Can Ilkay Gundogan defend? Deconstructing the question that will define Manchester City’s vital week

Fernandinho limped off in the second half of Sunday’s Carabao Cup final win over Arsenal at Wembley, handing defensive responsibilities for the coming week to Gundogan

Jack Pitt-Brooke
Monday 26 February 2018 08:00
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The pressure is now on Ilkay Gundogan
The pressure is now on Ilkay Gundogan

Can Ilkay Gundogan defend? That is the question that will define Manchester City’s week.

Pep Guardiola’s side have two huge Premier League games coming up, Arsenal away on Thursday night and Chelsea at home on Sunday. Two games that they have to face without Fernandinho, their holding midfielder and one of City’s least dispensable players.

Fernandinho has started 36 of City’s 42 matches so far this season – the most, along with Kevin de Bruyne – because he is the only man Guardiola truly trusts in that role in front of the back four. The only other player who has his mix of intelligence, athleticism, technique and versatility is De Bruyne, and he has an important job to do further up the pitch.

But Fernandinho limped off in the second half of Sunday’s Carabao Cup final win over Arsenal at Wembley with a hamstring injury that will be assessed on Monday. When he went off Guardiola got Gundogan and De Bruyne to help out in deep midfield, and by that point City had enough control of the game that ultimately it did not matter.

Even with Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil, Arsenal could not hurt City in that area.

Thursday might be different, though, when Arsenal have Henrikh Mkhitaryan too and have the benefit of home advantage. If City play their usual attacking game, dominating possession and defending high up the pitch, then they will need someone in front of the centre-backs to protect against the counter-attack.

And without Fernandinho, that will put serious pressure on Gundogan’s defensive capabilities. He is a very good passer, with a good touch, who adds fluidity to City’s play. But blocking off counters is a different game and something that he will need to adjust to.

Fernandinho picked up an injury in the EFL Cup final

Even more important will be against Chelsea on Sunday. Despite the results, Chelsea played good counter-attacking football against Barcelona last week and at Manchester United on Sunday. With the speed of Eden Hazard and Willian they can hurt teams through the middle of the pitch, exactly the space Fernandinho is meant to protect. Remember when Chelsea won 3-1 at City in December 2016, a brilliant counter-attacking display and a crucial win on their way to last season’s Premier League title.

Guardiola will be desperate to avoid a repeat of that result this weekend but to do that he will need to stop Chelsea from breaking down the middle. If Fabian Delph is not fit then, with Yaya Toure no longer in the first team picture, then Gundogan may be asked to do a job there. Even if that side of the game does not come to him quite so naturally.

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