The Heroes of Manchester City’s Winning Run

By Dan Larsen | 28 January 2021
Dan takes a look at the vital roles played by Ilkay Gundogan and João Cancelo in City’s revival.

The wins keep on coming for Manchester City at the moment! After a 5-0 thrashing of West Brom on Tuesday evening, City have now earned themselves 11 consecutive victories across all competitions. It’s the best winning run that the team have gone on since they pulled off 15 consecutive victories in the league to seize the title at the end of the 2018-19 season.

The club have seen their fair share of elite performances during this stretch. After all, it takes a collective belief, and level of dominance across the team, to get to this level of play. However, two men have stood above the rest during this incredible run: Ilkay Gundogan and Joao Cancelo. What we saw on Tuesday was just the latest example of how important Cancelo and Gundogan have been to the team’s success.

City’s opening goal of the game came directly from these two men. John Stones made a short pass to Cancelo as the City back line were being pressed just inside their own half. Cancelo saw Gundogan making a threatening direct run towards the two West Brom central defenders near the edge of the 18-yard box. Cancelo hit a perfectly weighted lofted through ball to Gundogan who took an incredible first touch to control the ball, turned, then hit a rocket shot on the edge of the box into the bottom right corner of the net.

Just minutes later, Cancelo would have his turn to score. City benefited from a narrow (and questionable) decision by the assistant referee to flag Bernardo Silva offside after he received a long ball down the right-hand side of the pitch. Though Sian Massey-Ellis flagged for offside, the referee did not blow the play dead. Cancelo received a pass from Bernardo, then turned and launched a perfectly placed shot from over 20 yards out into the top left corner. Just like that, City found themselves up 2-0 just under 20 minutes into the first half.

The team’s third would come yet again from Gundogan. West Brom tried, but failed several times, at trying to get rid of the ball via headers in their defensive third. Gundogan succeeded at taking the ball off one of their defenders during this sequence, dribbled past the remaining defender in front of him, then scored on a curling ground shot into the bottom left corner. In less than 30 minutes, City had decisively won the game.

It wasn’t just these three specific instances where both Cancelo and Gundogan shone. Both continued to exert control over the game throughout, and constantly posed a threat to the West Brom back-line. Cancelo, in particular, was everywhere recording 145 touches of the ball during the game (most on the team) and creating three key passes. Cancelo finished as the highest rated player of the match with an eye-watering 9.73 match rating (MOTM), while Gundogan finished with a 9.37 rating according to

The importance of these two players to the side cannot be understated at the moment. Gundogan has recently taken on a very similar role, tactically, to the one that David Silva occupied in the previous two seasons for the club. With the defence playing at much higher level, he’s been freed up to play much further forward in possession, making runs to challenge the back-line while also working as the connector between the full backs and the wingers in the final third. His seven league goals to date, six of which have come in his past seven league games, are his best total in any single league season that he’s participated in during his career. With the forward line struggling to score any goals at the moment, his goals have been absolutely critical to City’s recent victories.

His overall contributions have been immense as well. His season form rating in the league currently rests at a 7.36, good for third best in the side behind Cancelo and Kevin De Bruyne. He’s posted a form rating greater than seven in seven of his past eight appearances in the league, including three games with a form rating of eight or greater. His 1.4 key passes per game ranks fourth on the team, and he’s completed 91.1% of his passes on an average of 64.9 passes per game. He’s been as confident and as sure-footed than he’s been at any other time during his tenure at the club.

Cancelo, on the other hand, has propelled himself up to second-best in the side’s form rating, sitting at a 7.44 rating in the league at the moment. In fact, he’s been in great form for longer than Gundogan has, having posted a form rating of seven of higher in ten of his past 11 league starts.

His ability to play virtually anywhere in the opposing half for the side has created all sorts of problems for opposing defences. From playing as a second holding midfielder at times, to stretching the pitch occasionally down the right side, to making threatening runs and setting up intricate one-twos in the final third through the center of the pitch, his dynamic skill-set has seen him take on and excel at whatever Pep Guardiola has asked of him. Only Kevin De Bruyne has created more key passes per game (3.2) than Cancelo has (two).

He’s also done what he’s needed to do defensively. He leads the team in tackles (2.1) and interceptions (1.6) per game in the league. His recovery speed, in particular, has helped City close out opposing counter attacks that would have threatened them just a few months ago. This is part of what enables him to play more progressively in the attack. He can still be vulnerable at times on the defensive end (he’s dribbled past 1.5 times per game and his tackling success rate is middling at 58.3%), but much of this can be explained by where he’s playing on the pitch and what role is being asked of him.

If City are going to continue to play at an elite level, they’re going to need these two to continue this run of form, especially with Kevin De Bruyne being out for the foreseeable future. Both are immense talents. It’s time that we recognized it and commended them for their role in getting the team back into the title race.