Why keeping Gundogan is so important for Man City

A couple of minutes at the start of the FA Cup final encapsulated Ilkay Gundogan‘s status at Manchester City.

Stood on the Wembley pitch before kickoff against Manchester United, he gathered his teammates into a huddle for a few final words of encouragement, only for Ruben Dias — a louder, more animated leader — to step in and deliver his own speech. It might have annoyed another captain, but not Gundogan. Twelve seconds into the game and he was back on centre stage, having scored the fastest goal ever in an FA Cup final with a perfectly judged right-foot volley.

Gundogan is the epitome of a player who does his talking with his feet. His final act as City captain this season was to lift the Champions League trophy after a 1-0 win over Inter Milan in Istanbul, and it might yet be his last contribution for the club he joined from Borussia Dortmund in 2016. City want to keep him, but if he doesn’t agree a new contract to extend his stay at the Etihad Stadium, there’s interest from BarcelonaArsenal and clubs in Saudi Arabia.

The 32-year-old ignored all talk about his future until the end of the season, but it’s now time to make a decision.

After seven seasons together, manager Pep Guardiola knows exactly what he would be losing. Gundogan was so good during the run-in that teammate Kyle Walker joked in a news conference before the Champions League semifinal against Real Madrid that his form had earned the dressing room nickname “Prime Zidane.” During the treble celebrations, Jack Grealish filmed himself singing “Gundo’s on fire” to the tune of “Freed From Desire.”

Gundogan, as he typically does, looked a little bit sheepish in the footage. Understated and slightly reserved, he’s far more comfortable dishing out compliments about others than receiving them. It was probably for the best, then, that Gundogan wasn’t in the media theatre at Wembley after his FA Cup final heroics.

“The player is exceptional,” said Guardiola. “This season what he has done is just exceptional. Not just being part of the important moments and I don’t forget the two goals he scored against Aston Villa [on the final day of the 2021-22] and this season many times he’s scored important goals.”

Gundogan has developed a reputation at City for saving his best for the big occasions. Against Villa in May 2022, with the Premier League title on the line, he scored twice in five minutes late in the game as Guardiola’s team came back from 2-0 down to win 3-2. In the final seven games of this season, the Germany midfielder scored six goals, including both in the FA Cup final win over Man United. Two more doubles against Leeds United and Everton decided tight games in the title race with Arsenal.

Elected captain by the dressing room last summer following Fernandinho’s departure, his leadership style is based on setting the example for everyone else. He has a keen eye for detail in everything from his diet to his sleep patterns. He eats steamed meat and tries to avoid carbohydrates, even monitoring his portion sizes and eliminating sugar altogether. Before he goes to bed, he has at least an hour away from his phone so the blue light from the screen doesn’t affect his sleep.

Early in his career, Gundogan suffered a series of injuries and at one point in late 2013, he was told by a doctor that he would have to retire because of a spine problem. Yet the way he has looked after himself has seen him average 48 club games a year since the beginning of 2017; this season, he made more than 60 appearances for City and Germany combined. He will turn 33 in October, but any club interested in signing him this summer will know they are likely to get value for money.

It’s not just his on-field presence that makes him so coveted. Gundogan shares a floor of a Manchester apartment block with Guardiola, and the City boss considers him a friend as well as a neighbour. He’s a more thoughtful footballer, too, regularly posting on LinkedIn instead of other social media platforms.

As the leader of the dressing room, Gundogan has acted as a go-between for the squad and the coaching staff, including when defender Joao Cancelo was unhappy following his return from the World Cup. On the pitch, it’s on Gundogan to make sure Guardiola’s blueprint comes to life and he will often get a message from the touchline to relay to someone else.

Guardiola’s well-oiled winning machine needs Gundogan and he has done everything he can to persuade him to stay. Asked about his future after the FA Cup final, the City manager replied simply: “He knows what I think.”

Despite winning the treble, City and Guardiola will spend the transfer window trying to improve the squad in the hope they can do it all again next season. Yet if they convince him to stay, Gundogan could yet end up as their signing of the summer.

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