The importance of Ilkay Gundogan to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City revolution is clear. The 25-year-old signed for City on June 2 for a fee of around £20 million, making him the first player through the door at the Etihad Stadium in the new Guardiola era.
It’s a deal the club have been working on for some time. As reported by De Telegraaf (h/t ESPN FC), Guardiola and City sporting director Txiki Begiristain met with Gundogan’s uncle and agent, Ilhan, back in March.
With the German’s contract quickly running down, it was high up Guardiola’s list of priorities to sign him before anyone else could make their move. The fee represents something of a bargain.
It’s easy to see why he was such a priority. City had four central midfielders on their books before Gundogan’s arrival, but they lacked the characteristics Guardiola craves.
Fernandinho had a superb season and has the energy and technical ability to excel under Guardiola. However, Yaya Toure, at 32, looks likely to depart, Fernando has drastically improved in recent months but lacks the kind of dynamism Guardilola demands, and Fabian Delph, having suffered a series of niggling injuries, is yet to show whether he can excel in a side chasing domestic and European success.
Guardiola sets his sides up to keep the ball, to cherish possession and out-pass the opposition. He also expects intensity and work rate, demanding his side harry and press in order to reclaim the ball. He is likely to have assessed the players left behind by Manuel Pellegrini and felt there was a shortfall in his key requirements.
Gundogan begins the process of revolutionising the City midfield. He’s unlikely to be the final piece of the jigsaw. “I love the midfield players,” he once said, according to James Robson at the Manchester Evening News.
“I would like to have a thousand midfield players in my squad, in my team because I believe the midfield players are intelligent understand the game. They understand back and they understand forward."
Midfielders, Guardiola feels, are the key to winning in style.
His first signing at Bayern Munich was Thiago Alcantara, a player who turned out to be central to their success under the Catalan, there are few better at keeping the ball. Tactically, he’s incredibly adaptable, and he works as hard as any player in Europe. He was an asset and a key component of their playing style.
Gundogan, it seems, has been earmarked to have a similar effect. He’s a superb passer and a player who will fight to win the ball back. The City fans who were at the Etihad when Dortmund drew 0-0 with Roberto Mancini’s side back in 2011 will know his quality.
The German side were dominant that night and but for Joe Hart, they could have scored five or six. Gundogan pulled the strings and sparkled throughout.
He may have struggled initially after signing from FC Nurnberg in 2011, but it didn't take him long to begin asserting his quality. He helped them to the double in his first year—the orchestrator of Jurgen Klopp's rock 'n' roll football.
He scored in the UEFA Champions League final the following year and became known as one of the finest modern midfielders in Europe. As he so often did, Klopp had unearthed a star:
Gundogan on Pep Guardiola: "He's one of the best coaches of all time. What he did in Barcelona and Bayern Munich is amazing."— City Watch (@City_Watch) June 2, 2016
Perhaps the one area of concern is his injury record. He has a dislocated kneecap and may not return to action until September, having injured himself playing basketball, and in 2013, he injured his back and spent 13 months on the sidelines. Given he has only been playing regularly for seven seasons, to have missed 18 months through injury is questionable.
His back injury confused Dortmund club doctors for a long time—they could not find a solution to his problem. It was initially understood he would miss just a few weeks, but after a series of aborted attempts to reintegrate him into training, he ended up being out for substantially longer.
Eventually, he returned, much to Gundogan's delight. He told Bild (h/t Sky Sports News) back in 2014:
I have no fear at all and am able to go into tackles like I always did, without holding myself back.
I know I have not yet reached my goal because I cannot claim to be in the form I was before my injury, but if everything goes well and the coach picks me, then I presume that I can play against Anderlecht (in the Champions League) at the start of October.
That is the first game I will be ready for.
Having failed to make the 2014 FIFA World Cup because of his serious back complaint, he will now miss this summer’s UEFA European Championship, which is a blow to Germany coach Joachim Low’s plans.
Low couldn’t hide his disappointment at the news, and he told the German Football Association’s website (h/t ESPN):
Of course this is a setback for all of us, but above all it is very bitter for Ilkay himself.
After he was already forced to miss [the World Cup in] Brazil due to injury, now he's going to miss a European Championship which he had such high hopes for.
He was in great shape and with his dynamism, his vision and his strategic abilities, he played a central role in our plans.
All of us from the national team wish him first and foremost a speedy return to action.
His two major setbacks have given rise to the opinion he is injury-prone, a player who comes with serious risk, yet a closer look at his record suggests that, aside from those two major setbacks, he has been fairly fit.
According to data on Transfermarkt, Gundogan's other injuries have mostly been minor, with a 28-day absence because of a bruised foot his longest period on the treatment table. He spent five seasons at Dortmund and—taking away the 2013-14 campaign, which was ruined by his back problem—he averaged over 38 games per season.
Gundogan has been the heartbeat of the Dortmund side for five years, helping them to a Bundesliga title, a DFB-Pokal, a DFL-Supercup and a runners-up spot in the Champions League. His influence has been significant.
Guardiola, a keen admirer from afar, will be hoping Gundogan can transfer his form to English football. His injury record is the only concern, and even that isn't much to worry about.
Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and will be following the club from a Manchester base throughout the 2015/16 season. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow him on Twitter @RobPollard_.