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AFP

Like it or not Ilkay Gundogan has found himself the center of attention in Manchester City's charge up the Premier League table. And it would appear that the German international very much does not like it.

For many years Gundogan was one of the more under-appreciated stars of Pep Guardiola's side, an outstanding midfielder but one whose numerous qualities were at times subsumed to bring the best out of his teammates. If a gap in midfield needed plugging, be it as the anchorman or as more of a box-to-box player, City could rest assured that the Germany international would step into the fray with no qualms.

This season the role he has needed to step into has been rather different indeed. With David Silva departed and Guardiola reverting to his 4-3-3 system after early season dalliances with two sitting midfielders there was an opening for Gundogan higher up the pitch, particularly in the period when Kevin De Bruyne was sidelined with a hamstring injury. As Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero battled fitness issues it seemed that the goal burden would need to be shared across the midfield.

Perhaps not, because Gundogan has picked it up largely on his own. Already he has more than doubled his best ever goal tally for a season with 13 to his name, scoring 11 with two assists to boot in the space of 12 league matches between Dec. 15 and Feb. 13. In the most crucial fixtures during City's rise to the top of the table it was Gundogan who was their star player, scoring the first goal in wins over Chelsea and Liverpool, following a brace against the latter with another two in a 3-0 win over Tottenham.

Gundogan's new role at City

Premier League per 90 stats2020-212019-202018-192017-18

Shots

2.33

1.47

1.81

2.08

Goals

0.68

0.09

0.25

0.24

Chances created in open play

1.53

1.38

1.14

1.13

Open play forward passes

14.18

17.76

17.11

19.39

Interceptions

0.8

1.38

1.18

0.95

Ball recoveries

5.65

6.11

6.49

7.35

And so this important but under-appreciated cog in City's past success now finds himself thrust into the limelight. He is in the top 10 in the golden boot race with 11 goals and among the frontrunners for the league's individual awards having already been named January's Premier League player of the month.

"To be honest, I'm not enjoying [the attention] too much," Gundogan said in an exclusive interview with CBS Sports. "It's nice to be recognized, to see people talk mostly in a good way about you, but of course I know how quickly that can turn around. It can get lost or you can get criticized if you don't score for a couple of games.

"I take it as it is. I think I'm doing really well in terms of judging myself so even when there are games that I score two goals but I don't play really well, I'm not satisfied. Of course there are many games where I don't score and feel like I played really well. I don't really care be focused on; sometimes I even think it's better for me to not be in the focus because I feel like, when people in our culture and our religion have an eye on you, it's not always as good as it sounds.

"I'm quite realistic in terms of knowing when I'm doing well and knowing also when I'm not doing well... I know which qualities the players have that are playing for us so I don't try to do stuff that I'm not able to. I know how to help the team in the best possible way and that's what I'm trying to do in every single game."

Gundogan insists there was no masterplan that transformed him into the virtuoso soloist of Guardiola's orchestra; he only ever seems to view his work in terms of how it affects the team.

With De Bruyne sidelined, City, who return to UEFA Champions League action against Borussia Monchengladbach on Wednesday on CBS All Access, needed a "game-changer" so that was the role Gundogan fulfilled.

It was apparent even in the game against Arsenal on Sunday, where the Belgian returned in a 1-0 victory, that Gundogan was slipping back into more of a facilitative role, allowing the offense to run through De Bruyne.

Of the role he took up in recent weeks, Gundogan said: "I think it's just something that comes automatically, especially when you are missing these kinds of players who are obviously game-changers. Then maybe other players need to step up and need to be there and need to take responsibility.

"It's not really something that I was planning to do because everyone is always involved in our game. It's not really up to one or two players."

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Should City secure their third domestic title – and it appears increasingly likely it will be a procession to the trophy with their lead at 10 points and their winning run seemingly unstoppable – under Guardiola, then it will have been a rather different group of players who made the decisive contributions.

Vincent Kompany and Silva have moved on whilst Aguero has struggled with injuries. Instead the likes of John Stones and Joao Cancelo, whose future seemed uncertain at the end of last season, have taken on starring roles this term.

Indeed few players have enjoyed such an intriguing campaign as Cancelo, nominally City's right-back but such a versatile player that he can bomb on as a wing-back, shuffle across to aid Stones and Ruben Dias in defense and, most often of all, slot into midfield, where his positioning and composure is crucial in enabling Gundogan and company to make late darts into the box.

Gundogan is eager to ensure that his defensive colleagues get their share of the credit for City's success: "I think you have to give a lot of credit this season to our defensive work and obviously John Stones and Ruben Dias are in the center of that. They are doing incredibly well.

"The number of clean sheets we have had already so far is amazing but someone like Joao, especially with the ball, became very important to us because he has freedom to go into the midfield, of being able to create something there, to take responsibility to take the ball there and he has those qualities; to play in the middle, to pass the ball, to dribble to beat the player. He has these qualities to do that and I think he's very comfortable at the moment with the way we are playing."

As he approaches the five-year anniversary of his move to Manchester, the 30-year-old who grew up in Gelsenkirchen feels he has found a "second home" in the north west. Though he talks about a move to MLS in the future – "it's something that was and is in my mind" – for now his sole focus away from on-field matters is being a considerate member of his local community.

The past year has in some ways brought him closer to his friends and family even as they are physically apart; he says he spends more time on the phone to them now than ever before. It has also deepened Gundogan's bonds with his city and he is auctioning off shirts and meet and greets this season to raise funds for Manchester's cafes and restaurants.

"It's a fact that I feel kind of responsible because I'm here almost five years in this country and city and I think I can call it my second home. I'm really enjoying my time here.

"I got to love Manchester; all the different spots that I saw over the last years, all the people that I met so of course there is a connection between me and the city and the people living in the city. Seeing all these businesses struggling at the moment also has an effect on me. I was thinking of a way of giving back."

It perhaps says everything about how Gundogan feels more comfortable in a role where others stand out that even on his own auction page he is not the star attraction. Whilst his shirt from the 4-1 win over Liverpool is earning a more than respectable £2,265 ($3,189), Phil Foden's jersey from the same game will set a bidder back a stunning £6,000 ($8,500).

"I'm actually very happy because that's crazy; something I didn't really expect," laughs Gundogan when asked whether there is even a hint of disappointment that Foden's shirt is the hottest item in the auction. "I don't know where that came from but it's amazing; it's money to help at the end."

It is a view that perhaps typifies Gundogan: a player who at best feels indifferent towards individual glory unless it serves the needs of the wider group. And yet such is his outstanding success on and off the pitch he may just have to accept the garlands of praise that will be coming his way.