Exit the original. Ilkay Gundogan was Pep Guardiola’s first signing at Manchester City. If it was a way of setting a tone for a regime, bringing in a passer who belongs in the highest bracket of technical talents, Gundogan leaves as the symbol of a historic high. He often had timing, whether in the way he picked out teammates or, in recent years, as he calculated his arrival into the penalty box to perfection, and very few have ever orchestrated a goodbye as remarkable as the German’s.
There were two trophies in his last two games; but for Arsenal’s end-of-season relapse, meaning the Premier League was clinched early, it might have been three in three. He nevertheless is the treble-winning captain, the man who lifted City’s first Champions League trophy. Successive Saturdays brought twin places in history, after the 13-second screamer from 25 yards gave him the quickest goal ever in an FA Cup final. There has been a solitary Manchester derby in an FA Cup final, and Gundogan decided it with a double. A fifth Premier League in six seasons owed something to his May surge, to the back-to-back braces against Leeds and Everton. His improvised, exceptional opener at Goodison Park was arguably the goal of the season, though perhaps he had enough honours without it.
But Gundogan became the elegant supplier of the spectacular. If Sergio Aguero staged the most dramatic last-day intervention to make City champions, his 2022 sequel, two goals as a substitute transforming a 2-0 deficit to Aston Villa into victory, was remarkable. Gundogan said he was “angry” at not starting and yet, even when fuelled by momentum, he seemed to have a calmness, a rationality that rendered him particularly dangerous.
It also highlighted his reinvention. He had a City career of two halves and two roles. For the first half, he was either found on or behind the ball, often the man in search of a spot when Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva were the premier “free eights” and Fernandinho the better defensive midfielder. Gundogan did a fine job deputising for the Brazilian in City’s other treble-winning season of 2018-19, his assurance in possession enabling him to dictate play from deep, his lack of Fernandinho’s ruthlessness sometimes leaving City susceptible to the counter-attack, but there were times when he appeared the odd man out.
The last three years have brought a makeover. His footballing intelligence has often been used as an off-the-ball runner into the box, his technique to finish. After 22 goals in his first four seasons at the Etihad, Gundogan scored 38 in three. That brought the transformation into a talisman; perhaps the German would have succeeded Fernandinho as captain without the added goals, but they seemed to symbolise his greater stature, his standing as one of City’s big characters, albeit in his amiable way.
There were long hints of that sharp footballing brain. In 2020, Guardiola had surprised by namechecking Gundogan as a potential false nine. Last year, he identified the German as the City player likeliest to become a manager; if so, he will have had an elite education. City’s win over Internazionale means he has now played for four of the last five Champions League-winning managers, in Jurgen Klopp, Hansi Flick, Thomas Tuchel and Guardiola. Perhaps Barcelona’s Xavi, a Guardiola protégé, will join that list.
Gundogan’s prolific streak and capacity to deliver on the big occasions render him hard to replace. City have agreed a £25m fee for Mateo Kovacic, a player of similar technical gifts. But whereas Gundogan scored 60 goals for City, Kovacic mustered a mere six for Chelsea. He could be the metronome, but is unlikely to prove the poacher.
That Gundogan is bound for Barcelona feels instructive. Despite being Guardiola’s neighbour and the manager’s eagerness to keep an ally, it showed an independence of thought. Rewind seven years to when Gundogan joined City and he said “over the last weeks, the last months, I was sure it was time for me to have a new adventure, a new chapter and a new country”. He could use the same argument now and perhaps Barcelona retain a glamour that City still lack. It has given them the pull to attract the calibre of player they could not afford were a transfer fee required. It is notable, too, that for all the shared ideas between Guardiola and his old club, there are fewer shared personnel. Gundogan is likely to be in a midfield with Pedri and Gavi, the new Xavi and Iniesta, and the former City target Frenkie de Jong.
The departure of a player at the peak of his powers, when Barcelona have offered a longer contract, is a reminder that even City cannot always get their way in the transfer market. They have pulled out of previous deals due to cost. Not Gundogan’s. At £20m, he has been their finest bargain of the Guardiola years. And if he goes after their greatest season, perhaps Gundogan was clever enough to leave when his reputation has never been bigger.