With 11 goals in his last 12 appearances and Manchester City seven points clear at the top of the table, Ilkay Gundogan has emerged as a leading contender to win the PFA Player of the Year award. Bruno Fernandes, Son Heung-min, Harry Kane and Jack Grealish will no doubt rival him for the award, and Gundogan’s team-mates Kevin De Bruyne, Ruben Dias, John Stones and even Joao Cancelo will probably receive a few votes each. The names of Rodri and Oleksandr Zinchenko are unlikely to be written on too many ballots, but both players have been unsung heroes in the rise of Man City to the summit of the standings. Pep Guardiola will certainly appreciate their contributions to the cause.
Rodri endured a difficult debut season in English football last time out. Although he was often left exposed at the base of midfield, the Spaniard lacked the mobility to snuff out opposition counter-attacks. With Fernandinho redeployed at centre-back to cover for defensive injuries, Rodri did a poor imitation of the Brazilian in the Man City engine room.
City finishing so far behind Liverpool in the title race did not help. Rodri was questioned without due recognition that he was hardly the first overseas import who required time to adapt to the frenetic pace of the Premier League. Moreover, the fact he was liable to be overrun in midfield said as much about City’s structural deficiencies and ineffective pressing as it did his own shortcomings.
Despite his struggles Guardiola was always likely to persevere with Rodri this season, and his faith has been repaid. The Spaniard’s technical ability and tidy distribution have never been in doubt. He might not be an energetic ball-winner in the mould of N’Golo Kante, but Rodri is now much more effective at breaking up play in front of the Man City back four.
His improvement has had significant knock-on effects elsewhere. Now confident that Rodri, with the help of City’s full-backs pushing inside, is capable of manning the midfield, Guardiola has given Gundogan license to break into the box. The German’s recent goal return is extraordinary, and it has not come at the expense of City’s defensive solidity.
Zinchenko is another player who has been playing well without generating too many headlines. The then-teenager sealed a switch to City on 4 July 2016, two weeks after he had starred as a No.10 in Ukraine’s 1-0 defeat by Poland at the European Championship. Guardiola had a different position in mind for him. Zinchenko has been converted into left-back by his boss, and it is testament to his quality that he has established himself as City’s first-choice pick in a previously unfamiliar position.
Whereas Benjamin Mendy is more of a threat on the overlap, Zinchenko is well suited to the role as it is imagined by Guardiola. Technically gifted and comfortable in possession, the Ukrainian is happy to move infield when his team have the ball.
Most impressive are the strides Zinchenko has made in his defensive work. Not many No.10s would be able to adapt to life as a full-back. Yet in Saturday’s 3-0 victory over Tottenham, the 24-year-old was positionally sound and strong in the challenge. Up against a potentially tricky customer in Erik Lamela, Zinchenko made seven tackles as well as racking up a game-high 108 passes. Lamela was booked and went off in the 72nd minute.
Neither Rodri nor Zinchenko will win any individual awards this season, but both men are playing a key part in what feels like an inevitable Premier League title triumph for Man City.
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