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Ilkay Gundogan's genius is the best of Barcelona this season

The German was once again the difference maker

Deportivo Alaves v FC Barcelona - LaLiga EA Sports Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Barcelona are two for two since Xavi announced his decision to step down at the end of the season.

Against Alaves, the manager made a risky choice that’s been anticipated for a while now. Andreas Christensen made his debut as a defensive midfielder.

With so many forwards out injured, necessity was the mother of invention for Xavi. Or at least the catalyst for giving him the courage to try something unconventional.

At the final whistle, Christensen didn’t have many highlights to his name in this new position.

Deportivo Alaves v FC Barcelona - LaLiga EA Sports Photo by Ion Alcoba Beitia/Getty Images

But something interesting did occur, whether it was intentional or not.

Ilkay Gundogan got to play higher up the field.

Most of the season, he’s had to play deep to pick up the ball, helping out Frenkie de Jong since Oriol Romeu was dropped out of the starting lineup.

In this game, Frenkie was still the deepest midfielder in possession, helping to take the burden away from Christensen whose job was to play more as an enforcer in defensive transitions.

This allowed Gundogan to play exclusively in an attacking role, while Pedri moved to play as a false winger.

Deportivo Alaves v FC Barcelona - LaLiga EA Sports Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

Alaves is traditionally a physical, low block team. This season, they seem to be taking more risks going forward, but it was still an interesting opponent to debut the new tactics against.

Gundogan and Pedri are distinct midfielders.

The German continues to be everything Barcelona could have hoped for and more this season.

A mature, steady rock of a player who in any game can adapt and put in a shift.

This season, his versatility has been his crowning contribution. But it hasn’t allowed him to really show off his skill and footballing intellect in front of goal.

Deportivo Alaves v FC Barcelona - LaLiga EA Sports Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

In this game, he won Barcelona the match with his calculated risks, which unlocked the Alaves defensive line. Compare that to Pedri who can be risk averse at times, instead choosing to be tidy with the ball.

The first goal of the game was the result of Gundogan threading a perfect ball into the stride of Robert Lewandowski. So perfect, that the German was able to take it right in on the goal with two perfect touches.

That’s what a good midfielder does. Makes it easy for his forwards with minimal space to operate in.

The second goal of the game, however, was absolute brilliance on the part of Gundogan, reminiscent of his days with Manchester City.

A clever run into the box, peeling behind the back of the last defender. Perfect timing, and a clinical finish on the volley.

Deportivo Alaves v FC Barcelona - LaLiga EA Sports Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images

That was Pedri putting in service from out on the left, where Xavi put him, and Gundogan finding the space through the midfield, making himself a threat in the final third.

Gundogan is such an unassuming player.

Doesn’t look particularly athletic. If you saw him on the street, you’d think he’s just a nice, ordinary guy.

But his footballing brain is on another level. And he has been the most important player for Barcelona this season, in addition to being the most used Barcelona player this season.

The third goal was a 16-year-old (Lamine Yamal) to a 17-year-old (Hector Fort) to an 18-year-old (Vitor Roque) for the finish.

Ultimately, as frustrating as this season has been so far, it could also be planting the seeds for future success. Something that Xavi may very well be remembered for with appreciation.

Deportivo Alaves v FC Barcelona - LaLiga EA Sports Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images

But it’s made possible by the likes of Gundogan, who has provided essential veteran leadership.

I’d also give a shout out to Frenkie de Jong who has been outstanding. The unsung hero of Barcelona for years, and the captain hopefully for years to come if he gets what he deserves.

In this victory, however, the man of the match was Gundogan.

For me, he’s also the most valuable player of the 2023/2024 campaign.

Let’s give him the recognition he’s earned.

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