the run of results was starting to get to his players mentally: “All the team ran a lot, so we cannot defend a clean sheet [just with] the back four,” he said. “But, of course, the back four with Kola [Aleksandar Kolarov] and Otamendi were good… We cannot forget against which tough, tough strikers we played.

“Of course, we needed to win—especially for the mind, for the players.”

However, City’s problems on the front foot were still present. The game was, frankly, boring at times—Watford couldn’t get going as the hosts dominated the ball, and City couldn’t use their possession effectively to open up chances. The two goals aside, it seemed like the home team were lacking in confidence and wanting too many touches.

Certainly Nolito was guilty of that as he skipped into the Watford box early in the second half. He’d already had a shot blocked by goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes in a similar position before the break, but he missed his second by allowing the defence time to recover.

Converting chances is still proving to be a problem for the team. Raheem Sterling hit the crossbar after an exciting jinking run, while Nolito missed the target with a free header early in the match.

Raheem Sterling livened up the City attack in his return, but it still felt like they had the handbrake on.
Raheem Sterling livened up the City attack in his return, but it still felt like they had the handbrake on.Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The pattern in home Premier League matches since mid-September could have been followed on Wednesday again. It usually goes like this: City dominate the ball, miss a lot of opportunities and are hit by a sucker punch. That’s how Everton, Southampton and Middlesbrough all took 1-1 draws and Chelsea took a 3-1 win from the Etihad Stadium, despite none of them playing particularly offensively.

When Watford came back into the match towards the end, the home supporters were beginning to bite their fingernails—but a decisive break wrapped up the points. Perhaps it goes to show that the second goal is more important for City at the moment; the sense of relief when Silva scored was palpable. 

However important the victory was, though, the tough run isn’t over. City are still proving wasteful in front of goal, while a more potent opponent could cause the defence to revert to type and start making mistakes again, especially with a weakened midfield.

The loss of Gundogan leaves City facing the prospect of having to control a creative Arsenal midfield with the veteran Yaya Toure and the limited Fernando as their starting pair. It’s left fans understandably worried, given their limitations and given how the Gunners have performed recently.

Toure, while still impressive on the ball, isn’t able to move like he used to—and 90 minutes on Wednesday night ahead of a tough task this weekend isn’t ideal for him. Fernando, meanwhile, hasn’t been a success in his time with City, and he won’t be the box-to-box force that Gundogan or Fernandinho could be.

After looking like he'd never play for City again, Yaya Toure will now be a key figure over the coming months.
After looking like he'd never play for City again, Yaya Toure will now be a key figure over the coming months.PAUL ELLIS/Getty Images

Guardiola’s words for how the German was feeling in the dressing room after the game probably also summed up the mood of the fans when they take into consideration how threadbare the team is for Sunday’s top-of-the-table clash.

“Sad,” the manager said, his face not hiding any of his concern. “So sad.”

         

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise stated.

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