Bernardo Silva’s been Manchester City’s key player this season, all this coming months after he was reportedly heading out of the club. Lynne Cameron/Manchester City
Last season, we celebrated a number of players aged 27 or older who, like Ilkay Gundogan, had either pushed their respective games to new heights or thrived in slightly different roles in the 2020-21 season. (We also gave out Gundogan lifetime achievement awards to Bayern’s Thomas Muller and Lazio‘s Ciro Immobile.)
Some of last year’s honorees have continued to thrive over the recent months, while others trailed off. But it’s time to work through the same exercise for the 2021-22 season. Let’s induct this year’s collection of Gundogans.
By any rational account, Manchester City had a great offseason. After winning the Premier League for the third time in four seasons and reaching the Champions League final for the first time, they kept their core lineup intact and added one of the world’s best creators in Aston Villa winger, Jack Grealish. What’s not to love about that?
Of course, because the transfer rumor mill is both relentless and loud, we also know what City intended to do. Lacking a standout force at center-forward, City also made heavy advances for Tottenham Hotspur‘s (and England‘s) star striker Harry Kane, offering a combination of both money and high-caliber players. Spurs resisted, and while we can debate the merits of that — City was offering a bounty — Kane remains in North London. Thanks to the departure of Sergio Aguero, City entered the season even lighter up front than they were last season.
Cry not for City. Once again, they’re at the top of the Premier League table, and they worked through one of the more difficult Champions League groups with relative ease. Without an anchor like Kane, what has instead emerged, once more, is a squad with almost impossible balance. Nine players have created between 19 and 30 chances in league play, and only one player has more than three assists. Ten players have attempted between 20 and 36 shots, and nine players have scored between two and four goals. Only one has scored more.
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Who is the guy with more than three assists? Kevin De Bruyne, maybe the best ball distributor in the world? Grealish, the record signing? Nope, centre forward-turned-right winger Gabriel Jesus. And who’s the leading goal scorer? Jesus as well? Raheem Sterling? Phil Foden? No again. It’s midfielder Bernardo Silva.
After scoring either six or seven goals in league play for each of his first three seasons in Manchester, the 27-year old former Monaco star got lost in the shuffle in 2020-21. He began the season with a knock and ended up scoring just two goals with 27 chances created in 2,071 minutes, down from six and 50, respectively, the year before.
Silva was predictably linked to any number of transfer rumors this summer as City’s pursuit of Grealish came to fruition. Arsenal wanted him, as did AC Milan and Barcelona, and the club supposedly floated his name as part of the potential player swap for Kane. But against decent odds he remained at the club, and now he’s one of the biggest reasons why they’re in first place.
After mainly providing width on the right for his first four seasons in Manchester, Silva has been asked to do a little bit of everything this season. Though functionally a central midfielder, he has spent time at both centre forward (he scored from there against Manchester United) and defensive midfield. But whatever label you affix to his position, he’s been everywhere.
Source: TruMedia / StatsPerform
Silva has also popped up frequently right in front of the goal mouth. He’s scored seven goals in league play, all within 15 meters of the goal. City is as good as anyone at creating overloads and numbers advantages and as opponents scramble to account for all their weapons, it opens space for a usurper in the box. Silva has been the prime usurper of 2021-22.
Whether Silva’s production continues depends almost as much on Man City’s opponents as it does Silva. Gundogan himself has scored 16 goals in league play over the last season-and-a-half, but 11 of them came within a two-month span last winter. As opponents adjusted, so did City, and spaces began to open for other scorers instead. But whatever his goal count ends up being, Silva’s early-season contributions have been invaluable for City to advance through a cluttered and challenging fall with aplomb.
Silva has served as this year’s Ilkay Gundogan, a City midfielder who becomes a key scoring cog for which opponents cannot account. It’s only fitting, then, that he be named this year’s primary Gundogan Award winner.
In honour of Sergio Aguero’s retirement, Steve Nicol recalls the former Manchester City striker’s title-winning goal.
Premier League Gundogans
Joel Matip, DF, Liverpool (30). After last season’s spectacular injury issues, it was easy to wonder if Jurgen Klopp might deploy a pretty large rotation this season at centre-back. Virgil Van Dijk and Matip both missed a majority of the 2020-21 campaign, as did Joe Gomez, and Liverpool spent most of its summer transfer budget on defender Ibrahima Konate. They’re all healthy and ready now, but Klopp has mainly leaned on just Van Dijk and Matip.
After managing just 1,395 league minutes over the last two seasons, however, Matip has already logged 1,080 in 2021-22. His passing has been as reliable as ever, and he’s winning 67% of his duels (71% of aerials). As good as Van Dijk has been, Matip has nearly matched his level and Liverpool is soaring because of it.
Thiago Silva, DF, Chelsea (37). That Silva is playing well is never going to be much of a shock. He’s been playing top-level defense since joining AC Milan in 2009, and he remains a stalwart for the Brazilian national team.
Still… 2009 was a really long time ago — like, more than half of Kylian Mbappe‘s life to date! Silva’s 37 and in his best form in years. When we watch Porto, we marvel at how someone like their own ageless centre-back, Pepe, can do what he does at 38, but Silva is nearly as old and is playing for Chelsea! He started in the last two Champions League finals, and he is at an even higher level now than he was for those teams! None of this makes sense, and it’s wonderful.
La Liga Gundogans
Iker Muniain, LW, Athletic Bilbao (28). Muniain was given the patently unfair “Spanish Messi” label early in his career and while he never had a chance of living up to that, he’s been solid. This year, though, he’s been great. And he could have another gear if or when a finishing slump ends.
– Muniain’s last three seasons (per-90 average): 0.23 goals, 0.12 assists among 1.36 chances created, 0.33 xG+xA
– Muniain in 2021-22: 0.15 goals, 0.29 assists among 3.63 chances, 0.56 xG+xA
He’s turned 4.21 xG from 20 shots into only two league goals this season, but he’s already far exceeded last year’s production in terms of assists and chances — he’s never created more than 43 chances in a season, and he’s currently on pace for 112. This “key facilitator” role looks fantastic on him.
Oscar Trejo, AM, Rayo Vallecano (33). Rayo eked out promotion in last season’s playoff despite finishing sixth in the second division. That makes you a prime relegation candidate from the start, but approaching the midway point of the season, Los Franjirrojos are sixth in La Liga, just two points out of a Champions League spot and three points ahead of Barcelona.
While the snazzy addition of 35-year old Radamel Falcao (five goals in nine matches) has made an impact, the 33-year old Trejo has made even more of one. Playing primarily from a central attacking role, he’s recorded seven assists (most in La Liga) among 27 chances (10th), and among forwards and attacking midfielders, his 72 ball recoveries rank fifth. He’s been incredible, just like Rayo.
Dortmund’s Reus has stayed out of injury trouble and while stars like Haaland and Reyna around him have missed time, Reus’ form has help keep them near the top of the Bundesliga. Stuart Franklin/Getty Images
Marco Reus, AM, Borussia Dortmund (32). Marco Rose’s first year in charge at BVB has been beset by a sea of injuries, which very much contributed to their failure to advance to the Champions League knockout rounds. But think of where they might be without Reus. He has dealt with plenty of his own injury issues through the years — he’s topped 1,501 league minutes just twice in the last five seasons — but he’s been mostly healthy thus far, and in all competitions he’s scored seven goals (second on the team) with six assists (first) among 38 chances created (first). He’s not thriving in a new role so much as thriving by staying on the pitch, but it’s been great to see nonetheless.
Anthony Modeste, FW, Koln (33). After needing to win the relegation playoff to stay up last season, Koln are just four points off of the Champions League pace in the Bundesliga following Tuesday’s 3-2 win over Wolfsburg. But while the league may be known for an abundance of young attacking talent, the Billy Goats are getting by with the opposite. Full-back Benno Schmitz (27), midfielder Florian Kainz (29) and forward Mark Uth (30) lead the team in chances created, and Modeste, a journeyman’s journeyman, is putting these chances in the net.
After posting a career-high 27 goals in all comps for Koln in 2016-17, he had scored only 27 in the four years since. But he’s up to 12 this year following a brace against Wolfsburg. No one else on the team has more than four goals.
Serie A Gundogans
Edin Dzeko, FW, Inter Milan (35). Sergio Aguero’s recent retirement meant that his famous “AGUERRROOOOO” goal from 2012, which beat QPR and clinched Manchester City’s first top-division title in 44 years, has made the rounds again on social media. That’s fantastic: I’ll watch it and get chills every time. But if Dzeko hadn’t scored two minutes earlier to tie the match, Aguero’s goal wouldn’t have gotten the job done. And almost 10 full seasons later, Dzeko’s playing a huge role in another title race.
Inter Milan has gone nine matches unbeaten in league play to rise to the top of Serie A despite missing quite a few key figures from last year’s Scudetto-winning squad. Signed on a free transfer as Romelu Lukaku‘s primary replacement, Dzeko has scored eight league goals, plus three more in the Champions League. He’s still as good as just about anyone at carving out space in the box and putting the ball in the net.
Dzeko, left, has been seriously underrated in recent seasons, but he’s continuing to score goals at 35 years old, and his performances have Inter Milan on course for another Serie A title. Emmanuele Ciancaglini/CPS Images/Getty Images
Antonio Candreva, MF, Sampdoria (34). Only two players in Serie A have created more than 35 chances this season. Antonio Candreva has 51. He’s first in the league in expected assists (5.03), third in assists (five) and 13th in goals scored (six). Hell, he’s 29th in ball recoveries (88) as well. And he’s about to turn 35! He made his Italian national team debut nearly 13 years ago!
Sampdoria has needed every bit of Candreva’s magic, as they’re currently in 14th place, closer to the drop zone than continental qualification. But he’s indeed been magical.
Ligue 1 Gundogans
Dimitri Payet, AM, Marseille (34). It’s been a strange and memorable campaign for the longtime Ligue 1 star.
Strange: He has twice been hit by water bottles thrown from the stands, which directly led to abandoned matches against both Nice and Lyon.
Memorable: His production is as good as it’s been in years.
After averaging 9.0 goals and 7.3 assists in all competitions over the past three seasons, he’s already at seven and seven this year. He’s on pace for his most assists since logging 22 in 2017-18, and with six more goals, he would match his most ever in a campaign. Not bad considering the well-coiffed attacker turns 35 in March.
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THURSDAY, DEC. 16
• Talavera v Betis (12:55 p.m. ET)
• Arenteiro v Valencia (12:55 p.m. ET)
• Genk v Charleroi (2:55 p.m. ET)
FRIDAY, DEC. 17
• Bayern v Wolfsburg (2:30 p.m. ET)
• Barnsley v WBA (2:40 p.m. ET)
• Celta Vigo v Espanyol (3 p.m. ET)
Sofiane Boufal, LW, Angers (28). After spells with Lille, Southampton and Celta Vigo, Boufal returned to his original club 14 months ago, and after missing much of the first half of 2020-21 with injury, he has carved out a role perfectly suited for him. He’s scored five league goals, all from short range or the penalty spot, and he’s created 34 chances. He’s got a chance to top the 2015-16 stats (11 goals, 72 chances) that earned him a Premier League transfer at age 22. Angers finished just four points clear of relegation last season, but they’re currently three points from a spot in a continental competition.
Above were two players from each of Europe’s Big 5 leagues. Let’s carve out spots for two more who have played some glorious ball in the Champions League this season.
Sebastien Haller, FW, Ajax (27). After scoring 20 goals for Eintracht Frankfurt in 2018-19, Haller’s career trajectory skewed off course; he landed at West Ham United, where he scored just 14 goals in two seasons, and he was sold in January to Ajax, which proceeded to screw up his paperwork and omit him from the Europa League knockout rounds. (Ajax was eliminated by Roma by one goal in the quarterfinals. Whoops.)
He’s made up for lost time, though: after scoring 11 goals with five assists in 19 Eredivisie matches last season, he’s nearly matched that with 10 and four in 15 this year. His Champions League form has been stunning: 10 goals from just 19 shots in six matches. No one in the Champions League has created or converted as many high-quality chances, and he’s a main reason why Ajax torched its group to advance to the knockout rounds. Hopefully they get him on the list of participants this time.
Giorgos Athanasiadis, GK, Sheriff Tiraspol (28). Okay, so the Sheriff story wasn’t quite as much of a Cinderella ride as it first seemed it might be. After surviving four qualification rounds to advance to the group stage, the heavyweight of Moldovan soccer proceeded to defeat Shakhtar Donetsk and Real Madrid — in Madrid! — as well. Three losses to Inter and Real Madrid relegated them to the Europa League knockouts, but that’s still a pretty big deal for such a small club, and it wouldn’t have happened without some stand-on-your-head goalkeeping.
On loan from AEK Athens, Athanasiadis saved 82% of opponents’ shots on goal in qualifying and in the group stage, and he made 10 saves in the 2-1 win in Madrid alone. The only goal he let pass in that match came via penalty. Safe to say, “play a pivotal role in the biggest win in your club’s history” is a pretty good way to make an impression while on loan.
Williams has been a steady star over the past five years, but she’s taken on a bigger role for the U.S. women’s national team in 2021 and is surely a great choice to lead the attack in 2022. Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
Lynn Williams, FW, North Carolina Courage (27). Any fan of the NWSL can tell you that Williams is in no way a late bloomer. Between 2016-19, she was one of the steadiest stars in the league, playing 21 to 24 matches each year, with nine to 14 goals and five to six assists. In fact, her pace actually fell a bit this year for the Courage — she scored just seven goals in 1,608 minutes.
Why is she here, then? Because after years of waiting for her shot at a major role within the U.S. Women’s national team, she both received it and took full advantage of it. She had played 1,078 for the USWNT before 2021, recording six goals with three assists among 21 chances. In 2021 alone: 838 minutes, five goals, four assists, 23 chances.
The pool of American attackers is ridiculously deep, but it’s safe to say she’s going to be near the top of the totem pole for a while.
Kim Little, FW, Arsenal (31). In 2006, at the age of 16, Little made her debut for the Scottish national team. In the 2008-09 season, at 18, she scored 24 goals in all competitions for Arsenal. After stops with the Seattle Reign and Melbourne City, she returned to Arsenal in 2017, and after scoring five goals in each of the last two Women’s Super League seasons, she’s already managed six in just nine matches this year, plus four more in nine Champions League matches.
The Gunners are four points up in first place in the WSL after falling to third last season, and while Vivianne Miedema is forever the go-to within that squad, Little’s rebirth has given them too many weapons for opponents to handle.
Dan Thomas is joined by Craig Burley, Shaka Hislop and others to bring you the latest highlights and debate the biggest storylines. Stream on ESPN+ (U.S. only).
The Charas — Diego (CM, 35) and Yimmi (RW, 30), Portland Timbers. Like Modeste’s Koln above, the Portland Timbers found success this season with loads of veteran-osity. They reached the 2021 MLS Cup final thanks to scorers like Felipe Mora (28), Dairon Asprilla (29) and Sebastian Blanco (33), and club legend Diego Valeri (35) had a few more moments in the sun too.
The Charas were the team’s engine, though. It was impossible not to notice where they were on the pitch at any given time, in part because one or both of them always seemed near the ball. Diego, the elder Chara, is another Portland legend, and even at 35 he led the team in both touches and pass attempts while creating 32 chances and scoring twice in all competitions. Before Portland could score in the final touch of regulation to force overtime in Saturday’s MLS Cup, Chara chased down Jesus Medina, seemingly from miles away, in the 89th minute to prevent a clear-cut chance to put the match away.
Younger brother Yimmi, meanwhile, joined the club from Atletico Mineiro in 2020, and he is electric. He was one of only four players in MLS with at least 75 chances created and at least six goals, and he netted a hat trick in an April win over Marathon in the CONCACAF Champions League as well. He’s a blast to watch, and if his older brother’s path is any indication, he’s only going to get better from here.
Lifetime achievement Gundogans
The entire Real Madrid midfield. Like Muller and Immobile from last year’s list, there are certain 30-something players we simply take for granted.
Casemiro made last year’s Gundogans list, but let’s just go ahead and acknowledge the whole batch. Whether it’s Toni Kroos (31) scoring long-distance screamers in the Champions League, or Casemiro (29) winning 57% of his duels and every loose ball (his 111 ball recoveries are sixth in La Liga), or Luka Modric (36) thinking three steps ahead and playing “now you see me, now you don’t” with the entire Atletico Madrid squad in a key 2-0 win last weekend, the Los Blancos midfield is both old and absolutely spectacular. Let’s just go ahead and carve out a spot for all of them in the Gundogan Hall of Fame.