Ilkay Gündogan arrived at Manchester City injured and his first season ended before Christmas because of a torn cruciate ligament. It was an inauspicious start for the German but he leaves seven years later as the key component in a historic treble-winning side.
Pep Guardiola knew the value of the midfielder and made him his first City signing in the summer of 2016 for a measly £20m from Borussia Dortmund. Even though he has joined Barcelona for nothing, City know they got a bargain, and Gündogan will forever be grateful for the five Premier League titles, two FA Cups, four League Cups and, most importantly, the final chapter: a Champions League triumph.
It is best to start at the end. Erling Haaland has made the majority of the headlines for his ludicrous scoring record after following in Gündogan’s footsteps by leaving Dortmund for Manchester, but behind him the midfielder has been the one pulling the strings and driving City to success. In the final weeks of the season, when the title was in the balance, Gündogan scored twice against Leeds and Everton to ensure City grew the gap over Arsenal. “I’d like to say, you just said you don’t think you’re a special player, you are a special player,” Roy Keane told Gündogan after sealing his latest title. A sign of how humble the departing City man is and the high regard football holds him in.
This was not the first time he had been integral in a Premier League title triumph, as his medal collection suggests. The previous season, with City looking in danger of a catastrophic failure at home on the final day against Aston Villa to gift the title to Liverpool, Gündogan came off the bench and scored twice to help turn things around and seal a dramatic victory.
Keeping cool in pressurised situations is what Gündogan does. He has looked permanently unflustered when on the pitch since arriving in the Premier League. Nothing fazes the man. At Wembley this month he showed his incredible technique, coupled with icy veins, to volley two fantastic goals to defeat Manchester United in the FA Cup final and cement his legend status at the Etihad Stadium.
Goals were not the reason Gündogan was brought to City but it is for those exceptional moments that he is remembered. His most telling impact was how he operated and evolved in midfield over his epoch with City. Like David Silva, a player to whom Kevin De Bruyne compared Gündogan, the German was someone who knew where to find space and maximise its use to push City forward.
Gündogan became more attacking as his time with the club went on, being able to perfectly time runs – which opponents struggled to track – into areas where he could do the most damage. Whenever he was sweeping a cross into the bottom corner, he was rarely under pressure, instead he had earned himself the time to pick his spot and his teammates always knew where he would be.
In the early years, Gündogan could be found in a deeper role, playing the simple passes to De Bruyne and Silva for them to do the real damage in the final third. In recent times, Guardiola liberated the midfielder, allowing him to be a No 8 but would occasionally push him back when the situation required.
Gündogan has been tipped by many to be an elite coach once he retires from playing. He has already worked with City’s youth players and is seen as a deep thinker. This is one explanation why he wanted to seek a new adventure, to play for Barcelona and learn a different style of football after seven years under Guardiola. Gündogan is excited by new experiences and wants to continue his development. “His humanity, leading silently, but when he talks everyone listens, this is so important,” Guardiola said.
Gündogan was seen as a leader by City, someone who led by actions rather than words. His peers elected him captain at the start of the season. Before that he had been a key presence in the changing room’s leadership group. He set the example on the training ground and ensured his colleagues meet the level their captain demands to keep City excelling over the course of a season.
Away from the pitch, Gündogan has influenced his environs. He paid for Turkish food for 100 people in Manchester during the Champions League final; two years prior he launched a campaign to help restaurants and cafes in the city to help them during the pandemic. He made sure he became part of the community he lived in, making an effort to help.
Gündogan lived centrally, next door to Guardiola, in Manchester, helping create a bond between the two. The German saw it as a privilege to work with his manager, learning his methods for when he eventually becomes a coach in his own right. “I love him. I adore him. I’m married, but I love him,” Guardiola said of his departing midfielder. There is plenty to love about the man.
It might have been a forgettable start to Gündogan’s City career but it was a perfect ending, winning the Champions League in Turkey, the country of his family. Sometimes it is best to cherish the memories and not think about what might have been if Gündogan had stayed longer. The player and club enjoyed the best of each other, and that is all that matters.