Ahead of the Manchester derby on Sunday afternoon, Pep Guardiola’s City side was unrecognisable away in Ukraine as they slumped to their first defeat of the season.
It was an unrecognisable City team, without pretty much all of their regular starters, but it was also an unrecognisable performance. It was perhaps the first time all season when it genuinely felt as though Guardiola’s Blues would not be able to dominate their opponents and nick at least a draw. This always felt like it was going to be their first defeat of the season.
And yet, it’s impossible to read too much into a night of experimentation on a meaningless dead rubber of an away trip to Eastern just days before their biggest game of the season so far. Clearly City’s focus was elsewhere.
And yet, there were positives. Phil Foden played 90 minutes and looked at ease at a high level. If it was a meaningless game for City, it certainly wasn’t for Shakhtar, and the young Englishman looked comfortable even playing at left wing-back: that will surely endear him to his manager.
The other main positive was the performance of Ilkay Gundogan. Last season, before his injury, he looked like he would be a great signing for the club, but even since his comeback this season, the partnership between David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne in the centre of midfield has meant there was no way back for the German international in the team. He remains a wonderful backup, however, and even on a limp night, he showed his class.
It was probably no surprise that City dominated the game, and with Gundogan and Yaya Toure in the centre of the pitch, it was obvious that they were going to have the lion’s share of the ball. Indeed, Gundogan managed 132 touches of the ball and attempted 110 passes, more than anyone else on the pitch.
But was probably was surprising was just what the German did with those touches. This season, City have averaged around 11 dribbles per game as a team. On Wednesday night, Gundogan completed six dribbles by himself. Well above his own season average of just 0.1 per game – though admittedly he hadn’t played many minutes before this midweek.
That’s encouraging for City, though. This season, Guardiola’s side have been passing teams to death, but in recent weeks they’ve looked less able to break down stubborn defences. A change in approach could be important, and having an option like Gundogan who plays in a different way to Silva and De Bruyne seems to suggest that they have that in the squad.
Even more encouraging, however was Gundogan’s all-round enthusiasm for the game.
Sure, City didn’t care, they have bigger things to worry about. But for Gundogan, it was a chance not just to catch the eye of his manager, but also to prove that he is back to something approaching full fitness. And as well as taking players on going forward, Gundogan also did a similar job going the other way, too.
He completed two tackles, but attempted seven. That gives him a success rate of just 29%, but the encouraging part is the fact that he had the fitness and the enthusiasm to put in such a performance in a weakened team on a night which didn’t matter at all.
With the derby to come on Sunday, City may well be able to call on Gundogan off the bench to change things if United’s deep defence causes the same problems as that of Huddersfield, Southampton or West Ham. But it will be the long stretch between Christmas and the end of the season when Gundogan could become a real weapon for City.