Manchester City and Pep Guardiola aren't known for making astute signings, as such. It's a common criticism of Pep: he's a chequebook manager who can only win with billions to spend. There's certainly evidence to back it up.
Spending £60m on the obvious signing of Erling Haaland is smart, sure, but obvious: it doesn't take a recruitment expert to make that recommendation. Kyle Walker, Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez weren't exactly undiscovered gems. Phil Foden came from the academy, Kevin de Bruyne, Fernandinho and Raheem Sterling were signed pre-Pep. Ederson was an amazing buy – maybe masking the boob of bringing in Claudio Bravo a season prior before relegating him to back-up goalkeeper.
Often, the early hits are the best. And it's certainly true of Guardiola's first signing. No offence to Joao Cancelo or Ruben Dias – both of whom have a great claim to it – or Walker, Bernardo or Laporte. But Ilkay Gundogan is still Pep's greatest buy at the Etihad.
It was a statement at the time but a modest one. Manchester City only paid around £20 million for the Borussia Dortmund star, who had made his name as a creative threat under Jurgen Klopp but possessed the dynamism that Guardiola would look to implement at City.
He could have been the No.10 under a different manager – perhaps Jose Mourinho would have used him there at Manchester United – but he's in fact been Guardiola's only natural No.8, with De Bruyne, Silvas Bernardo and David and even Foden all wingers or No.10s who have been crowbarred into midfield. Fernandinho was a more progressive player at Shakhtar, too, developed into a shield for this side, leaving Gundogan as something of an anomaly.
Weirdly, Pep has seemed to avoid players who have reminded him of a younger him in the Premier League – but Gundogan has always been the player most reminiscent of a young Barça Guardiola under Johan Cruyff, Bobby Robson and Louis van Gaal. To call him Guardiola's general perhaps suggests he's been the physical enforcer of this team: he's been far more than that.
Where De Bruyne has been the fireworks, Gundogan has been the tempo-setter. The magnificent Bernabeu win before the first lockdown, which lit the touchpaper for City's ventures towards better European runs, was orchestrated by Gundo, quietly ticking away in midfield. The lack of such a player in the No.8 role in quests gone by was all too obvious – and he managed to fix the issue.
Long before that, Gundogan slotted in as a No.6 during Pep's second title win, taking to the role like he'd played there all his life and offering Silva and De Bruyne the freedom to do things on the ball that he himself can do, too.
He seems tailor-made for that job: always being in the right place, mastering the manager's every command… and going completely under the radar for his efforts. Likewise, he was the archetypal false nine for Pep during that lockdown season where he obliterated the rest of the Premier League without a striker. Gundogan was top scorer that season – it was almost as if his manager concocted the plan with the lynchpin beside him.
Eat, sleep, watch Gundo goal, repeat...🔷 #ManCity | https://t.co/axa0klD5re pic.twitter.com/jcdV7iP3pOJanuary 18, 2021
At every tactical tweak, at every innovative crossroad that City have found themselves, Gundogan has offered the essentials of Guardiola's principles: he's understood every assignment and become the very essence of what the Catalan wants to achieve.
To think, this guy used to do the very same thing for Jurgen Klopp – while over at Liverpool, Pep's former disciple Thiago Alcantara is coming to embody Klopp's style of play. Doing a "Reverse Gundogan", if you like.
Pep Guardiola has had flashier stars, for sure. He's transformed players, he's developing others into genuine era-defining superstars. But he's only had one Ilkay Gundogan – and he's been blooming brilliant.
More Manchester City stories
The rumours of who Manchester City will look to replace Ilkay Gundogan seem certain to run for a few weeks – but it won't be Paul Pogba, according to one report.
Meanwhile, Arsenal are said to be interested in Raheem Sterling. This is in addition to Gabriel Jesus, who is heavily linked with a move to north London.
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Mark White has been a staff writer on FourFourTwo since joining in January 2020, writing pieces for both online and the magazine. Over his time on the brand, he has interviewed the likes of Aaron Ramsdale and Jack Wilshere, written pieces ranging on subjects from Bobby Robson's season at Barcelona to Robinho's career, and has been to the FA Cup and League Cup finals, working for FFT.
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