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May 6, 2014

Still super, Edin Dzeko is no longer a sub

For a striker who appears inconsistent from week to week, Edin Dzeko has actually been very consistent over the course of his Manchester City career. He registered 14 goals in his first full season, 14 goals in his second, and has now managed 14 in his third campaign.

No other Premier League footballer can match that record -- not Robin van Persie, not Luis Suarez, not Wayne Rooney, not Sergio Aguero. Each of those players has significantly outscored the Bosnian in at least one campaign, reaching the 20-goal mark Dzeko has never threatened to reach. But Dzeko is always there in the background, reliably and unspectacularly churning out goals.

That, in effect, has been his role at City since signing in January 2011. Dzeko has been paired with talented but unreliable forwards -- Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli were undisciplined, Aguero and Stevan Jovetic are injury-prone. Dzeko has rarely been considered first-choice, frequently considered nothing more than a handy Plan B. “You can call me whatever you want,” he once forcefully told The Telegraph. “But I will never accept that I’m a super-sub.”

Before the season, manager Manuel Pellegrini purchased two new forwards, Jovetic and Alvaro Negredo. Jovetic could play a variety of roles, but Negredo appeared nothing more than a Dzeko replacement -- a tall central striker who thrived on crosses, and already boasting a great relationship from Sevilla with City’s new chief crosser, Jesus Navas.

Dzeko, therefore, was no longer Plan B. He was, at best, Plan C -- Negredo would start alongside Aguero, with Jovetic a handy, versatile alternative. With David Silva and Yaya Toure both capable of being fielded behind a main striker, an option Pellegrini has increasingly used as the season has continued, Dzeko was out in the cold. Until Christmas, he completed 90 minutes just twice in the league, scoring three goals.

But never underestimate Dzeko's persistence. One of the most revealing, if unspectacular, statistics from his City career concerns his dependability -- Dzeko has never been absent from two consecutive 18-man match-day squads. Essentially, he’s never been injured. He’s picked up a knock here and there, has suffered from illness and has been rested, but he’s never torn a muscle, broken a bone or strained ligaments. Considering Aguero’s constant injury setbacks, Silva’s own struggles to reach full fitness, and Jovetic’s long-standing susceptibility to a plethora of muscle problems, it’s proved absolutely crucial this season.

Therefore, Dzeko has started 15 of City's previous 18 Premier League matches. For the other three, he missed the 5-0 thrashing of Fulham because of illness, denying him a reunion with his former Wolfsburg manager, Felix Magath, but the other two -- against Sunderland and Norwich -- were the only occasions in the second half of the campaign when City have dropped points against bottom-half sides. A draw at Arsenal was acceptable, defeats to Chelsea and Liverpool disappointing but not shameful. They’ve only truly stumbled when Dzeko has been absent. The Bosnian is a curious player, not entirely conforming to a defined role. Although his goal-scoring record from Wolfsburg and the Bosnian national side indicates he’s a pure No. 9, at Manchester City he’s been forced to embrace a different role. Aguero’s tendency to begin in deeper positions but then dart in behind means Dzeko has to do the opposite -- starting as the central striker, but dropping deep to receive the ball into feet. Aguero’s role means Dzeko isn’t a false 9, but he’s certainly not a No. 10 (despite his shirt number) and he’s not a hold-up striker, either. He’s a mysterious, unique forward.

Part of the reason he’s thrived in recent weeks, however, is that for once he’s been fielded as City’s out-and-out striker. No Aguero to facilitate, no great responsibility to become involved in buildup play -- just a brief to stand up front, wait for service, and provide the finishes.

It was notable that his influence during City’s 3-2 victory over Everton on Saturday increased significantly after Aguero’s departure -- the Argentine is a brilliant individual, but his directness makes him an incredibly difficult forward to play alongside. In the opening stages, Dzeko’s movement was predictable, his touch often sloppy -- but when Aguero departed, Dzeko took over.

And this was the Dzeko from Wolfsburg -- stay in the middle, get on the end of crosses. His first goal was a fine header -- a fantastic spring above the defence, a firm nod down past Tim Howard’s dive. The second was a neat near-post finish from Samir Nasri's low ball into the box. His previous two goals, too, had been headers. This, in truth, is Dzeko at his best. He’s the type of striker who needs to be the centre of the side, with plenty of midfield providers. Psychologically, too, he thrives in an environment where he feels trusted, where his manager believes in him. He doesn’t have the attitude of a Tevez or a Balotelli; he doesn’t command a place in the side because he doesn’t act petulantly when dropped. It does affect him, though, and Dzeko’s major problem with Roberto Mancini was that after he scored four goals at White Hart Lane early in 2011-12, the Italian manager dropped him for the next game, against Wigan. Tevez and Aguero started, and Balotelli came off the bench. Dzeko didn’t feature.

But top-level footballers generally feel trusted by Pellegrini, and with Aguero unlikely to feature in City’s final two matches, Dzeko is on course for his most prolific season at City, assuming he nets against either Aston Villa or West Ham this week. If he scores once more, he would reach the 15-goal mark for the first time, and revealingly, only one of those goals has been as a substitute. Dzeko remains super, but he’s no longer a sub.