Ilkay Gundogan may have played just 250 minutes of competitive football for Borussia Dortmund and Germany this season, but according to reports in Spain and England, Real Madrid and Arsenal have placed the 23-year-old atop their transfer wishlists.
Tony Stenson of the Daily Star reported earlier this month that Arsenal are keen to add Gundogan to a growing German contingent at the club that already includes Mesut Ozil, Per Mertesacker, Lukas Podolski and Serge Gnabry.
On Friday, Marca published a detailed report claiming that Real Madrid were prepared to bid €30 million for the Gelsenkirchen native, having secured a preferential option to purchase Gundogan as part of their loan of Nuri Sahin to BVB.
Irfan Gundogan, Ilkay's father and agent, told Kicker later on Friday that there was no agreement between his son and Real and that negotiations over an extension with Dortmund have only been put on hold due to the back injury that has sidelined Gundogan since August.
Whether Gundogan eventually decides to extend his contract or chooses a move abroad, it's no wonder why the versatile midfielder is so highly rated by some of the world's best clubs. He is a player of a rather unique skill set and is one of the most complete central midfielders in the world.
Gundogan began his professional career as a playmaker at Nurnberg. Following Sahin's sale to Real Madrid in 2011, Juergen Klopp signed Gundogan to fill the void left by the departed midfielder.
The newcomer was initially a failure; he played the holding role as though he were still a No. 10, and his risk-taking in deep areas allowed opponents to counterattack.
The teething process took about half of his first season, but by February 2012, Gundogan was transformed. He had internalized his role and now looked a proper holding midfielder. His experience as a playmaker was no longer a tactical weakness but gave him valuable tools that he adapted to his new role.
The most important qualities a playmaker can have are playmaking vision and technical skill in the form of a soft first touch, close dribbling control and passing ability over short and long distances. Gundogan possesses all of these and not only use such skills when he forays into attack but has adapted them for use even deep in his own half.
With all of the skill of a creative player at the edge of the opposing penalty area, Gundogan can receive a pass in his own half with a quick turn away from a defender. Like an attacker moving the ball up the wing to cross, Gundogan can reliably dribble from the edge of his penalty box and transition play into attack.
The key adaptation Gundogan has made is to discern when the simple option is best and when the spectacular is not too great a risk.
Gundogan's primary role at BVB is as a distributor, and as one would expect from a playmaker, he's a very skilled passer with both feet.
Although Dortmund's playing style emphasizes advancing the ball as quickly as possible and playing daring passes forward, Gundogan's 87 percent pass completion rate in the Bundesliga last season was his team's best and is suggestive of a player from a possession-first team—especially given that it came with him averaging a lengthy 20 meters per pass.
Although Gundogan's greatest skills are in his passing, he is far from deficient without the ball. He is very sturdy at 5'11", 174 pounds and, under Klopp, has developed a relentless engine so typical of Dortmund players.
He excels in tight situations, pressing to win back possession and, when he does, using his body to shield the ball and his technical skills to transition play from defense to attack. It's this combination of abilities that saw him perform head and shoulders over the likes of Yaya Toure and Xabi Alonso in the Champions League last season.
In terms of tactical sense, Gundogan stands out. He has the skill to move into attack, an option that Sahin has been unable to provide this season, and it has shown when BVB have been against the ropes in some big matches.
When Gundogan does venture forward, BVB are rarely ever caught on the counterattack. This perhaps can be attributed to their high-pressing game and therefore might not be reflected at another club. But Gundogan has proven exceptionally adaptable in the past and could surely adjust his style of play once more, even if it means taking away one of his strong points.
Perhaps the greatest attribute Gundogan possesses is a strong constitution that sees him reach another level in the biggest games.
He was veritably heroic for BVB in the Champions League last season, especially in the semifinals against Real Madrid and in the final against Bayern. It was he, who at just 22 years of age, had the nerve to take the penalty that put BVB level at Wembley. Out of the six games he missed last season, BVB won just one; his leadership and influence cannot be understated.
Heading into the current season, Gundogan's career was on a very steep trajectory. By the spring, he'd firmly established himself ahead of Toni Kroos as Bastian Schweinsteiger's backup at the international level, and greats like Guenter Netzer even claimed that the BVB man might soon replace the vice captain in Joachim Loew's Germany team.
All of that came prior to Gundogan's heroics in the latter stages of the Champions League.
Gundogan began the 2013-14 season in blistering form.
His virtuoso performance in the DFB-Superpokal (see video, right) led BVB to a 4-2 victory over Bayern. But the back injury that has sidelined him since August is of course a major concern in the context of his greater career.
Lumbar problems are very sensitive and can easily be recurrent—teammate Mats Hummels knows this all too well. Gundogan will return to action in early 2014 and will have plenty of time to build form ahead of the World Cup, but another injury could leave him with an entirely wasted year.
Still 23, though, Gundogan has room to develop and looks set to establish himself as one of the best central midfielders of his generation. Whether he extends with Dortmund or moves to Real or Arsenal, the club he chooses will be lucky to have him.
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