Most players reach their peak in their football careers when approaching age 30. Some others can still perform at the highest level until their mid-30s. Ilkay Gundogan is clearly in the latter category. The German midfielder proved that in his last two seasons at Manchester City.
He could be singled out as the one player most responsible for City retaining their Premier League title in the 2021/2022 campaign while his exploits last season were also noteworthy, culminating in a brace in the FA Cup final that secured the trophy against Manchester United.
Captain. Leader. Legend. Big game player and a manager’s delight. Gundogan fits the bill, and then some. He had earned the right to retire at Manchester City having become the most successful captain in the club’s history. So keeping him at the Etihad Stadium for another year or two would have been okay.
But as the news filtered through the media that the 32-year-old had secured a deal to join Spanish giants Barcelona, it became clear that Manchester City had left it too late as far as getting the player to commit to a new deal. Allowing such a valuable asset to run down his contract and leave on a free is never a great idea.
Gundogan’s contract should have been renewed at least midway into the last campaign rather than waiting until the season’s end. Available for free at the end of the campaign, securing his services had become a no-brainer for any top club on the continent. Barcelona took full advantage.
It’s true that the player was open to the possibility of a new challenge. But that was only if he got more juicy offers than City's at the end of the season.
Having indicated their desire to keep the player, City’s management just left things too late. The club has swiftly brought in Mateo Kovacic from Chelsea to fill the gap in midfield. But it remains to be seen if the Croatian will measure up to the high standards at the Etihad Stadium.
Although it’s normal for older players to be moved on as the team is freshened up to tackle the challenges ahead, Kovacic is hardly an improvement on Gundogan even at 29. Kevin De Bruyne clocks 32 in a few days. The Belgian is now in decline while Bernardo Silva may leave the club this summer. That means the team could be significantly weakened next season.
The more likely scenario will be for Phil Foden to fill any gap while Kovacic plays a backup role. Acquiring another top midfielder in the transfer window may then become a necessity to maintain the standard set in the last few campaigns.