Pep Guardiola’s first signing as Manchester City manager will go down as one of his best.
Reliable, versatile and delivering when it really matters, Ilkay Gundogan is perhaps the player who best epitomizes Guardiola’s trophy-laden era at City since they arrived at the club within weeks of each other in 2016.
And this season, the Germany midfielder’s importance to City has magnified as the team powers toward another Premier League title and, just maybe, a trio of major trophies.
In the past week, Gundogan has played three pressure-filled games in three different positions and scored four goals.
“He can do everything,” Guardiola said of Gundogan after his two goals in the 3-0 win at Everton on Sunday that has left City on the brink of the title.
Against Everton, Gundogan played as an attacking midfielder just off Erling Haaland and showed his eye for goal by flicking the ball up to himself in the middle of a crowded area and deftly poking home a finish to put City ahead. He then nonchalantly curled in a free kick to make it 3-0.
Five days earlier, he played a slightly more withdrawn role, closer to midfield anchorman Rodri, as City drew 1-1 with Real Madrid in the Champions League semifinals at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.
And three days before that, Gundogan had filled in for the rested Rodri as the deep-lying midfielder in City’s 2-1 win over Leeds in the Premier League. Oh, and he scored twice then, too, by dispatching edge-of-the-area finishes after arriving late to join attacks.
“He shows again, again and again his quality and his importance,” Guardiola said. “His commitment to all of us at the club.”
The next few weeks will show just how committed City is to Gundogan.
The 32-year-old midfielder’s contract is expiring at the end of this season and he has been linked with an offseason move to Barcelona.
Guardiola wants Gundogan to remain at the club — “Nobody knows what is going to happen,” the Spanish coach said. “Maybe he stays. Hopefully.” — but the player’s age might be an issue, with reports suggesting he wants a two-year deal and City only want to give him a 12-month contract.
With uncertainty over the future of another key midfielder, Bernardo Silva, Guardiola faces the alarming prospect of losing two of his most influential players in the same offseason. Two players who are so important to the way City operates with its suffocating pressing game and stylish attacking approach.
Ahead of what might be his own last season at City, Guardiola surely will insist that does not happen.
Gundogan, in particular, is Guardiola’s comfort blanket, his man for all seasons.
After joining from Borussia Dortmund for about 20 million pounds ($25 million), he spent the first four seasons as mostly a back-up for a stellar midfield comprising Fernandinho, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva. He particularly came into his own in the 2018-19 campaign when he played as the anchorman in place of the injured Fernandinho in the final months as City held off Liverpool to win a second league title under Guardiola.
Alternatively, in the 2020-21 season when City played largely without a striker, Gundogan was often deployed as the false nine and went through a hot streak from December to February — when he scored 11 goals in 12 games — to set the team on course for a third Premier League title.
Last season, he memorably scored the two late goals against Aston Villa on the final day to ensure City again edged Liverpool for the title. And this season, he has taken the armband and a more senior role in the squad, especially with Fernandinho no longer around.
“He doesn’t talk much but when he talks, everyone listens,” Guardiola said. “This is the power of a leader. He shows leadership every training session. Arriving on time, living the job 24 hours a day. He plays like he’s playing now.
“He is a guy who plays close to the box and has an incredible sense of the goal. But he can play holding midfield defensively, no problem. He proved that years ago when Fernandinho was injured. He is a guy who handles the pressure really, really well.”
Even though Gundogan previously had a ho-hum scoring record, he has been described by Guardiola as one of the best finishers in the squad and someone who can “take a coffee” before taking a shot.
Indeed, the first goal against Everton highlighted his composure as much as his technical qualities.
Upon signing Gundogan nearly seven years ago, City boasted of bringing in “an intelligent and versatile midfielder who can operate in a number of different roles.”
“I think,” the team said then, “our supporters will enjoy his work ethic and technical ability.”
Gundogan has lived up to his billing.
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