Guardiola, Fernandinho relieved as Gundogan comes to the fore at Man City
When Fernandinho limped out of Manchester City's 3-0 Carabao Cup final win over Arsenal, there were some fans beginning to get jittery. Unquestionably one of his side's best performers of the season and one of the key figures in keeping the team stable in both attack and defence, the Brazilian's loss could have been crucial.
Especially with fixtures that were to follow that game, away to Arsenal and home to Chelsea, Pep Guardiola probably wouldn't have wanted to go without the man who had anchored his midfield so well all season. When the manager watched the performances in those matches, which finished 3-0 and 1-0 respectively, he won't be too bothered if Fernandinho needs a few more weeks to get back to full fitness.
In his absence, Ilkay Gundogan has been able to shine. It's fair to say that City fans haven't seen the best of the German since his arrival. Just as he was beginning to settle into the team in his debut season, he was forced off in their 2-0 win over Watford in December 2016 with a knee problem that would seem him ruled out until after the start of the following campaign.
Having signed him injured and with Gundogan having suffered serious problems in the past, City took no chances in getting him back to the first team. The German came off the bench in his side's 6-0 win at Watford midway through September and was slowly introduced back to first team duties.
By the time he was dropped into the anchor role early in the second half of the League Cup final, he was already beginning to flourish. It had originally been David Silva's absence through personal issues that had opened the door for Gundogan to begin making his mark on matches, but in the playmaker's absence he was doing more than simply deputising.
It would be unfair to compare the two, since each perform different roles in the team. But without Silva's creativity, Kevin De Bruyne took on the mantel of finding the killer through passes and eye-catching assists. Bernardo Silva seized the opportunity to step up on that front, too. But behind both of them -- and being the driving force in moving City forward with both pace and accuracy -- was Gundogan.
Fernandinho is perhaps the most traditional box-to-box midfielder at the club, but Gundogan isn't far off the standard the Brazilian has set. He isn't afraid to get stuck in and will quite happily hold his position in front of the back four if that's what his role demands. Equally, his finishing ability isn't to be sniffed at as the 4-0 victory at Basel demonstrates.
In fact, it was only after he left the field in Wednesday's 2-1 loss to the Swiss side -- a surprise, perhaps, but not a shock that will stun the football world since City had made six changes and thrown some youngsters on at the end -- that his teammates lost some of their impetus.
He seems like the perfect midfielder for a Guardiola style team. He's got the vision and skill to execute a variety of passes, but even without the ball he's shown the awareness the manager wants his players to have to cut out the space and win possession back quickly. Watch as City go hunting in packs when an attack breaks down and it's usually Gundogan who is orchestrating the press.
It may be Leroy Sane, Raheem Sterling or Sergio Aguero doing the running and chasing, but it's often Gundogan who emerges with the ball, ready to play one of his teammates into the empty space that's been left.
In many ways, Fernandinho's injury in the cup final was a blessing in disguise. With so many options at his disposal, Guardiola had fallen into the trap of trying to get as many of his creative players onto the pitch as possible, while also giving the team some grit and determination. In playing both the Brazilian and the German, City had actually looked stifled, with De Bruyne forced wide and David Silva struggling to roam freely.
While the introduction of Bernardo Silva added more creativity, it forced a change of shape that allowed the forward players to excel and Gundogan to begin bossing the midfield.
The only question mark that will remain about the German comes with his injury record. Having previously broken his back, suffered a dislocated kneecap, and ruptured his cruciate ligament, he's developed a reputation as being prone to set-backs. The fortunate aspect is that they're all separate and not recurring problems.
However, his run in the team is going some way to proving that all of those issues are in his past. It looks like the 27-year old is only just getting started in Manchester and his confidence in both his ability and his fitness is growing with each game that passes.
David Mooney is ESPN FC's Manchester City blogger. Twitter: @DavidMooney