JACK GAUGHAN: Man City will miss fantastic Ilkay Gundogan if he leaves

When FA Cup final hero Ilkay Gundogan speaks, people listen and there is deep respect for their captain among Man City’s squad… he’s the embodiment of Pep’s simple football and regularly saves his very best for when it REALLY matters

  • Ilkay Gundogan spurred Man City to a historic FA Cup final win on Saturday 
  • After joining in 2016, he has been one of the best players in the Guardiola era
  • But he could leave this summer, despite finally getting the praise he deserves

When Fernandinho was still around, the guys who hear it all in the dressing room were talking about Ilkay Gundogan. He wasn’t the one wearing that armband but seemed to be the man who picked his moments for leadership.

Manchester City have a few big characters in their squad, with louder voices. There are brasher individuals, perhaps even more confident. Gundogan’s ascent to captain is, on the surface, surprising. A quiet man. Polite, thoughtful. A thinker.

Yet the speeches referenced as big ones in Fernandinho’s final year were those from the technical craftsman in their midfield. He knew the right time to chime in. They were never rip-roarers and Gundogan will argue they do not need to be. When he speaks, people listen and there is deep respect for him among that squad.

And he does his homework, so had something prepared for Wembley. City gathered for a huddle in their own half before Paul Tierney blew to start the second leg of their Treble bid, a huddle that lasted so long it almost delayed kick-off.

Gundogan had his words sorted for one of the biggest afternoons of his illustrious City career. Only for Ruben Dias to go and nick his spotlight.

Ilkay Gundogan (pictured) has been one of Pep Guardiola’s best signings at Manchester City

The Manchester City captain (holding trophy) guided his side to FA Cup glory on Saturday, scoring twice to help the Citizens dispatch rivals Manchester United at Wembley Stadium

‘I was preparing to do my speech but Ruben wanted to say some words, so he did it,’ Gundogan laughed. ‘Most of the time it is me but sometimes there are players who like to talk and it is good that other players want to say things.

‘Ruben found the right words before kick-off. We do it in a huddle so it stays private but you can imagine. Motivational words for the boys.’

Gundogan took it with good grace and anyway, he stole the thunder back within 12 seconds, adding another iconic moment to his lengthy list at the club. Up there with the brace against Aston Villa on last year’s dramatic final day and the German is someone who regularly saves his very best for when it really matters.

The complete Pep Guardiola footballer, in sync with the manager who lives next door in the fancy city centre apartment block. They do occasionally socialise with each other and Guardiola calls him a friend.

The City boss is praying that relationship continues, with Gundogan’s future not yet resolved and Barcelona hoping he agrees a two-year contract on a free transfer. City have offered a more structured deal, believed to be one year plus the option of a second, and talks continue.

Gundogan’s (right) future at the club is not set in stone, with Pep Guardiola’s (left) side set to take on Inter Milan in the Champions League final next week as they bid for a historic treble 

If he were to go, City would not only lose a gifted midfielder, Guardiola’s first signing in 2016 who is exceptionally difficult to replace, but the unassuming captain who could be the one that is forever remembered if things go to plan this week.

‘In this side, it is very special to be elected by your team-mates to be their captain,’ said Gundogan. ‘I think it is about how I was behaving in the last few years, my character and just a reward.

‘I try to do the same things I’ve been doing for seven years now and don’t feel like there is something I have to change because I have the armband. I try to be the same character and same player.

‘And I think we just have a very homogeneous group. We are very balanced, we all understand each other, the atmosphere in the dressing room is good. There is not much confrontation or problems that need to be solved. Credit to the group and the leadership of the manager as these people make it easy for me to captain this team.’

Gundogan has scored six goals and two assists in the last six games, his record breaking wonder strike after 12 seconds of the Cup final is perhaps one of the best

Gundogan is a leader, but ahead of Saturday’s match, he let Ruben Dias lead the team talk

It would take him just 12 seconds to get on the score sheet with a superb volley from kick-off

Gundogan has been linked with a move to Barcelona with his deal set to expire this summer

City are now the fourth side, behind… well themselves, to score 150 goals in an English season

He never truly earns the recognition he deserves, Gundogan. A man who took on the goalscoring responsibility when City were without a striker in the 2021 title win, which felt out of character. A man who starred as a holding midfielder when Guardiola was short, which also felt out of character.

A captain who scored both goals in an FA Cup win over Manchester United is storybook stuff. And yet because it is him — nice, mild-mannered Ilkay Gundogan — it doesn’t project as the stuff of legend that it actually is. It’s statue territory. Especially if his next big job is picking up Old Big Ears in Istanbul.

‘My arms are a little bit pumped up,’ Gundogan joked. ‘Hopefully I can do it one more time.’

If that happens, and City do tick off the biggest achievement in the club game, then perhaps the time is right for Gundogan to wave farewell, to welcome his new baby to the world in Spain rather than Manchester.

But how City would miss him. Irreplaceable, a unique player in a few respects. Not the quickest, not the strongest — not the best — but City’s silk. City’s class, the smooth midfield jazz. The embodiment of Guardiola’s simple football.

Get the ball, pass the ball. See that space? Find someone in it. Progress through the thirds without risk. See a bouncing ball 20 yards out and wallop it into the top corner in front of 30,000 United fans. Easy stuff. He is 33 in October, though, so either way City will be planning to move on. It would be foolish not to. Now or in the near future, it is going to happen.

The German star would come back to score again in the second half with a left-footed strike

His side will turn their eyes to the Champions League and the treble now, and should he depart the club after then, it would be a fitting way to bow out of a fantastic few years at the club

Guardiola wanted Jude Bellingham in that No 8 position, in a sign they are looking at evolving into a different dimension with added power, before it became clear he didn’t fancy the Etihad.

‘I’m feeling fit, I’m feeling in form, I’m feeling good,’ added Gundogan, who has struggled with back problems. ‘I don’t know if that is the best football I’ve ever played. Maybe not, to be honest.

‘But in terms of scoring and numbers, I guess I’m better in recent years. It is not something I identify myself with. I don’t define myself by the numbers, I look at performances and also remember in recent years I was in really, really good form, so I can’t say it is the best football I’ve ever played.’

He is probably right. Gundogan has been this good for ages, just nobody really noticed.

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