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My little obsession

Whether playing, watching or devising strategies on computer games, football is the very oxygen that keeps İlkay Gündoğan going. Add the Manchester City captaincy into the mix and this is a man on a mission

WORDS Simon Hart | INTERVIEW Raphael Honigstein | PORTRAITS Victoria Haydn

Interview
There are some footballers who cannot stand watching the game – and then there’s İlkay Gündoğan. By his own admission, evenings at home can involve hours on the sofa taking in the sport that already fills up his working life, the equivalent of a plumber watching bathrooms being fitted. Add in the fact that the Manchester City captain is also such an aficionado of Football Manager that he has become one of the game’s ambassadors, and you wonder what his wife Sara makes of his infatuation.

Sitting in an interview room at the City Football Academy, Gündoğan smiles. “Anyone who’s married probably knows very well that you can’t have everything, unfortunately,” he explains. “But I have to say my wife has a lot of understanding for my little obsession with sitting in front of the TV after dinner and watching lots of football, including during the week. I appreciate that very much.”

That line about not having everything is probably open to debate when applied to Gündoğan’s midfield gifts. Here, after all, is a player whose intelligence allows him to shift from one role to another in Pep Guardiola’s side. It can be as a No6 using the ball prudently, setting the tempo and rhythm in possession and helping his team keep their shape out of it; or as a No8, linking midfield and attack and breaking forward to score goals.

Take the 17 he struck across all competitions in 2020/21, making him City’s leading marksman for the campaign. Or, better yet, recall his crucial double on the final day in the Premier League last season, when City trailed Aston Villa 2-0 with 15 minutes left. Guardiola’s men looked to have blown their title chance, with the trophy seemingly headed to Liverpool, until Gündoğan nodded in to spark a comeback – and later buried the all-important winner.

Factor in the thoughtfulness and articulacy that have earned him the captain’s armband this season and you have a player who has proved deeply valuable to City since he arrived from Borussia Dortmund as Guardiola’s first signing in 2016. “Always you can rely on him 100 per cent,” says his manager. “He gave us the Premier League. He can play holding midfielder and attacking midfielder. He is so smart, can talk about the world.”

“The Champions League is the greatest. Being able to play in it for ten years now, with the best in the world, is a huge privilege”

Beneath it all, though, remains that football obsessive who, growing up in Gelsenkirchen in Germany’s Ruhr Valley, would race home from midweek training sessions to watch Champions League matches on TV. The 32-year-old has not forgotten those days.

“I remember at 15, 16, at the VfL Bochum youth academy, being driven home at nine, shortly after kick-off, unpacking my bag, putting the dirty laundry into the washing machine and getting straight in front of the TV without eating. I recall that time fondly. Champions League evenings were the best back then – I watched both the German and the Turkish teams, naturally, because of my background. The whole family was always together.”

As the son of Turkish immigrants, he dwells on one landmark European night in particular. “Back in 2000, when Galatasaray won the UEFA Cup, we were all sitting together, around 20 people in the living room, and after the penalty that gave Galatasaray victory [in a final shoot-out against Arsenal], people were hugging each other, crying.

“These are moments that I like to think back to and that shaped me as a person. That’s why, since I was a little kid, the Champions League is the greatest. Being able to play in it for ten years now, with the best in the world from different countries, is a huge privilege.”

Another thing that has not changed is Gündoğan’s ambition to hold aloft the biggest prize of the lot. There have been domestic leagues and cups gathered in Germany and England, but he is still pursuing his first Champions League winners’ medal.

“As someone who wasn’t born and raised here, it’s a big honour to be Captain of this Team and Club”
After scoring in the 2013 Champions League final for Dortmund

It was ten years ago this May that, as a Dortmund player, he scored in the Champions League final against Bayern München, converting a penalty kick to equalise at 1-1. Yet he still finished on the losing side at Wembley, owing to Arjen Robben’s late winner. Nonetheless, it remains a cherished memory.

“The Champions League final from 2013 does pop up in my mind from time to time – strangely, quite positively. Of course, the result wasn’t the best. We lost, unfortunately, but with that young Dortmund team and [coach Jürgen] Klopp, the unit we were, just to get to the final after the dramatic semi-final second leg against Madrid – when we lost 2-0 and one more goal would have eliminated us – it was fantastic when you look back.

“Just that fresh, dynamic Dortmund, a young team that made it to the final and had a lot of fun. And I had a lot of fun myself. Although we lost, I think it was a really close match. We could have, and arguably should have, taken the lead early in the first half with the chances we had. Unfortunately we didn’t take them, which is a bit frustrating, but it was still a really great, positive experience.

“It was definitely an impetus to reach another final. I did manage that with City and lost again. Of course, when you play in a final twice and lose both times, you want to give everything for a third chance to try and win finally.”

That second final experience came in 2021 as part of the City side beaten 1-0 by Chelsea in Porto. It was one of a series of near misses for Guardiola’s side, the latest being a semi-final against Real Madrid last term in which City held a two-goal aggregate lead entering the 90th minute of the second leg.

The way things then unravelled at the Santiago Bernabéu contained echoes of earlier Champions League exits in the Guardiola era – against Monaco, Tottenham and Lyon, each time hope vanishing amid a sudden flurry of goals.

“We have the feeling that there is a need for more than just the necessary quality,” admits Gündoğan. “There’s also the need for calm and coolness in decisive moments, to be able to get through it – and that’s something which, unfortunately, we haven’t managed to do over the years. You can be knocked out so quickly. Unfortunately, we have had bitter experiences of that in recent years.”

Inside City, Gündoğan is known for his intelligence and clarity of thought – “management material” as one close observer of the club has called him. And he is philosophical about the ups and downs the game produces.

“In general, I’m someone who’s very honest with myself. I know relatively quickly after the final whistle of a match whether it was good or bad – and if it was bad, what was bad and what I can do better. But it’s also a quality of mine that I can forget matches fairly quickly. In the sense that I’m still annoyed if I’ve made a mistake, or something hasn’t come off – not just personally but as a team – but that I can then look forward again fairly quickly and know exactly what didn’t and did go well. That’s something I like and value in myself.

“Nonetheless, I am someone who sometimes lies in bed at night and doesn’t think about the last match but rather about what the future holds in general – professionally, football-wise, but also personally. So, essentially, I am someone who’s very reflective, I have to admit.”

His powers of reflection no doubt spoke in his favour when his City team-mates voted him their new captain last summer, following the departure of the previous incumbent, Fernandinho. “I think my colleagues chose me because I am the way I am, with my character, the way I think, the way I speak and communicate with them,” he remarks. “As someone who wasn’t born and raised here, it’s a big honour to be the captain of this team and club.

“I have been here for over six years now. I probably know almost everything. I have experienced a lot, and there have been good and bad times, not just here but in Germany too. In the end I think it’s a kind of recognition, but more of
my character than my game. I think that’s a bigger deal than what happens on the pitch.

“At the start of the season I spoke with last season’s captain, Fernandinho. I called and asked him a few things and asked for advice, because as well as what happens on the pitch, there’s a lot that happens off it. With my experience as vice-captain last season, you pick up a lot, [but today] if someone has a problem, you’re now the first person they come to.”

Interestingly, the role has not actually brought any extra dialogue with his manager. “I think Pep leaves a lot of things to run,” he explains. “It’s important to him that things which happen within the team or problems within the team are sorted out within the team. He probably only gets involved if it’s something really major or important, but I can’t recall any problems in recent years where he had to get involved. I don’t speak to him any more often than was previously the case.”

One conversation they did have last October came when Guardiola threatened to drop him for the rest of the season – as a joke, after Gündoğan’s wife complained that she could not find a decent meal in Manchester. Instead, Guardiola invited the couple to visit his own tapas restaurant in the city. It is the sort of diplomatic move that informs Gündoğan’s own approach to wearing the armband.

“I think as a captain you should have human knowledge,” he says. “You should be able to assess what makes people tick because, in the end, in a team you have at least 20 different players with different characters. Everyone absorbs things differently, perceives things differently. Be a bit like a coach, because in the end he has to make some decisions, make sure that everyone is happy and that there is a good level of harmony.”

The subject of big tasks takes us back to the Champions League and Manchester City’s quest for their first European crown. Gündoğan does not hide the fact that the venue of this season’s final, Istanbul, adds an extra layer of motivation given his ties to Turkey. He spent summer holidays in the country as a boy, for example. while his wedding ceremony last summer took place in the town of Dursunbey, in the northwestern province of Balıkesir from which his family hails.

Yet before his family and friends there can crowd around the TV to watch him in the Champions League final – or even take their seats at the Atatürk Olympic Stadium – City must overcome some considerable hurdles first. Just don’t doubt that the ambition is there.

“I said at the start that if you have the quality we have here, with this team and this club, you also have the responsibility to play in the final,” says Gündoğan, in reflective mood again. “Unfortunately we’ve only managed that once in the past few years, but we still put all our efforts into reaching that final once again. To play the 2023 final in Istanbul would be something special for me personally.”

Insight
New dimension

Can Erling Haaland be the difference-maker for City in their Champions League quest? Gündoğan certainly hopes so. “He is a weapon that we haven’t had for a few years: a central striker who is powerful, edgy but also fast – and who always has a feel for where the ball will land and can strike it well to score.

“That’s something that is clearly an incredible quality. Naturally we hope he can help us take our chances in those decisive moments. That’s one reason, but not the only reason, why the club signed him. We’re pleased that so far it has worked out and it’s up to us to build on that and give him the support needed so that he can make the difference when we’re playing in those knockout games.”

Haaland has a magnificent record in the competition, having reached 28 goals from his first 22 outings with his double against Copenhagen in the group stage. Even so, some have questioned the impact of such a centre-forward on the attacking patterns of a team accustomed to playing with a false nine – a role Gündoğan himself has filled more than once.

Reflecting on the tactical switch, the German international says, “For me, the style of play changes depending on if I know someone is up front, in the centre, who can play solidly in space and who you know can use their speed to reach the ball perfectly virtually every time. Haaland loves to do this. I watched him when he was at Dortmund and saw that he was incredibly dynamic in those sprints, and he’s shown that quality again several times at the start of this season.

“He’s not a ‘false number nine’ as we sometimes say, like Gabriel Jesus was, but he’s someone who really enjoys running through to the front, where he can make a difference. That’s a quality that will take us far because we have players who can play the ball a long way. That’s a quality that Kevin [De Bruyne] has, for example, and that’s something that can be the deciding factor in close matches.

“You might have to defend for 10, 15 or 20 minutes, but then you have someone who can get themselves forward when you win the ball. And that’s really cool.”

Sitting in an interview room at the City Football Academy, Gündoğan smiles. “Anyone who’s married probably knows very well that you can’t have everything, unfortunately,” he explains. “But I have to say my wife has a lot of understanding for my little obsession with sitting in front of the TV after dinner and watching lots of football, including during the week. I appreciate that very much.”

That line about not having everything is probably open to debate when applied to Gündoğan’s midfield gifts. Here, after all, is a player whose intelligence allows him to shift from one role to another in Pep Guardiola’s side. It can be as a No6 using the ball prudently, setting the tempo and rhythm in possession and helping his team keep their shape out of it; or as a No8, linking midfield and attack and breaking forward to score goals.

Take the 17 he struck across all competitions in 2020/21, making him City’s leading marksman for the campaign. Or, better yet, recall his crucial double on the final day in the Premier League last season, when City trailed Aston Villa 2-0 with 15 minutes left. Guardiola’s men looked to have blown their title chance, with the trophy seemingly headed to Liverpool, until Gündoğan nodded in to spark a comeback – and later buried the all-important winner.

Factor in the thoughtfulness and articulacy that have earned him the captain’s armband this season and you have a player who has proved deeply valuable to City since he arrived from Borussia Dortmund as Guardiola’s first signing in 2016. “Always you can rely on him 100 per cent,” says his manager. “He gave us the Premier League. He can play holding midfielder and attacking midfielder. He is so smart, can talk about the world.”

“The Champions League is the greatest. Being able to play in it for ten years now, with the best in the world, is a huge privilege”

Beneath it all, though, remains that football obsessive who, growing up in Gelsenkirchen in Germany’s Ruhr Valley, would race home from midweek training sessions to watch Champions League matches on TV. The 32-year-old has not forgotten those days.

“I remember at 15, 16, at the VfL Bochum youth academy, being driven home at nine, shortly after kick-off, unpacking my bag, putting the dirty laundry into the washing machine and getting straight in front of the TV without eating. I recall that time fondly. Champions League evenings were the best back then – I watched both the German and the Turkish teams, naturally, because of my background. The whole family was always together.”

As the son of Turkish immigrants, he dwells on one landmark European night in particular. “Back in 2000, when Galatasaray won the UEFA Cup, we were all sitting together, around 20 people in the living room, and after the penalty that gave Galatasaray victory [in a final shoot-out against Arsenal], people were hugging each other, crying.

“These are moments that I like to think back to and that shaped me as a person. That’s why, since I was a little kid, the Champions League is the greatest. Being able to play in it for ten years now, with the best in the world from different countries, is a huge privilege.”

Another thing that has not changed is Gündoğan’s ambition to hold aloft the biggest prize of the lot. There have been domestic leagues and cups gathered in Germany and England, but he is still pursuing his first Champions League winners’ medal.

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“As someone who wasn’t born and raised here, it’s a big honour to be Captain of this Team and Club”
After scoring in the 2013 Champions League final for Dortmund

It was ten years ago this May that, as a Dortmund player, he scored in the Champions League final against Bayern München, converting a penalty kick to equalise at 1-1. Yet he still finished on the losing side at Wembley, owing to Arjen Robben’s late winner. Nonetheless, it remains a cherished memory.

“The Champions League final from 2013 does pop up in my mind from time to time – strangely, quite positively. Of course, the result wasn’t the best. We lost, unfortunately, but with that young Dortmund team and [coach Jürgen] Klopp, the unit we were, just to get to the final after the dramatic semi-final second leg against Madrid – when we lost 2-0 and one more goal would have eliminated us – it was fantastic when you look back.

“Just that fresh, dynamic Dortmund, a young team that made it to the final and had a lot of fun. And I had a lot of fun myself. Although we lost, I think it was a really close match. We could have, and arguably should have, taken the lead early in the first half with the chances we had. Unfortunately we didn’t take them, which is a bit frustrating, but it was still a really great, positive experience.

“It was definitely an impetus to reach another final. I did manage that with City and lost again. Of course, when you play in a final twice and lose both times, you want to give everything for a third chance to try and win finally.”

That second final experience came in 2021 as part of the City side beaten 1-0 by Chelsea in Porto. It was one of a series of near misses for Guardiola’s side, the latest being a semi-final against Real Madrid last term in which City held a two-goal aggregate lead entering the 90th minute of the second leg.

The way things then unravelled at the Santiago Bernabéu contained echoes of earlier Champions League exits in the Guardiola era – against Monaco, Tottenham and Lyon, each time hope vanishing amid a sudden flurry of goals.

“We have the feeling that there is a need for more than just the necessary quality,” admits Gündoğan. “There’s also the need for calm and coolness in decisive moments, to be able to get through it – and that’s something which, unfortunately, we haven’t managed to do over the years. You can be knocked out so quickly. Unfortunately, we have had bitter experiences of that in recent years.”

Inside City, Gündoğan is known for his intelligence and clarity of thought – “management material” as one close observer of the club has called him. And he is philosophical about the ups and downs the game produces.

“In general, I’m someone who’s very honest with myself. I know relatively quickly after the final whistle of a match whether it was good or bad – and if it was bad, what was bad and what I can do better. But it’s also a quality of mine that I can forget matches fairly quickly. In the sense that I’m still annoyed if I’ve made a mistake, or something hasn’t come off – not just personally but as a team – but that I can then look forward again fairly quickly and know exactly what didn’t and did go well. That’s something I like and value in myself.

“Nonetheless, I am someone who sometimes lies in bed at night and doesn’t think about the last match but rather about what the future holds in general – professionally, football-wise, but also personally. So, essentially, I am someone who’s very reflective, I have to admit.”

His powers of reflection no doubt spoke in his favour when his City team-mates voted him their new captain last summer, following the departure of the previous incumbent, Fernandinho. “I think my colleagues chose me because I am the way I am, with my character, the way I think, the way I speak and communicate with them,” he remarks. “As someone who wasn’t born and raised here, it’s a big honour to be the captain of this team and club.

“I have been here for over six years now. I probably know almost everything. I have experienced a lot, and there have been good and bad times, not just here but in Germany too. In the end I think it’s a kind of recognition, but more of
my character than my game. I think that’s a bigger deal than what happens on the pitch.

“At the start of the season I spoke with last season’s captain, Fernandinho. I called and asked him a few things and asked for advice, because as well as what happens on the pitch, there’s a lot that happens off it. With my experience as vice-captain last season, you pick up a lot, [but today] if someone has a problem, you’re now the first person they come to.”

Interestingly, the role has not actually brought any extra dialogue with his manager. “I think Pep leaves a lot of things to run,” he explains. “It’s important to him that things which happen within the team or problems within the team are sorted out within the team. He probably only gets involved if it’s something really major or important, but I can’t recall any problems in recent years where he had to get involved. I don’t speak to him any more often than was previously the case.”

One conversation they did have last October came when Guardiola threatened to drop him for the rest of the season – as a joke, after Gündoğan’s wife complained that she could not find a decent meal in Manchester. Instead, Guardiola invited the couple to visit his own tapas restaurant in the city. It is the sort of diplomatic move that informs Gündoğan’s own approach to wearing the armband.

“I think as a captain you should have human knowledge,” he says. “You should be able to assess what makes people tick because, in the end, in a team you have at least 20 different players with different characters. Everyone absorbs things differently, perceives things differently. Be a bit like a coach, because in the end he has to make some decisions, make sure that everyone is happy and that there is a good level of harmony.”

The subject of big tasks takes us back to the Champions League and Manchester City’s quest for their first European crown. Gündoğan does not hide the fact that the venue of this season’s final, Istanbul, adds an extra layer of motivation given his ties to Turkey. He spent summer holidays in the country as a boy, for example. while his wedding ceremony last summer took place in the town of Dursunbey, in the northwestern province of Balıkesir from which his family hails.

Yet before his family and friends there can crowd around the TV to watch him in the Champions League final – or even take their seats at the Atatürk Olympic Stadium – City must overcome some considerable hurdles first. Just don’t doubt that the ambition is there.

“I said at the start that if you have the quality we have here, with this team and this club, you also have the responsibility to play in the final,” says Gündoğan, in reflective mood again. “Unfortunately we’ve only managed that once in the past few years, but we still put all our efforts into reaching that final once again. To play the 2023 final in Istanbul would be something special for me personally.”

Insight
New dimension

Can Erling Haaland be the difference-maker for City in their Champions League quest? Gündoğan certainly hopes so. “He is a weapon that we haven’t had for a few years: a central striker who is powerful, edgy but also fast – and who always has a feel for where the ball will land and can strike it well to score.

“That’s something that is clearly an incredible quality. Naturally we hope he can help us take our chances in those decisive moments. That’s one reason, but not the only reason, why the club signed him. We’re pleased that so far it has worked out and it’s up to us to build on that and give him the support needed so that he can make the difference when we’re playing in those knockout games.”

Haaland has a magnificent record in the competition, having reached 28 goals from his first 22 outings with his double against Copenhagen in the group stage. Even so, some have questioned the impact of such a centre-forward on the attacking patterns of a team accustomed to playing with a false nine – a role Gündoğan himself has filled more than once.

Reflecting on the tactical switch, the German international says, “For me, the style of play changes depending on if I know someone is up front, in the centre, who can play solidly in space and who you know can use their speed to reach the ball perfectly virtually every time. Haaland loves to do this. I watched him when he was at Dortmund and saw that he was incredibly dynamic in those sprints, and he’s shown that quality again several times at the start of this season.

“He’s not a ‘false number nine’ as we sometimes say, like Gabriel Jesus was, but he’s someone who really enjoys running through to the front, where he can make a difference. That’s a quality that will take us far because we have players who can play the ball a long way. That’s a quality that Kevin [De Bruyne] has, for example, and that’s something that can be the deciding factor in close matches.

“You might have to defend for 10, 15 or 20 minutes, but then you have someone who can get themselves forward when you win the ball. And that’s really cool.”

Sitting in an interview room at the City Football Academy, Gündoğan smiles. “Anyone who’s married probably knows very well that you can’t have everything, unfortunately,” he explains. “But I have to say my wife has a lot of understanding for my little obsession with sitting in front of the TV after dinner and watching lots of football, including during the week. I appreciate that very much.”

That line about not having everything is probably open to debate when applied to Gündoğan’s midfield gifts. Here, after all, is a player whose intelligence allows him to shift from one role to another in Pep Guardiola’s side. It can be as a No6 using the ball prudently, setting the tempo and rhythm in possession and helping his team keep their shape out of it; or as a No8, linking midfield and attack and breaking forward to score goals.

Take the 17 he struck across all competitions in 2020/21, making him City’s leading marksman for the campaign. Or, better yet, recall his crucial double on the final day in the Premier League last season, when City trailed Aston Villa 2-0 with 15 minutes left. Guardiola’s men looked to have blown their title chance, with the trophy seemingly headed to Liverpool, until Gündoğan nodded in to spark a comeback – and later buried the all-important winner.

Factor in the thoughtfulness and articulacy that have earned him the captain’s armband this season and you have a player who has proved deeply valuable to City since he arrived from Borussia Dortmund as Guardiola’s first signing in 2016. “Always you can rely on him 100 per cent,” says his manager. “He gave us the Premier League. He can play holding midfielder and attacking midfielder. He is so smart, can talk about the world.”

“The Champions League is the greatest. Being able to play in it for ten years now, with the best in the world, is a huge privilege”

Beneath it all, though, remains that football obsessive who, growing up in Gelsenkirchen in Germany’s Ruhr Valley, would race home from midweek training sessions to watch Champions League matches on TV. The 32-year-old has not forgotten those days.

“I remember at 15, 16, at the VfL Bochum youth academy, being driven home at nine, shortly after kick-off, unpacking my bag, putting the dirty laundry into the washing machine and getting straight in front of the TV without eating. I recall that time fondly. Champions League evenings were the best back then – I watched both the German and the Turkish teams, naturally, because of my background. The whole family was always together.”

As the son of Turkish immigrants, he dwells on one landmark European night in particular. “Back in 2000, when Galatasaray won the UEFA Cup, we were all sitting together, around 20 people in the living room, and after the penalty that gave Galatasaray victory [in a final shoot-out against Arsenal], people were hugging each other, crying.

“These are moments that I like to think back to and that shaped me as a person. That’s why, since I was a little kid, the Champions League is the greatest. Being able to play in it for ten years now, with the best in the world from different countries, is a huge privilege.”

Another thing that has not changed is Gündoğan’s ambition to hold aloft the biggest prize of the lot. There have been domestic leagues and cups gathered in Germany and England, but he is still pursuing his first Champions League winners’ medal.

“As someone who wasn’t born and raised here, it’s a big honour to be Captain of this Team and Club”
After scoring in the 2013 Champions League final for Dortmund

It was ten years ago this May that, as a Dortmund player, he scored in the Champions League final against Bayern München, converting a penalty kick to equalise at 1-1. Yet he still finished on the losing side at Wembley, owing to Arjen Robben’s late winner. Nonetheless, it remains a cherished memory.

“The Champions League final from 2013 does pop up in my mind from time to time – strangely, quite positively. Of course, the result wasn’t the best. We lost, unfortunately, but with that young Dortmund team and [coach Jürgen] Klopp, the unit we were, just to get to the final after the dramatic semi-final second leg against Madrid – when we lost 2-0 and one more goal would have eliminated us – it was fantastic when you look back.

“Just that fresh, dynamic Dortmund, a young team that made it to the final and had a lot of fun. And I had a lot of fun myself. Although we lost, I think it was a really close match. We could have, and arguably should have, taken the lead early in the first half with the chances we had. Unfortunately we didn’t take them, which is a bit frustrating, but it was still a really great, positive experience.

“It was definitely an impetus to reach another final. I did manage that with City and lost again. Of course, when you play in a final twice and lose both times, you want to give everything for a third chance to try and win finally.”

That second final experience came in 2021 as part of the City side beaten 1-0 by Chelsea in Porto. It was one of a series of near misses for Guardiola’s side, the latest being a semi-final against Real Madrid last term in which City held a two-goal aggregate lead entering the 90th minute of the second leg.

The way things then unravelled at the Santiago Bernabéu contained echoes of earlier Champions League exits in the Guardiola era – against Monaco, Tottenham and Lyon, each time hope vanishing amid a sudden flurry of goals.

“We have the feeling that there is a need for more than just the necessary quality,” admits Gündoğan. “There’s also the need for calm and coolness in decisive moments, to be able to get through it – and that’s something which, unfortunately, we haven’t managed to do over the years. You can be knocked out so quickly. Unfortunately, we have had bitter experiences of that in recent years.”

Inside City, Gündoğan is known for his intelligence and clarity of thought – “management material” as one close observer of the club has called him. And he is philosophical about the ups and downs the game produces.

“In general, I’m someone who’s very honest with myself. I know relatively quickly after the final whistle of a match whether it was good or bad – and if it was bad, what was bad and what I can do better. But it’s also a quality of mine that I can forget matches fairly quickly. In the sense that I’m still annoyed if I’ve made a mistake, or something hasn’t come off – not just personally but as a team – but that I can then look forward again fairly quickly and know exactly what didn’t and did go well. That’s something I like and value in myself.

“Nonetheless, I am someone who sometimes lies in bed at night and doesn’t think about the last match but rather about what the future holds in general – professionally, football-wise, but also personally. So, essentially, I am someone who’s very reflective, I have to admit.”

His powers of reflection no doubt spoke in his favour when his City team-mates voted him their new captain last summer, following the departure of the previous incumbent, Fernandinho. “I think my colleagues chose me because I am the way I am, with my character, the way I think, the way I speak and communicate with them,” he remarks. “As someone who wasn’t born and raised here, it’s a big honour to be the captain of this team and club.

“I have been here for over six years now. I probably know almost everything. I have experienced a lot, and there have been good and bad times, not just here but in Germany too. In the end I think it’s a kind of recognition, but more of
my character than my game. I think that’s a bigger deal than what happens on the pitch.

“At the start of the season I spoke with last season’s captain, Fernandinho. I called and asked him a few things and asked for advice, because as well as what happens on the pitch, there’s a lot that happens off it. With my experience as vice-captain last season, you pick up a lot, [but today] if someone has a problem, you’re now the first person they come to.”

Interestingly, the role has not actually brought any extra dialogue with his manager. “I think Pep leaves a lot of things to run,” he explains. “It’s important to him that things which happen within the team or problems within the team are sorted out within the team. He probably only gets involved if it’s something really major or important, but I can’t recall any problems in recent years where he had to get involved. I don’t speak to him any more often than was previously the case.”

One conversation they did have last October came when Guardiola threatened to drop him for the rest of the season – as a joke, after Gündoğan’s wife complained that she could not find a decent meal in Manchester. Instead, Guardiola invited the couple to visit his own tapas restaurant in the city. It is the sort of diplomatic move that informs Gündoğan’s own approach to wearing the armband.

“I think as a captain you should have human knowledge,” he says. “You should be able to assess what makes people tick because, in the end, in a team you have at least 20 different players with different characters. Everyone absorbs things differently, perceives things differently. Be a bit like a coach, because in the end he has to make some decisions, make sure that everyone is happy and that there is a good level of harmony.”

The subject of big tasks takes us back to the Champions League and Manchester City’s quest for their first European crown. Gündoğan does not hide the fact that the venue of this season’s final, Istanbul, adds an extra layer of motivation given his ties to Turkey. He spent summer holidays in the country as a boy, for example. while his wedding ceremony last summer took place in the town of Dursunbey, in the northwestern province of Balıkesir from which his family hails.

Yet before his family and friends there can crowd around the TV to watch him in the Champions League final – or even take their seats at the Atatürk Olympic Stadium – City must overcome some considerable hurdles first. Just don’t doubt that the ambition is there.

“I said at the start that if you have the quality we have here, with this team and this club, you also have the responsibility to play in the final,” says Gündoğan, in reflective mood again. “Unfortunately we’ve only managed that once in the past few years, but we still put all our efforts into reaching that final once again. To play the 2023 final in Istanbul would be something special for me personally.”

Insight
New dimension

Can Erling Haaland be the difference-maker for City in their Champions League quest? Gündoğan certainly hopes so. “He is a weapon that we haven’t had for a few years: a central striker who is powerful, edgy but also fast – and who always has a feel for where the ball will land and can strike it well to score.

“That’s something that is clearly an incredible quality. Naturally we hope he can help us take our chances in those decisive moments. That’s one reason, but not the only reason, why the club signed him. We’re pleased that so far it has worked out and it’s up to us to build on that and give him the support needed so that he can make the difference when we’re playing in those knockout games.”

Haaland has a magnificent record in the competition, having reached 28 goals from his first 22 outings with his double against Copenhagen in the group stage. Even so, some have questioned the impact of such a centre-forward on the attacking patterns of a team accustomed to playing with a false nine – a role Gündoğan himself has filled more than once.

Reflecting on the tactical switch, the German international says, “For me, the style of play changes depending on if I know someone is up front, in the centre, who can play solidly in space and who you know can use their speed to reach the ball perfectly virtually every time. Haaland loves to do this. I watched him when he was at Dortmund and saw that he was incredibly dynamic in those sprints, and he’s shown that quality again several times at the start of this season.

“He’s not a ‘false number nine’ as we sometimes say, like Gabriel Jesus was, but he’s someone who really enjoys running through to the front, where he can make a difference. That’s a quality that will take us far because we have players who can play the ball a long way. That’s a quality that Kevin [De Bruyne] has, for example, and that’s something that can be the deciding factor in close matches.

“You might have to defend for 10, 15 or 20 minutes, but then you have someone who can get themselves forward when you win the ball. And that’s really cool.”

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