For most professional sports these days, we end up spending a lot of time marveling at two different groups of athletes: the players who should be past their respective primes but keep playing at a particularly elite level, and those who are coming for the throne. The Patrick Mahomeses vs. the Tom Bradys, the Naomi Osakas vs. the Serena Williamses, etc.
This is particularly true in the world of soccer in 2021. You can't walk 10 feet without tripping over a "Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland vs. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo" narrative these days. To be sure, we do this because it's fascinating, but focusing on this general narrative structure causes us to miss some other interesting stories. You know, like that of Ilkay Gundogan.
The 30-year-old from Gelsenkirchen has been a part of two mini-dynasties: first, he was a regular for Jurgen Klopp's Borussia Dortmund, winning the 2012 Bundesliga title and reaching the 2013 Champions League final; then in 2016 he joined Manchester City, where he became an integral piece of Pep Guardiola's 2018 and 2019 Premier League championship squads.
Gundogan has long been a durable provider. He has logged at least 48 matches in all competitions for each of the past three seasons, and in league play he's typically been good for three to five goals, 25 to 35 chances created, 150 or so ball recoveries and lots of dutiful advancement of the ball from the middle third to the attacking third. With City hit by a series of injuries to their centre-forwards, however, and struggling to reliably create quality scoring chances, Gundogan has tried on a new hat of late.
Here are the leading goal scorers in the Premier League since mid-December:
Even though he had zero goals as of the morning of Dec. 15, Gundogan now ranks eighth in the league in goals scored for the season. His first goal came that day in a 1-1 draw with West Bromwich Albion; City have won every single match since.
Gundogan is neither an aging all-timer like Messi or Ronaldo, nor is he part of the precocious new generation of soccer greats. But he's been as responsible as anyone for City's 21-match win streak, which has converted the Premier League race from a battle royale into a City romp.
Every year, there are stories of late bloomers or players adapting their games as they enter (or begin to leave) their primes. It's time to celebrate some of them. Let's hand out the first annual Gundogan Awards.
All of the players below are at least 27 years old and have figured out ways to move their game into unfounded (or at least rarely founded) territory this season. We'll give out awards to two players from each of Europe's Big Five leagues, then hand out a few bonus awards as well.
English Premier League
Ilkay Gundogan, MF, Manchester City (30 years old)
After averaging four goals and 32 chances created in the past three league seasons, Gundogan is on pace for 16 and 41, respectively, this year. He had never scored more than six goals in league play, except he's scored seven since Jan. 25. His touch map screams "CENTRAL MIDFIELDER," and with very good reason, but suddenly he teleports, unmarked, into the middle of the box to put away rebounds and crosses.
If you would have asked me who would lead City in scoring at the beginning of the season, Gundogan would have been either my eighth or ninth guess, depending on the area of the pitch where I thought Joao Cancelo would be spending most of his time. But he has been the key cog in Guardiola's attacking reinvention, and City has benefited magnificently for it.
Who doesn't love a good perseverance story? Center-back Cooper went more than 10 years between Premier League appearances -- from Mar. 13, 2010, with Hull City to Sept. 19, 2020, with Leeds. He bounced from Hull to Carlisle United to Huddersfield Town to Chesterfield, before landing with Leeds in 2014-15, and he was a massive piece of their promotion push over the past couple of seasons.
After 16 years in the lower divisions, Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds are holding their own back in the Premier League, and Cooper has been a major reason why. He's winning 64% of his duels and 60% of his aerials. He's averaging more than seven ball recoveries per 90 minutes, just as he did in the Championship, and his pass completion rates have actually increased to 86%. He's also been Leeds' primary tactical fouler and interventionist, something every good possession team needs.
Patrick Bamford, another late bloomer of sorts, has drawn a lot of the individual headlines, but his counterpart at the back of the lineup has been as responsible for Leeds' success as just about anyone.
Raphael Guerreiro, DF, Borussia Dortmund (27)
Granted, Guerreiro's surge really began last year, when he scored a career-high eight goals. But his evolution has continued this season; as the full-back position continues to take on more of a role in attack, Guerreiro continues to be a model left-back. FBref.com lists him in the 94th percentile or higher among Big Five full-backs in basically all offensive categories: progressive passes and carries, completion rate, shots, non-penalty goals, assists, etc.
While BVB have struggled at times in league play, Guerreiro's partnership with left winger Jadon Sancho has been one of the most dangerous in Europe -- the two have combined for 17 league assists (they are the top two on the team) and nine goals. Only 10 Big Five players have more assists than Guerreiro, and none line up as far back on the pitch.
Dayot Upamecano has justifiably earned a lot of praise in recent years as one of the sport's great young defenders, so it made perfect sense that he was the subject of numerous transfer rumours before Bayern Munich arranged to procure his services beginning in July. Upamecano's batterymate in central defence, however, has been every bit as important to RB Leipzig's success.
Since hopping onto the Red Bull train from Kaiserslautern in RBL's last year in the second division, Orban has amassed more and more skills. In the past two seasons alone, his aerial success rate has gone from 61% to 67% to 71%. His duel success rate improved from 63% to 67% last season and has remained there this year. He's begun to pounce on more loose balls as well (more than five ball recoveries per 90 minutes), and now he's a creator, too? After averaging 3.3 chances created over the past four seasons, he's already amassed eight this year. He's also scored four times, tying a career high.
Like Gundogan, Mkhitaryan thrived at Borussia Dortmund before jumping to the Premier League. But after combining 11 goals and 15 assists at BVB in 2015-16, the attacking midfielder never topped six goals or nine assists in three EPL seasons at Manchester United and Arsenal. After moving on loan to Roma in 2019, he completed a permanent move in August, and it's worked out well for both parties. Mkhitaryan ranks 12th in Serie A with nine goals and first with eight assists -- he's on pace for 14 and 13, respectively -- and after finishing eight points out of the Champions League chase last season, Roma are currently hanging within two points following last weekend's 2-1 loss to AC Milan.
This one comes with an asterisk: Cuadrado has been snake-bitten so far in 2021, missing five matches with coronavirus, then missing two weeks and counting with a bicep injury.
One thing is certain, however: when the right-back plays well, Juve win. He's averaged 0.43 xG+xA (expected goals and expected assists) and 2.7 chances per 90 minutes in wins this year, and his overall 0.34 xA+xG average is his best since 2017-18. Like Cooper, he has also been stellar in the tactical fouls department: his 1.4 fouls per 90 are his highest since 2016-17, and they've mostly served a purpose.
Cuadrado's development has been interesting to track. He landed at Chelsea in 2014 in part because of his attacking prowess -- he had scored 21 goals in all competitions in his last two seasons at Fiorentina. But after scoring 13 goals in his first three seasons at Juve, he's scored only four in the last three. He's moved further back on the pitch and has figured out ways to provide value all the same.
Casemiro, MF, Real Madrid (29)
A steady contributor for years at Real Madrid, Casemiro has adapted his game in many of the same ways as Gundogan. Since the start of the 2018-19 season, following Ronaldo's departure, Los Blancos have had a bit more of an "all hands on deck" approach to scoring goals. Omitting penalties, Karim Benzema has led the way with a voluminous 46 in that span, but Casemiro is second with 12; five have come since Nov. 28, a majority of those from set pieces. (The assister: Toni Kroos, who would also be eligible for a Gundogan Award if he hadn't been so damn steadily good for so long.)
Casemiro is still heavily involved in Real Madrid's defending half, but he has been increasingly involved in set pieces and attacks as the team has slowly attempted to evolve post-Ronaldo.
Nothing says "late bloomer" like making your Spanish national team debut at age 27, as Moreno did in late 2019. He came up in the Villarreal system, but spent three seasons with Espanyol before returning in 2018. He has been sidelined a couple of times by nagging injuries this season, but when he plays, he scores: after averaging a career-best 0.59 goals per 90 last season, he has increased that to 0.73 this year, and his xA+xG per 90 has improved from 0.41 in 2018-19 to 0.70 each of the past two years.
Villarreal have been a smidge disappointing this year, but injuries have played a major role in that, and when Moreno plays, they're stellar: they're averaging 1.67 points per game and 1.4 goals per match with him in the lineup and 1.40 and 1.0, respectively, without him.
A career presence in Ligue 1, Andre has been used a little more centrally and a little less in defence since his move from Stade Rennes to Lille in 2019. It's looked good on him, too: Andre's been the primary engine for getting the ball to forwards Burak Yilmaz, Yusuf Yazici and Jonathan David in attacking positions -- his 73% pass completion rate into the attacking third is a career high, and his 0.72 chances created per 90 is his best since 2017-18.
Despite missing Yilmaz for nearly two months, and despite Yazici coming back from an ACL tear and his own set of nagging injuries, Lille are leading Ligue 1 and are on pace for 83 points, their best-ever in the first division (more, even, than they generated while winning the league in 2011). You could easily make the case that Andre has been Lille's most consistently strong player on their most consistently strong team to date.
After nearly landing at BVB with the likes of Mario Gotze and Shinji Kagawa a lifetime ago, Delort embarked on a fascinating journeyman career that's taken him not only all around France, but also to Wigan and Liga MX's Tigres. He might have found his forever home in landing at Montpellier in 2018, though, and as he approaches his 30th birthday, he's on pace for 13 goals (which would be the second-most in his career), 10 assists (seven is his career high) and 51 chances created.
Montpellier have scored more goals than anyone outside of France's top four teams; La Paillade are just two points out of a European qualification spot. It's pretty easy to suggest that Delort, forward Gaetan Laborde and another Gundogan candidate, midfielder Teji Savanier (five goals, four assists), are the primary reasons for that.
Gundogan Award deep cuts
Late-bloomer stories aren't just found in the Big Five leagues. Here are a couple of key contributors who are looking awfully flirty at 30.
Sporting are nine points clear in the Primeira Liga race and, per FiveThirtyEight's club soccer ratings, have an 82% chance of winning their first league title since 2002. The primary reason? They've allowed only 10 goals all season, seven fewer than anyone else. Even if you make it past the first two lines, the central-defensive pairing of Coates and fellow Gundogan candidate Zouhair Feddal will stonewall your attack.
A former Liverpool and Sunderland defender, Coates is thriving in Lisbon. He's winning 68% of his duels and 74% of aerials (both career highs), he's on pace for 164 ball recoveries (his most since 2017-18), and he's even on pace to add five goals and six scoring chances.
Magnus Wolff Eikrem, FW, Molde (30)
Now for a really deep cut. Eikrem, a former Manchester United youth player who briefly played in the Premier League for Cardiff City and made a 2018 cameo with the Seattle Sounders, has thrived in Norway. He's scored 25 goals in 71 matches for Molde, and he came up huge in a huge moment: he scored a brace in a draw against Rapid Wien in the Europa League last December, a result that allowed Molde to advance to the knockout rounds. Once there, they beat TSG Hoffenheim to become the first Norwegian club to ever advance to the round of 16.
Finding your forever home is a beautiful thing, even if it takes a while.
The Gundogan Lifetime Achievement Awards
If we're being honest, the Gundogan Awards could easily be named after either of these two men instead.
Thomas Muller, MF/FW, Bayern Munich (31)
Every manager Thomas Muller has had has envisioned a slightly different role for him. He averaged 13 goals and 10.3 assists from 2012-13 to 2014-15, then leaped to 20 and 5, respectively, in his last year under Pep Guardiola. Neither Carlo Ancelotti nor Niko Kovac could quite figure out how to coax the same level of production out of him, and he averaged seven goals and 11 assists from 2016-17 to 2018-19. But thanks in part to Hansi Flick's hiring, he exploded for a Bundesliga record 21 assists last season at age 30.
Muller had 10 goals and 11 assists this year before getting sidelined by the coronavirus. Assuming he returns at full strength, he'll have a shot at his first 15-and-15 season. In short, one of the most unique players we've ever seen continues to create unique numbers combinations into his 30s.
Sometimes it takes a while to find a club that truly understands you. A former Juventus youth, Immobile bounced around for a long time, from Juve to Genoa to Torino to BVB to Sevilla, but had scored just 64 league goals when he moved to Lazio in 2016. He scored 67 in his first three seasons with the Biancocelesti, then posted a league-leading 36 last year. (Here's your reminder that Ronaldo is also in Serie A.)
His pace has slowed a bit this season -- he's scored three times in his last eight matches and is on pace for 22 league goals -- but he found an elite level long after many had written him off. If that's not a Gundogan, I don't know what is.
Gundogan Award, women's edition
Fran Kirby, FW, Chelsea (27)
The Women's Super League has loaded up on talent in recent months, but Chelsea have managed to drop only seven points in 15 matches and outscore opponents by a 47-8 margin. They hold a narrow lead over Manchester City and a pretty healthy lead over the rest of the field, and they cruised by a cumulative 8-0 over Benfica in the Champions League round of 32. (Atletico Madrid are up next.)
The team's loaded with talent, too, from English national team mainstays like Millie Bright and Bethany England to recent additions Sam Kerr and Pernille Harder. But their MVP has been a player who damn near quit the sport years ago. Kirby scored eight goals with six assists in 17 matches during Chelsea's WSL title run three years ago; through 12 matches, she's already at 11 and six this year.
She's always been good, but she's basically transformed her game into half-chaos agent, half-Messi. And she's still only 27.
So basically, Fran Kirby > Leo Messi. pic.twitter.com/HugaO3rFHg— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) February 11, 2021
Sam Mewis, MF, Manchester City (28)
To put it lightly, the USWNT is blessed with an abundance of midfield talent at the moment. Julie Ertz and Lindsey Horan have only recently entered their respective athletic primes, Rose Lavelle is only 25, veterans like Allie Long and Kristie Mewis still have plenty to offer, youngsters like Catarina Macario are rising quickly, etc. And yet Mewis might be in the best form of any of them.
Of all the American players to make recent moves to the WSL, Mewis has been the most successful, recording five goals and an assist in 10 matches for second-place Manchester City. According to StatsBomb data found at FBref.com, among WSL midfielders she ranks at or near the top in shots per 90 (4.4), progressive carries (6.3), dribbles completed (2.1), non-penalty xA+xG (0.6) and shot-creating actions (3.8). She recorded a hat trick for the USWNT against Colombia in January, too. She is a force, and USWNT manager Vlatko Andonovski has a giant (and great) issue on his hands when it comes to figuring out how to divvy out minutes at the moment. You really can't keep Mewis out of the first team right now.