Playmakers are a valuable commodity in the modern game, and the departure of Nuri Şahin from Borussia Dortmund in 2011 left a gaping hole in Jürgen Klopp’s well-drilled setup that clinched their first German championship in a turbulent nine years for the club. The following campaign brought a historic league and DFB Pokal double, in a similarly swanky fashionable style of football that is the talk of world football.
New facets have been added to the squad over the summer period, in the signing of Marco Reus from Borussia Mönchengladbach. He, and the likes of Mario Götze and Robert Lewandowski, have shaped the club’s dominance of the German game over the last two years, but 2012 has projected another young home-grown talent to the fore.
İlkay Gündoğan’s background is not a common component of a passionate Dortmunder. Born in Gelsenkirchen, or the “Forbidden City” to Borussia fans, Gündoğan was immersed in Schalke 04 culture, and his parents still live in the area. His talents were recognised at an early age and he trained with the Royal Blues as a nine-year-old, but according to an interview last year, the shirt “never really fitted” with the player.
After injury forced him to leave Schalke, he rejected a further offer from the club in favour of grafting in his teenage years with provincial youth sides that subsequently earned him a move to VfL Bochum, then on to 1.FC Nurnberg. Gündoğan found the perfect home in Franconia, learning his trade in the first-team and naturally making mistakes along the way, although principally he was crafting his skills in the Bundesliga environment.
At the Westfalenstadion, Dortmund were already preparing to cope with the loss of Şahin, who was attracting interest from across Europe. In the background, the dynamic, inventive Gündoğan was the prize target for Klopp and sporting director, Michael Zorc. In May 2011, they got their man—spending a reasonable €4.5 million to secure the highly rated midfielder, then 21, on a four-year deal, as he quickly slotted into the vacant role left by the departed Şahin, who was lured to Real Madrid.
Gündoğan’s first six months in Dortmund were far from straightforward. The local press expected a lot from the young midfielder, as he was thrust into an unforgiving environment in Klopp’s championship-winning team that were grappling with the prospect of competing on many fronts, including the UEFA Champions League.
His inconsistent performances became problematic for BVB, and he found himself on the bench for their back-to-back clashes with FC Bayern and Schalke, with the Dortmund head coach taking the reliable, pragmatic approach of leaving an inexperienced Gündoğan out of the side. Before long, though, Gündoğan began to find his feet at Signal Iduna Park, as the winter shutdown and time out of the first-team limelight—mainly due to a recurring injury problem—eased the pressure on his young shoulders.
His coach was always confident in his ability. Following the 0-0 draw at Augsburg, he told BILD:
Of course not everything fits with Ilkay. With him in the future is much more. Augsburg has against the 70th Minutes down his concentration waned. We need to work with him.
Sure Ilkay can affect the game more offensively. But you have to remember: He is just 20 years old. The development is difficult if the team is still not up to 100%.
There was nothing that could halt Dortmund’s rampaging assault on the title in the rückrunde, as Gündoğan, 22, returned to the first team in a 3-1 win over Hannover 96 at the end of February.
Some have suggested that the cataclysmic turning point in his fortunes was the scrappy single goal DFB Pokal win over Greuther Fürth where Gündoğan rose to prominence, leading the midfield battle and scoring the decisive goal—albeit with the help of a fortunate rebound off the goalkeeper after the ball struck the post.
The midfielder was a regular fixture in the starting lineup, forcing his way in to the side for 11 of the last 12 Bundesliga matches. Gündoğan earned a spot in the side in the pivotal 1-0 win over FC Bayern in April that ultimately allowed Klopp to begin planning their title celebrations a month later. The call followed from German National Team coach, Joachim Löw, and he was drafted into the Euro 2012 squad—but was on the bench for all of the DFB-elf’s games.
A debate born out of their disappointing performances in Poland and Ukraine this summer was the future of the national side and whether Gündoğan could bring an improvement to their fortunes. His form in the Bundesliga suggested so, where he brought excellent passing ability, dynamism, quick release of the ball and a high-intensity work rate in the middle of the pitch.
2012 was the birth of Gündoğan as a genuinely world-class footballer, and his form continued into this season’s campaign with Dortmund. The departure of Shinji Kagawa created another tactical issue for Klopp, although Gündoğan eased any dilemmas by both maintaining a remarkably consistency in his game, and also by taking the responsibility to connect Dortmund’s defensive buildup to their attacking play.
Unlike before, he excelled in taking deeper positions to receive the ball, but until the deployment of Mario Gotze in a central attacking-midfield role, there were very limited options ahead of him—hence their stuttering form in the last few months.
The defining moment in his Dortmund career thus far was his role in the hard-fought 1-1 draw against FC Bayern on December 1. Gündoğan battled with confidence and was assertive in his ball-playing skills in a fascinating tussle with Spanish midfielder Javi Martinez.
Both players produced their best performances to date, but Gündoğan’s zealous work rate and large areas of the pitch covered—11.46 km, to be exact—stamped his authority in a game where Dortmund resolutely thwarted an in-form FC Bayern side.
The midfielder retained his four-game unbeaten run in matches against the Bavarians when wearing the famous Yellow-and-Black shirt.
His impressive passing, though, has made him a strong challenger for Bastian Schweinsteiger’s role in the German national side. Gündoğan regularly offers an inside passing outlet for full-backs at Dortmund and has completed 87.4 percent of his 723 attempted efforts.
His FC Bayern counterpart, however, has not lived up to the same standards as last season, which is understandable given the extent of matches that Schweinsteiger played in throughout the first part of 2012.
There is little to separate the two German internationals in terms of ball retention, but Gündoğan’s forward passing is superior. The involvement of Toni Kroos may have hampered Schweinsteiger’s contribution in an attacking sense, but likewise could be argued with Gündoğan and the role of Götze as a ‘Number 10’ midfielder—add to that the recent shift in Jakub Blaszczykowski’s positioning to a more inside-right role.
Dortmund will continue their European dreams into 2013 against Shakhtar Donetsk in the Last 16 of the UEFA Champions League, with Gündoğan set to play an integral role in the next half of the season. The Bundesliga might evade them, but die Borussen are realistic this season. The respective losses of Kagawa, the difficult integration of Reus and the strength of FC Bayern, as a club, are accepted by Dortmund, and focus will go on European success and securing a top-three position in the table.
Gündoğan has been a shining light in 2012 for BVB. Klopp has been rewarded for his effective player-management skills and trust in the 22-year-old, who is now establishing himself as a world-class footballer and a first pick in the Dortmund first-team.
If the last 12 months is a reflection of what we can expect from Gündoğan, then expect more to come in 2013 from someone already regarded as a role model for social integration in his home region.