Yet another taxing week lies in store and Ilkay Gundogan is introspective about it all.
Manchester City are aiming to secure a fourth Premier League title in five years – silverware that is becoming the norm.
‘Look, even we lose sight of that. Even myself sometimes, I lose sight of it,’ Gundogan says.
‘Especially after last Wednesday. But it would be an outstanding achievement, dominating for those years would be incredible. If we lose a game, we are in trouble.’
Manchester City midfielder Ilkay Gundogan sat down with sportsmail to talk the season finale
City are closing in on winning another Premier League title – their fourth in the last five years
City require a couple of wins and a draw to make absolutely sure of pipping Liverpool, with the pair having traded titles over the last two years. That starts at Wolves on Wednesday and there is a similar feverish anticipation to this run-in as in 2019, when City clinched it by a single point.
That year, Gundogan stuck the Istanbul derby on.
City had beaten Crystal Palace in an early Sunday game and the temptation would be to watch Liverpool’s response during the trip back from the capital. A Galatasaray supporter growing up, Gundogan tuned in for their 1-1 draw at Fenerbahce instead. Liverpool beat Chelsea anyway, as expected.
‘It was a more important game!’ Gundogan smiles.
‘If there’s a more exciting game for myself, I’m watching that. The last game against Spurs for example I watched because I was home and I thought, “it’s going to be a good game.” Which it was! Now, with being in the position that you have it in your own hands, I don’t feel like it’s a necessity.’
The 31-year-old, a Football Manager obsessive during lockdown, has had to alter his habits at home since fiancée Sara Arfaoui moved into his city-centre apartment, next door to Pep Guardiola. Gundogan jokes that his football intake is a bone of contention; he is learning to turn the TV off occasionally.
Roberto Martinez once installed two televisions in his living room with an L-shaped sofa, so he could study games with headphones on, while wife Beth simultaneously consumed other programs and the pair could still be together.
‘I think my fiancée would kill me if I asked for that,’ Gundogan says. ‘That wouldn’t leave me in a good position.’
City are in a strong situation now though, after an emphatic response to last week’s scarcely believable Champions League exit at Real Madrid and Tottenham’s point at Anfield. The rivalry is relatively peaceful between the players. It’s not Arsenal-Manchester United of the early Noughties.
Gundogan enjoys a peaceful rivalry with Liverpool that is built on ‘fairness and respect’
‘Those kind of rivalries don’t really exist anymore in modern football,’ he says.
‘For some people who are more old school you know, that might be bad. The game is not like, I don’t know, 20-30 years ago, with people on the pitch killing each other and intentionally trying to injure.
‘That’s not how we want the game to be. I want fairness. I want respect. Just because there’s a rivalry we don’t need to kill each other on or off the pitch.’
Gundogan wanted the Bernabeu to swallow him whole last week.
The wounds have not healed, the circumstances of collapse remain raw. The dressing room fell quiet, some players wept when coming to terms with those nonsensical two minutes in stoppage time, thwarting a North West final in France later this month.
‘If I think about the final in Paris then I get very angry,’ Gundogan says. ‘Frustrated, disappointed. I’m definitely not going to watch it. I will definitely try to do something else that day. Nothing is going to really help, the only thing that will is time. It’s becoming a little bit easier, even though you know – yet again – you’ve missed a big chance to lift a possible trophy.’
The Germany international (left) is still ‘angry’ after City’s Champions League semi-final exit
‘Maybe there’s not much we can tell ourselves that we did wrong but at the end of the day, we conceded two goals in two minutes.
‘We were not there when it was necessary and we were not focused enough. It was not enough. That is the blame we give ourselves.’
Gundogan seems exceptionally hard on himself, discussing his apparent limitations as a footballer and a man.
‘It takes a lot to make me furious. But when I get angry then I explode. I keep it in as long as possible inside myself but then that’s also not the best way of dealing with stuff.
‘[I overthink] every possible scenario in life. I feel like the more options you have in life, the more you start to think.
‘A lot of people can understand what it is related to – maybe sometimes to have a lot of choice is not the best. Maybe that’s why a lot of people struggle with relationships.’
Gundogan, who is self-critical, has spent time away from the pitch with boss Pep Guardiola
Gundogan is a fascination when dissecting himself, almost as if he were born in the wrong era.
He talks about how his parents met and immediately wed, how the world – and by proxy, football – only truly rewards the superficial.
‘Society has gone in the wrong direction a bit. People don’t value if you are a good human being. Oh, 100 per cent social media is a big part of it. A big part. It’s more important how many likes you get, or who comments under your photo, than the guy next to you giving you an honest opinion.
‘I always think, don’t make yourself too important. Be down to earth, humble – even though sometimes it feels like it’s not always the best thing to do in this business nowadays.’
The Germany international, born in Gelsenkirchen to Turkish parents, has taken Manchester to his heart over six years.
Noticing Gundogan enjoy a coffee in the Northern Quarter has become something of a tourist attraction, but his lasting legacy here will be community work.
Whether it is sending meals to foodbanks, donating money to those causes, visiting the elderly or raising funds for the stricken cafes, struggling through Covid, he loves frequenting. More globally, he supports the UN Refugee Agency.
‘I feel a responsibility that I live a privileged life,’ he says. ‘Life can be very difficult and cruel. I come from a similar area in Germany, very industrial. They are working cities where for some, the level of earnings are limited. And football is the main thing.
‘The Rhine area where I’m from – not just in Gelsenkirchen – football is so important for society. That’s probably also a reason why I could identify myself quite easily with the city of Manchester. I feel comfortable here. I feel at home here.
He became Guardiola’s first signing when the Catalan boss took charge of Manchester City
‘Maybe with my game there is a connection to the work that I’m doing off the pitch, if that makes sense? I think it describes me a little bit of how I am as a football player. I never really considered myself the main man, the star player or the guy who always wants the attention.
‘I fit in the role of making his teammates better, even though maybe I don’t shine myself so much. I’m very realistic about what I know about myself, what I can achieve and what I am not able to do.’
Gundogan is one of Guardiola’s five captains and acts as Fernandinho’s vice. He enjoys the manager’s company, with the pair spending some time together away from the training ground. Gundogan discusses the intuition required to play for this team in much the same way as Guardiola does and the midfielder’s ability to slow play down is often vital.
With one year remaining on his contract, it will be interesting to observe his movements from here. Gundogan was Guardiola’s first signing and he says the six seasons have given him real fulfillment – even allowing for two long-term knee injuries.
‘The club has taken real care of me, coming from a foreign country. I had a lot of hopes and dreams – and have nearly achieved all of them.’
Gundogan laughs a little nervously. There is always next year?
‘Obviously we’re going to try to do better next year.’
He is one of the five captains installed by Guardiola and has a year left on his contract at City