The Belgian was considered the creative fulcrum of the team, its beating heart who single-handedly orchestrated games. Surely without him they would falter and lose further ground on cross-city rivals United and reigning champions Liverpool?
Step forward Ilkay Gundogan. The mild-mannered, quiet German had never been one to hog the headlines, operating more in the shadows than many of his celebrated teammates. However, such has been his impact over the past month it is he that is now creating the headlines.
Despite missing the opening month of the season after testing positive for COVID-19, 30-year-old Gundogan has scored 13 goals in 25 appearances in 2020-21 to help lead City to the top of the table amid a 16-game record-breaking winning run. His two-goal haul against Spurs at the weekend followed an identical return against Liverpool in the previous game. He has scored more goals than any other player across Europe’s top five leagues since the turn of the calendar year, netting nine goals in nine Premier League games in 2021. He was voted January’s Premier League player of the month last Friday (Feb 12).
“It looks like Gundogan is going to be the man to take Manchester City to the title,” ex-Liverpool defender turned pundit Jamie Carragher told Sky Sports. “What a season he is having. I think he is going to be PFA player of the year. He has been a revelation, a joy to watch.”
Gundogan’s red-hot run of form has been predominantly down to de Bruyne’s injury as it meant he was pushed forward by manager Pep Guardiola from a previously more defensive midfield role to operate at the forefront of the attack.
City often operate without an out-and-out centre forward meaning Gundogan has regularly been the player finding the space and capitalising on chances created. Even when they did employ Gabriel Jesus in the pivotal attacking role against Spurs, Gundogan still managed to score twice and win his side a penalty.
Asked why, Guardiola’s answer was simple: “He is playing closer to the box,” he told the BBC.
“He won the award for player of the month. If he keeps playing this way in February, he is going to win it again,” a delighted Guardiola added.
It should come as no surprise that Gundogan was the first player Guardiola signed when he took over at City in 2016. Perhaps it is a surprise to learn that Gundogan was, at the time, sidelined with a patella injury but Guardiola was so keen to work with the player that the transfer went through regardless.
However, it could have been so different for Gundogan after several much more serious injuries threatened to curtail his career.
‘Forget to forget everything’
Born to Turkish parents in the industrial German town of Gelsenkirchen, Gundogan often comes across as softly-spoken, calm and reflective in interviews. He starred for Borussia Dortmund under Jurgen Klopp, prominent in the club’s run to the Champions League final in 2013 where he scored despite his team eventually losing to rivals Bayern Munich.
In the same year he scored his first international goal as Germany beat Kazakhstan 4-1 in a 2014 World Cup qualifying match. Cruelly, a back injury shortly afterwards kept him out of action for a year meaning he missed the tournament finals, which Germany went on to win.
Four months into his City career he tore cruciate ligaments in his right knee in a game against Watford which forced him to miss the remainder of the season, sidelined for a total of nine months. He travelled to Barcelona and spent Christmas in hospital after surgery.
It was during this time of recuperation that Gundogan had to dig deep. Long days of physiotherapy took their toll but it was the mental strain that punished him the most. Recovering alone, in the gym, in the pool, adrift and separate from the group, wondering whether it would all pay off and whether he would be able to regain his place even if the rehabilitation efforts worked.
“The general feeling is of loneliness,” Gundogan told the New York Times.
“The worst thing for me is seeing the other players,” he added. “I see them on the training field, when they are in the locker room, when they go up to the meeting before training. I see how they work in the gym, and I am not able to do the same. You know that you are not able to be a full part of the group.
“That is the most difficult thing: to feel that you are useless, not worth as much as before, not worth as much as the others.”
His fitness coach Arthur Jankowski, a strong advocate of the benefits of fresh air and the great outdoors on physical and mental health, encouraged Gundogan to get outside as much as possible in an effort to distract himself; Gundogan walked parks, scoured the sweeping beauty of the Peak District and climbed Scafell Pike, the highest peak in England.
“Arthur taught me to enjoy the nature, the fresh air, just being outside,” Gundogan said. “We all have so much stuff to do now: the work, the phone. We forget to forget everything.”
Gundogan’s mental and physical resolve had been severely tested, but he managed to return to action 276 days after the injury occurred, ironically, against Watford.
“Maybe it had to be that way,” he reflected philosophically.
He hasn’t looked back since, winning the Premier League twice, the FA Cup and the League Cup three times. They still have all three of these competitions on the radar this season. Plus the Champions League. It’s a good time to be a Manchester City fan.
“It is an important win but it is February,” Gundogan told Sky Sports after City demolished Liverpool 4-1 on Feb 7. “The title is not ours yet. We need to stay humble.”
There’s no doubt this prized asset possesses this trait in bundles and it would be a fitting story of triumph over adversity should he be rightfully acclaimed for his efforts come season’s end.