Gundogan absence key factor for defeated City
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MARCH 18 ― Manchester City's Champions League campaign came to an end on Wednesday night with a 3-1 defeat at Monaco, allowing the exciting young French team to advance on away goals after a 6-6 aggregate draw.
Looking at the big picture, though, perhaps City's European dreams ― and their hopes of challenging Chelsea for the Premier League title ― effectively ended just before half-time in their 2-0 home win against Watford on Wednesday 14 December.
Because it was then that midfielder Ilkay Gundogan, signed last summer for a fee of around £20 million (RM110 million) from Borussia Dortmund, suffered a serious knee injury which ruled him out of action for the rest of the season.
Of course, there is a lot more to any team than just one player and Gundogan is by no means the only gifted and expensive performer within City's ranks.
But his importance to Guardiola's game plan was laid bare on the shores of the Mediterranean on Wednesday night, when his team was completely overrun in midfield during the opening 30 minutes, allowing Monaco to establish a 2-0 advantage which eventually led to their famous victory and a place in the quarter finals.
Looking at the personnel Guardiola selected for the game, it's not really surprising that City were so thoroughly dominated in the centre of the pitch.
Ahead of the back four, Fernandinho was stationed as a lone central defensive midfielder, sitting behind Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Sergio Aguero.
Look closely at the last five names. They are all hugely talented players, no doubt, individually capable of producing a match-winning piece of magic at any moment. But they can only do that if they have the ball, and in the first half they couldn't get anywhere near it.
Guardiola effectively sent his team out in a 4-1-5 formation, with Fernandinho the only player in midfield endowed with instincts for one half of the game: playing without the ball. The other five are all fabulous attacking players who thrive when they have possession, but without it there's not a lot they can do.
City's midfield, and as a result their whole team, was imbalanced, with insufficient players capable of stopping the opposition from playing and turning defence into attack.
Fernandinho had to carry out that task more or less by himself, and against a talented, mobile and energetic team like Monaco, it's hardly a surprise that he couldn't. Consequently. City's defence was swamped, their forwards barely touched the ball and they reached half-time without having mustered a single shot on goal.
Gundogan would have made a huge difference. He is the player who Guardiola hand picked last summer to do exactly the job which nobody else was capable of carrying out on Wednesday night: supporting Fernandinho in the centre of the pitch and giving his attacking teammates the necessary freedom to express themselves and cause problems for the opposition.
Without him, Guardiola has several other options but none of them are quite the same. Yaya Toure is physically stronger but cannot cover the same amount of ground or be relied upon to close down the opposition as diligently. Veteran Pablo Zabaleta lacks the pace to keep up with fast opponents and the quality on the ball to retain possession under pressure. Fabian Delph and Fernando have rarely been trusted by Guardiola.
And so, with none of those options proving satisfactory, Guardiola was forced to compromise and instead field all his best attacking players together at the same time, hoping they would be able to use their technical quality to command possession of the ball.
Midfield has always been the most important part of the pitch for Guardiola's teams. At Barcelona, he had Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and, above all, Xavi to run the show. At Bayern Munich, not content with the options he found upon arrival, he signed Xabi Alonso and repositioned Philipp Lahm.
At City, he signed Ilkay Gundogan to team up with Fernandinho, a player Guardiola likes a lot, in the execution of the vital task which had been so well fulfilled by those brilliant players at his former clubs.
Without one of them, the whole plan has become invalidated, in the same way that Barcelona are still tactically coming to terms with the loss of Xavi even now, almost two years after he left.
Interestingly, after the game Guardiola blamed the loss on his players' attitude, which saw them play without the necessary aggression to relentlessly press Monaco and force them into conceding possession so that City could have it.
But that's not because De Bruyne, Silva, Mane and co didn't want to; it's because they didn't know how to. They have never been that kind of player, and the absence of Gundogan, who had been schooled by Judge Klopp's intense pressing game at Dortmund, left a gaping hole for Monaco to exploit.
When Gundogan returns to fitness next season, and Guardiola has had another transfer window to sign a player with similar attributes, expect to see a very different Manchester City.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.
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