For most professional sports these days, we spend a lot of time marveling at two different groups of athletes: the players who should leave their respective primes behind but continue to play at a particularly elite level, and the young goats who are coming after the throne . The Patrick Mahomeses against the Tom Bradys, the Naomi Osakas against the Serena Williamses, etc.
This is especially true for the world of football in 2021. You can’t run more than ten feet these days without stumbling upon a story by “Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland versus Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo”. Of course, we do this because it’s fascinating, but if we focus on this general narrative structure we are missing out on some other interesting stories. You know, like Ilkay Gundogan’s.
The 30-year-old from Gelsenkirchen was part of two mini dynasties: firstly, he was a regular at Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund, won the Bundesliga title in 2012 and reached the Champions League final in 2013; In 2016 he moved to Manchester City, where he became an integral part of Pep Guardiola’s 2018 and 2019 Premier League squads.
Gundogan has long been a permanent supplier. He’s played at least 48 games in all competitions in the past three seasons, and in league play he’s usually been good at three to five goals, 25 to 35 chances, 150 or so ball restores, and lots of dutiful advances in ball from middle third to attacking third . However, with City struck by a number of injuries to the center-forward and struggling to reliably create good chances, Gundogan has recently tried on a new hat.
Here are the leading scorers in the Premier League since mid-December:
3. Mohamed Salah, Liverpool: 7
2. Bruno Fernandes, Manchester United: 8
1. Ilkay Gundogan, Manchester City: 11
Despite not having scored any goals on the morning of December 15, Gundogan now occupies eighth place in the league of goals scored for the season. He scored his first goal that day in a 1-1 draw with West Bromwich Albion. City has won every single game since then.
Gundogan is neither an aging all-timer like Messi or Ronaldo, nor is he part of the precocious new generation of football greats. But he was just as responsible as anyone else for City’s 21-game winning streak that turned the Premier League race from a battle royale into a city frenzy.
Every year there are stories of late bloomers or gamblers adjusting their games as they enter (or begin to leave) their prime numbers. It’s time to celebrate some of them. Let’s hand out the first annual Gundogan Awards.
All of the players listed below are 27 or older and have found ways to take their game to unfounded (or at least seldom established) territory this season. We will award two players from each of the Big Five leagues in Europe and then give out some bonus awards as well.
The English Premier League
Ilkay Gundogan, MF, Manchester City (30 years old)
After an average of four goals and 32 chances in the last three league seasons, Gundogan is on pace with 16 and 41 respectively this year. He had never scored more than six goals in a league game, except seven since January 25. His touch map screams “CENTRAL MIDFIELDER” and for good reason, but suddenly he teleports himself unmarked to the center of the penalty area, putting away rebounds and crosses.
If you’d asked me who would start the season with City in the standings, Gundogan would have been either my eighth or ninth guess, depending on which playing field I thought Joao Cancelo would be spending most of his time on. But he was key to Guardiola’s offensive reinvention and City has benefited greatly from it.
Liam Cooper, DF, Leeds United (29)
Who doesn’t love a good endurance story? Center-back Cooper has spent more than 10 years between appearances in the Premier League – from March 13, 2010 with Hull City to September 19, 2020 with Leeds. He jumped from Hull to Carlisle United to Huddersfield Town to Chesterfield before landing with Leeds in 2014-15, and he’s been a massive part of their rise over the past couple of seasons.
After 16 years in the lower division, Leeds are holding back Marcelo Bielsa in the Premier League and Cooper has been one of the main reasons for that. He wins 64% of his duels and 60% of his antennas. He’s averaging more than seven ball recoveries per 90 minutes, just like he did in the championship, and his completion rates have actually increased to 86%. He was also Leeds’ main tactical fouler and interventionist, something any good possession team needs.
Another late bloomer, Patrick Bamford, has made a lot of individual headlines, but his counterpart at the end of the line-up was as responsible for Leeds’ success as almost anyone else.
Raphael Guerreiro, DF, Borussia Dortmund (27)
Granted, Guerreiro’s recovery really started last year when he scored eight goals in his career. But its development has continued this season; With the position of the full-back in attack continuing to play a bigger role, Guerreiro continues to be an exemplary left-back. FBref.com lists him in the 94th percentile or higher among the Big Five full-backs in virtually all offensive categories: progressive passes and transfers, completion rate, shots, non-penalty goals, assists, etc.
While BVB had problems at times in the league game, Guerreiro’s partnership with left winger Jadon Sancho was one of the most dangerous in Europe – the two have scored 17 league games (they are the two best in the team) and nine goals. Only 10 Big Five players have more assists than Guerreiro, and none are that far back on the field.
Willi Orban, DF, RB Leipzig (28)
Dayot Upamecano has rightly earned praise as one of the sport’s great young defenders in recent years. So it made perfect sense that he was the subject of numerous transfer rumors before Bayern Munich took on their services from July. However, Upamecano’s battery colleague in central defense was just as important to RB Leipzig’s success.
Since Orban got on the Red Bull train from Kaiserslautern in the second division last year, he has been collecting more and more skills. In the last two seasons alone, his success rate from the air has risen from 61% to 67% to 71%. His duel success rate improved from 63% to 67% last season and has stayed there this year. He’s started to pounce on more loose balls too (more than five ball restores per 90 minutes) and now he’s a creator too? After an average of 3.3 chances in the last four seasons, he has already collected eight this year. He’s also scored four times, making it a career high.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan, MF, AS Roma (32)
Like Gundogan, Mkhitaryan thrived at Borussia Dortmund before moving to the Premier League. After combining 11 goals and 15 assists at BVB in 2015-16, the attacking midfielder has never scored six goals or nine assists in three EPL seasons at Manchester United and Arsenal. After being loaned to Roma in 2019, he completed a permanent move in August that worked out well for both sides. Mkhitaryan is in 12th place in Serie A with nine goals and first place with eight assists – he’s at speed with 14 and 13 respectively – and after scoring eight points in the Champions League chase last season, Roma are currently within two points of their last 2-1 defeat at the weekend to AC Milan.
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Juan Cuadrado, DF, Juventus (32)
This is marked with an asterisk: Cuadrado has been bitten by snakes so far in 2021, five games with coronavirus were missing, then two weeks and a biceps injury was expected.
One thing is certain, however: if the right-back plays well, Juve will win. He has averaged 0.43 xG + xA (expected goals and expected assists) and 2.7 chances per 90 minutes in wins this year, and his overall average of 0.34 xA + xG is his best since 2017-18. Like Cooper, he excelled in the tactical fouls division: his 1.4 fouls per 90 are his highest since 2016-17, and they have mostly served a purpose.
The development of Cuadrado was interesting to follow. He landed at Chelsea in 2014, also because of his attacking skills – he had scored 21 goals in all competitions in his last two seasons with Fiorentina. But after scoring 13 goals in his first three seasons at Juve, he has only scored four goals in the last three. He’s further back on the pitch and found ways to still add value.
Casemiro, MF, Real Madrid (29)
Casemiro, who has been a solid contributor to Real Madrid for years, has adapted his game in many ways like Gundogan. Since the start of the 2018-19 season after Ronaldo’s departure Los Blancos I took a little more of an “all hands on deck” approach to scoring goals. Karim Benzema is in the lead with a voluminous 46 at this time, but Casemiro is second with 12. Five have come since November 28th, most of them from set pieces. (The assistant: Toni Kroos, who would also qualify for a Gundogan Award if he hadn’t been so damn good for so long.)
Casemiro is still heavily involved in Real Madrid’s defensive half but he has been increasingly involved in set pieces and attacks as the team slowly tried to evolve after Ronaldo.
Gerard Moreno, FW, Villarreal (28)
Nothing says “late bloomer” like your debut with the Spanish national team at the age of 27, like Moreno in late 2019. He joined the Villarreal system but spent three seasons at Espanyol before returning in 2018. He’s had to pause a few times due to gnawing injuries this season, but when he plays he scores: having averaged the best 0.59 goals per 90 last season, he’s got that number up this year 0.73, and his xA + xG per 90 has improved from 0.41 in 2018 -19 to 0.70 in the past two years.
Villarreal has been a bit of a disappointment this year, but injuries played a big part in that and when Moreno plays they are outstanding: they averaged 1.67 points per game and 1.4 goals per game with him on the line-up and 1, 40 and 1.0 each without him.
Benjamin Andre, MF, Lille (30)
Andre, who has made a career in Ligue 1, has been a bit more central and a little less on defense since moving from Stade Rennes to Lille in 2019. Things looked good for him too: Andre was the main engine to get the ball forward Burak Yilmaz, Yusuf Yazici and Jonathan David in attacking positions – his 73% success rate in the attacking third is a career high, and his 0.72 chances per 90 are his best since 2017-18.
Despite Yilmaz’s almost two-month absence and Yazici’s return after a cruciate ligament rupture and his own agonizing injuries, Lille lead Ligue 1 and are on pace with 83 points, the best in the first division so far (even more) than they were when they won the league generated in 2011). It would be easy to argue that Andre Lille’s most consistent player was on his most consistent team to date.
Andy Delort, FW, Montpellier (29)
After Delort had almost landed at BVB with Mario Gotze and Shinji Kagawa a lifetime ago, he began a fascinating journeyman career that not only took him across France, but also to Wigan and the Tigres of Liga MX. He could have found his forever home at the Montpellier Landing in 2018, and as he nears his 30th birthday he’s on pace for 13 goals (which would be the second most of his career), 10 assists (seven is his Career) high) and created 51 opportunities.
Montpellier has scored more goals than anyone outside of France’s top four teams. La Paillade are only two points away from a European qualification place. It’s pretty easy to say that Delort, striker Gaetan Laborde and another Gundogan candidate, midfielder Teji Savanier (five goals, four assists) are the main reasons for this.
Gundogan Award deep cuts
Late bloomer stories are not only found in the Big Five leagues. Here are a few key contributors who look terribly flirtatious at 30.
Sebastian Coates, DF, Sporting CP (30)
Sporting is nine points ahead in the Primeira Liga race and has an 82% chance of winning its first championship title since 2002, according to FiveThirtyEight club soccer ratings. The main reason? They only allowed 10 goals all season, seven fewer than anyone else. Even if you beat the first two lines, the central-defensive pairing of Coates and Gundogan candidate Zouhair Feddal will block your attack.
Coates, a former Liverpool and Sunderland defender, is thriving in Lisbon. He wins 68% of his duels and 74% of aerial shots (both career highlights), he’s on pace for 164 ball recoveries (his most since 2017-18), and he’s even on pace to add five goals and six scoring opportunities.
Magnus Wolff Eikrem, FW, Molde (30)
Now for one Really deep cut. Eikrem, a former Manchester United youth player who played briefly in the Premier League for Cardiff City and made a cameo with the Seattle Sounders in 2018, is doing well in Norway. He has scored 25 goals in 71 games for Molde and made it big in a big moment: he scored a brace in a Europa League tie against Rapid Vienna last December, which allowed Molde to advance to the knockout stage. There they defeated TSG Hoffenheim and became the first Norwegian club to ever reach the round of 16.
Finding a home forever is a nice thing, even if it takes a while.
The Gundogan Lifetime Achievement Awards
Instead, if we’re honest, the Gundogan Awards could easily be named after either of these two men.
Thomas Müller, MF / FW, Bayern Munich (31)
Every manager that Thomas Müller had imagined a slightly different role for him. He scored an average of 13 goals and 10.3 assists from 2012-13 to 2014-15 and then jumped to 20 and 5 respectively in his senior year under Pep Guardiola. Neither Carlo Ancelotti nor Niko Kovac could figure out exactly how to achieve the same level of production can, and he averaged seven goals and eleven assists from 2016-17 to 2018-19. But thanks to Hansi Flick’s attitude, he exploded at the age of 30 for a Bundesliga record of 21 assists last season.
Müller had 10 goals and 11 assists this year before he was banned from the corona virus. Provided he returns in full steam, he’ll have a chance in his first 15-and-15 season. In short, one of the most unique players we have ever seen continues to create unique number combinations well into his 30s.
Ciro Immobile, FW, Lazio (31)
Sometimes it takes a while to find a club that really understands you. Immobile, a former youth from Juventus, jumped for a long time from Juve via Genoa to Turin, from BVB to Seville, but had only scored 64 league goals when he moved to Lazio in 2016. In his first three seasons he scored 67 goals Biancocelesti, then posted a top 36 in the league last year. (Here’s your reminder that Ronaldo is in Serie A too.)
His pace has slowed a bit this season – he’s scored three goals in his last eight games and is on pace for 22 league goals – but he found an elite level long after many had written him off. If that’s not a Gundogan, I don’t know what it is.
Gundogan Award, women’s edition
Fran Kirby, FW, Chelsea (27)
The Women’s Super League has garnered a lot of talent over the past few months, but Chelsea have managed to lose just seven points in 15 games, beating their opponents by a 47-8 advantage. They have a narrow lead over Manchester City and a pretty healthy lead over the rest of the field and they drew a cumulative 8-0 against Benfica in the Champions League round of 16. (Atletico Madrid is next.)
The team is also full of talent, from England national team mainstays like Millie Bright and Bethany England to recent additions Sam Kerr and Pernille Harder. But their MVP was a player who almost gave up on the sport years ago. Kirby scored eight goals with six assists in 17 games in Chelsea’s WSL title three years ago. After 12 games, she is 11 and 6 years old this year.
She’s always been good, but she basically turned her game into half a Chaos Agent, half a Messi. And she’s still only 27.
So basically Fran Kirby> Leo Messi. pic.twitter.com/HugaO3rFHg
– Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) February 11, 2021
Sam Mewis, MF, Manchester City (28)
To put it simply, the USWNT is blessed with an abundance of midfield talent right now. Julie Ertz and Lindsey Horan have only recently reached their respective sporting prime numbers, Rose Lavelle is only 25 years old, veterans like Allie Long and Kristie Mewis still have a lot to offer, young people like Catarina Macario are advancing quickly, etc. And yet Mewis could be in the best shape of all.
Of all the American players who recently moved to the WSL, Mewis was the most successful. He scored five goals and assisted in ten games for runner-up Manchester City. According to StatsBomb data on FBref.com, it is among WSL midfielders with shots per 90 (4.4), progressive transfers (6.3), completed dribbles (2.1), xA + xG without penalty (0.6 ) and shot generating actions (3.8). She also scored a hat trick for the USWNT against Colombia in January. She’s a force, and USWNT manager Vlatko Andonovski has a huge (and big) problem on his hands with figuring out how to divide minutes in the moment. You really can’t keep Mewis out of the first team right now.