The curious case of Ilkay Gündoğan
A few months ago it looked certain that Ilkay Gündoğan would be heading through the exit door at Signal Iduna Park and into the arms of the red half of Manchester. At one stage Sky Germany even reported a transfer done – pending a medical that never materialised. Soon the rash of media reports went cold and the story was dismissed as another agent pushing for a move and not a deal actually completed.
Reports soon emerged linking Gündoğan to other European heavyweights: Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester City and Arsenal. It became clear that, after a disastrous season at Borussia Dortmund, Gündoğan was looking for a new challenge – along with a club that could match his hefty wage demands. This led to a flurry of stories about the player’s excessive wage demands, along with ‘medicals’ reported at more than one club across the continent. It took a statement by the player, denying an imminent move, to quash the column inches.
The statement itself was not surprising to those who have followed the German born to Turkish parents. From humble beginnings, Gündoğan fought his way from the reserve team at VFL Bochum to FC Nurnberg, where he made 50 appearances over three years. The highlight was a performance against Bayern Munich where Gündoğan was the best player on the pitch despite being a month shy of his 19th birthday.
Gündoğan’s performances for the lower Bundesliga club earned a move to Dortmund for €4 million in 2011 and, throughout his career, he has let his performances on the pitch do the talking. It makes the apparent receptiveness to his agent’s whim this summer all the more surprising.
Still, the Gelsenkirchen native is no modern-day ‘mercenary’. According to Bild, Gündoğan rejected a contract offer from PSG worth about €12 million a season. The German is desperate to prove himself at a higher level, but will only leave Dortmund for one of Europe’s elite clubs.
This summer’s saga still had one final twist though. According to credible German reports Gündoğan rejected both Barcelona and Bayern Munich due to the inadequate contracts offered. The clubs were reportedly “shocked” at the player’s demands and ended negotiations. Then, with all roads out of Dortmund seemingly closed, Gündoğan renewed his deal at Dortmund for a further two years.
Inadvertently, perhaps, Gündoğan made the most sensible decision. After a long injury layoff the 24-year-old is gradually getting back to the scintillating level of 2013, which brought the attention of Europe’s biggest clubs. The way Gündoğan dominated the Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid is remembered well across the continent.
At his best, Gündoğan was a marauding force who could dictate a game, with the opposition rarely able to stifle his influence. The German won’t grab attacking headlines, like team-mate Marco Reus, but his impact on the game for both club and country could once again be crucial.
Ask Pep Guardiola, whose Bayern team had to face Gündoğan at his peak in the 2013 DFL Supercup. Despite losing the talismanic Mario Gotze that summer Dortmund arguably retained the most crucial player on the pitch. Every significant Dortmund attack flowed through Gündoğan. Indeed, Gündoğan looked in prime position to step into the spotlight left by Gotze – only for a back injury to keep him out for most of the season.
Recent links to United made sense, of course. Gündoğan’s blend of energy and intelligence is a perfect fit for a club of United stature. Or would have been before Louis van Gaal spent more than £40 million on Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin. At his peak Gündoğan might have made the perfect replacement for Paul Scholes. The ability to control the build up, coupled with an eye for a pass, bares a strong resemblance to the ginger-haired United legend.
And while Gündoğan isn’t the physical behemoth of, say, Chelsea’s Nemanja Matic, he has the awareness to know just when to step in and gain possession for his team. His underrated ability to win the ball is similar to the way Michael Carrick operates for United.
Still, it is understandable that Van Gaal has gone for known qualities this summer. Since Gündoğan’s breakout season in 2013 the German suffered a serious spinal compression injury, which kept him out of action for major periods of the past two campaigns. He has shown glimpses of those explosive performances of old, but they have been all too rare. It would have been a major gamble for Van Gaal, who is in desperate need of midfield control, to acquire an injury-prone player who is only now moving past his troubles. Considering Carrick’s fragility – with the Englishman approaching the latter years of a fine career – Gündoğan would have posed a risk too far.
Instead, the saga has been put to bed for this summer at least. If Gündoğan is able to recapture the form of 2013 on a more consistent basis then United could do worse than to pursue a deal for the German once Carrick hangs up his boots – albeit an unlikely scenario given Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin’s arrival.
In 2013 Gündoğan fit United’s needs like a glove. It is a transfer that seemed a certainty at one point this summer. Fast forward two years and the player will probably be just one more star who seemed destined to don the famous red strip, but ended up spending his career elsewhere. Both parties might wonder what could have been.