Ilkay Gundogan knows a thing or two about coming back stronger. He’s battled two career-threatening injuries in a space of just 3 years and yet, you will find the German international orchestrating the midfield with the same fervour and elegance. At first, a spinal cord compression kept him out for 428 days – missing 92 matches across all competitions for Borussia Dortmund. Then in 2016, he ruptured his ligament and missed 31 matches for Manchester City. Gundogan feared that he wouldn’t play football again.
Despite the setbacks, he was impressive upon his return and made his way into the first team at Dortmund and City respectively.
But before that, it is important to acknowledge his role in the unforgettable giant-killing spree in German football with Jurgen Klopp at Dortmund. From 2011 to 2013, Dortmund’s free-flowing football took the world by storm and won two consecutive Bundesliga titles, claimed the DFB-Pokal trophy and made it to the all-German Champions League final in 2013. Not everyone can crack the code to stop Bayern Munich from dominating club football in their own backyard. Only Gundogan and Co could muster enough courage to execute the unthinkable. The German's adaptability to different roles and his vision earned him a move to Manchester City in 2016.
Nearly four years and nine trophies later, Gundogan relishes a similar challenge, albeit in England this time. Despite Liverpool’s incredible run in the Premier League this year, Gundogan believes Manchester City will give them a tough fight next season. “It’s something you have to accept. Liverpool had a great season, congratulations to them for winning the league. They deserved it, no doubts about that. We are going to try to make it better next season again. We know what we have done wrong, where we have dropped points unnecessarily, so it’s up to us now to make it better next season,” explains Gundogan, who spoke to Star Sports after the resumption of the Premier League.
Liverpool didn't wait till the business end of the season to claim the elusive Premier League title. The Reds thwarted opponents mercilessly after fixing the chinks in their armour in the first half of the season.
Such is Liverpool's dominance this season, Gundogan’s Man City are still 23 points behind the champions after playing 34 games each. During the lockdown, the German international spent some time analysing where it went wrong for Manchester City. “I think we have to pay attention to two things. One thing obviously is that Liverpool had a great season. They barely dropped points, so it’s so tough to play at that level, to maintain that level for such a long time.”
This season, Man City’s defence succumbed to counter-attacking football on multiple occasions and struggled to finish games early on. Gundogan conceded how it allowed a rejuvenated Liverpool to gain momentum and sprint towards the title. “On the other side, there’s also a truth that we have dropped points that were totally unnecessary. Games that we normally have to win, we didn’t. I remember a game we played wherein we conceded in the last minute a goal and dropped two points there. We played a game at home against Wolves and lost the game. So many games where we committed mistakes. And still, we are second, still, it’s not a bad season I would say. We know where we have to improve next season and if we are able to do that, we are going to win the title again.".
Having played under both Klopp and Guardiola, Gundogan is one of the only few players to have lifted trophies in different countries with contrasting ideologies. “I feel privileged to have worked with Jurgen of course, but also to be now with Pep. It was such an amazing time with Jurgen Klopp, was such a successful time as well, I have learnt so much from him. It is still such a great time to have played for Manchester City. I appreciate every training session, every moment that I can enjoy the game. I am grateful for both who have taught me so much. I feel privileged. I don’t know any other player to have the opportunity to have worked with both, so I feel lucky,” says the 30-year-old midfielder.
Gundogan was quick to acknowledge that losing is a part of the game. With no room for bitterness, he was far from hesitant to pick up his phone to congratulate his former boss Klopp for exceeding expectations at Anfield. “Yes, I did call him to congratulate,” he laughs.
Over the years, Guardiola has built his reputation as a chequebook manager after tasting instant success with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City. Meanwhile, Klopp started from scratch to lay a strong foundation at Dortmund and Liverpool. The German is also the only manager to have a winning record against the Spaniard with nine wins, eight losses and two draws in all competitions. Gundogan credits both Klopp and Guardiola for his evolution as a complete midfielder.
“At the end, both are amazing managers. There’s no doubt about that. If you are an amazing manager, you have to have a great personality. This is something that they definitely have in common."
The duo had a neck-and-neck record against each other in Germany with four wins and four defeats each. Since the early days, both Guardiola and Klopp have been vocal about mutual admiration after competing in the Bundesliga and now in the Premier League.
READ: Pep Guardiola And The Dark Cloud Of The "chequebook Manager"
While Guardiola’s free-flowing and high-octane football has reaped rewards since 2011, Klopp’s ‘Gegenpressing’ and heavy metal football is the talk of the town now. These contrasting styles have led to fascinating battles and often churned out versatile players. “Obviously, when it comes to the game, they both focus on different things where Pep is maybe more into having possession, to play a dominating style. Jurgen is more into winning the ball and try to score goals as quick as possible, high intensity, full of emotions, but these are just details. I don’t even look on that side. I just think that they are great human beings and the football world should be grateful that we have these two big personalities,” Gundogan explains.
Liverpool may have won the league title, but other trophies are still up for grabs. Manchester City’s season is not over yet. “There’s still a lot to play for this season, we still have a few Premier League games left. We have the FA Cup semi-final, Champions League, so it still can be a great season, and that’s what we want to achieve and what we will play for,” Gundogan points out.
The resumption of the league meant that players had to undergo energy-sapping training sessions to make a return to the training ground post the lockdown. Gundogan had no complaints whatsoever as he was eager to get back to work. “I like challenges, just this is a completely new one for everyone, an experience that we never had before, but it’s feeling good to be back on the pitch,” Gundogan says.
(Image source: Ilkay Gundogan Twitter)