ilkay Gundogan arrived at Manchester City injured and his first season ended before Christmas due to a torn cruciate ligament. It was an inauspicious start for the German, but he departs seven years later as the key component in a historic treble-winning side.
Pep Guardiola knew the value of the midfielder and secured his first City signing in the summer of 2016 for a measly £20 million from Borussia Dortmund. Even though he joined Barcelona for nothing, City know they have made a bargain and Gündogan will be forever grateful for five Premier League titles, two FA Cups, four League Cups and, most importantly, the final chapter: a victory in the Champions League.
It’s best to start at the end. Erling Haaland has made most of the headlines for his ridiculous scoring record after following in Gundogan’s footsteps by leaving Dortmund for Manchester, but behind him the midfielder was the one who pulled the strings and propelled City to success. In the final weeks of the season, with the title on the line, Gundogan scored twice against Leeds and Everton to ensure City extended their lead over Arsenal. “I would like to say, you just said you don’t think you are a special player, you are a special player,” Roy Keane told Gundogan after sealing his last title. A sign of how humble the outgoing City man is and how highly regarded football holds him.
This wasn’t the first time he had been an integral part of a Premier League title win, as his medal collection suggests. The previous season, with City in danger of failing to hand over the title to Liverpool on the final day at home to Aston Villa, Gundogan came off the bench and scored twice to turn things around and seal a dramatic victory.
Keeping a cool head in pressurized situations is what Gundogan does. Since his arrival in the Premier League, he has looked permanently unflappable on the pitch. Nothing hurts the man. This month at Wembley, he showed off his incredible technique, coupled with icy veins, to score two fantastic goals, beat Manchester United in the FA Cup final and cement his status as a legend at the Etihad Stadium.
Goals weren’t the reason Gundogan was brought to City, but it’s the exceptional moments that are remembered of him. His most telling impact was how he operated and evolved in midfield during his spell at City. Like David Silva, a player Kevin De Bruyne compared Gundogan to, the German was someone who knew where to find space and make the most of it to push City forward.
Gündogan became more offensive as his time at the club progressed, perfectly able to time runs – which opponents found difficult to follow – into areas where he could do the most damage. Whenever he swept a cross into the bottom corner he was rarely under pressure, instead he had earned himself time to pick his spot and his teammates always knew where he would be.
In the early years, Gundogan could be found in a deeper role, playing the simple passes to De Bruyne and Silva, so they did the real damage in the final third. In recent times, Guardiola has freed the midfielder, allowing him to be a number 8, but occasionally pushing him back when the situation required it.
Gundogan has been tipped by many to become an elite coach once he retires from football. He has already worked with City’s youth players and is seen as a deep thinker. This is one of the reasons why he wanted to find a new adventure, play for Barcelona and learn a different style of football after seven years under Guardiola. Gündogan is enthusiastic about new experiences and wants to develop further. “His humanity, leading in silence, but when he talks, everyone listens, this is so important,” Guardiola said.
Gundogan was seen by City as a leader, one who led by actions rather than words. His colleagues elected him captain at the start of the season. Prior to that, he had been an important presence in the locker room leadership group. He led by example on the training ground and ensured that his colleagues reached the level their captain demands for City to excel over a season.
Off the field, Gundogan has influenced his environment. He paid for Turkish food for 100 people in Manchester during the Champions League final; two years earlier, he launched a campaign to help restaurants and cafes in the city during the pandemic. He made sure to become part of the community he lived in and did his best to help.
Gündogan lived centrally, next to Guardiola, in Manchester, creating a bond between the two. The German saw it as a privilege to work with his manager and learn his methods for when he eventually becomes a coach himself. “I love him. I love him. I’m married but I love him,” Guardiola said of his departing midfielder. There is enough love about the man.
It may have been a forgettable start to Gundogan’s City career, but it was a perfect ending, winning the Champions League in Turkey, the country of his family. Sometimes it’s best to cherish the memories and not think about what could have been had Gundogan stayed longer. The player and the club enjoyed the best of each other, and that’s all that matters.
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