“Thiago oder nichts,” Pep Guardiola told the press shortly after his appointment at Bayern Munich. “He is the only player I want. It’ll be him or no one.” Of all the talents he could have demanded his new club sign from his previous employers at Camp Nou - Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Dani Alves - it was a playmaker who spent the summer representing Spain Under-21s and had seen his buyout clause slashed because Barcelona had not played him enough to maintain it.
But the thinking behind the move was clear: in a new country, Guardiola needed a player he could converse with easily and who could interpret on the pitch his complex ideas and his overarching philosophy. Acquiring Thiago was crucial to impose his plans to overhaul Bayern Munich and create a new midfield dynamic, and by extension a new team dynamic. Now Guardiola has done it again.
This time, it is not Thiago who has been recruited, but Ilkay Gundogan, who on Thursday became the first signing of the Guardiola era at Etihad Stadium. It is true that the midfielder has never played under Guardiola, but he is a player the Catalan has long admired from afar, possesses great midfield intelligence and is a native German speaker who also has very good English, able to converse comfortably with his new coach and team-mates alike.
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The obvious Bayern targets such as Thiago or David Alaba are prohibitively expensive. Gundogan, at a reported £20 million, is a snip, even if he arrives at his new club nursing the dislocated kneecap which prevented him from going to Euro 2016. Guardiola will hope it heals quickly, as Gundogan has clearly been earmarked for a vital role.
That much was hinted at in a statement Gundogan put out on Thursday morning: “The reason for my transfer is the great opportunity to join Pep Guardiola and Manchester City. Guardiola asked me to go to Manchester and convinced me with his philosophy.” The blueprint has already been explained to Gundogan, now his job is to start building the foundations.
It is no secret that Guardiola views the midfield as the crucial battleground on a football pitch. At times at Barcelona he played as many as seven or eight midfielders, and at Bayern the players ostensibly earmarked as full-backs are encouraged to move into midfield positions. His first signing for Barca in 2008 was Seydou Keita; Thiago was the first acquisition for Bayern Munich in 2013; and now Gundogan becomes his first City capture in 2016. The Catalan’s priority is clear.
“I love the midfield players,” the Bayern Munich manager once said. “I would like to have a thousand midfield players in my squad, in my team because I believe the midfield players are intelligent (and) understand the game. They understand back and they understand forward. You can win the games with good defenders and good strikers, but to play good, you need midfield players.”
Guardiola is not just a midfield romantic though, he makes huge demands of the players stationed in the most crucial area of the pitch and Gundogan’s recruitment is a clear signal that sweeping change is coming at City. The most obvious manifestation of this will be the expected departure of Yaya Toure, a player Guardiola sold as Barcelona boss in 2010 and who has become an unwitting symbol of City’s regression.
At his best, Toure was one of the most dynamic and unstoppable midfielders the English top flight has seen. The Ivorian scored big goals to win big games for City and few players have been more influential in restoring them as a force in English football. And yet, this season provided ample evidence that, at 33, he no longer has the energy to dominate as he once did. A listless performance in the Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid mirrored the club’s bizarrely apathetic exit. Toure embodies the atrophy that has taken hold at the very heart of the City project.
Gundogan could directly supplant Toure in the City team and, if his fitness permits, he will be expected to orchestrate a wider transformation in a midfield and a team which has become stale.

How will Gundogan be used?

Germany's midfielder Ilkay Gundogan vies with Scotland's defender Russell Martin (L) during the Euro 2016 qualifying group D football match

Image credit: AFP

Gundogan has a very broad skill-set. He manipulates the ball excellently, is a very accomplished passer, cuts off opposition attacks with interceptions and tackles and carries the ball forward impressively too. Guardiola loves versatile, intelligent players and the Germany international is both of those things. Where Toure’s declining talents have dragged City’s performance levels down, Guardiola will hope that Gundogan, with his ability to link defence and attack, will restore them. It is not for nothing that Jurgen Klopp once described him as a “complete player”.
He is at his best in a box-to-box role and usually excelled at Dortmund as a No. 8, playing in front of a holder like Julian Weigl in a 4-3-3 but slightly behind a more creative player like Henrikh Mhikitaryan or Shinji Kagawa. He also thrived playing alongside the tough-tackling Lars Bender in Dortmund’s run to the 2013 Champions League final in a more of a 4-2-3-1 shape. In both scenarios, Gundogan enjoyed linking up with a holding midfielder who did all the dirty work, allowing him to venture up the pitch. For Germany he has even played as the most advanced playmaker on occasion.
Such is Gundogan’s intelligence, the system is not of the utmost importance as he always finds the right pockets of space and knows exactly where to go on the pitch. That will be a big asset as Guardiola likes to employ multiple formations, switching during matches, and his team selections can sometimes seem impenetrable. It will take time for the City squad to adjust to his unique demands, which is why securing the flexible and smart Gundogan was such an important first step towards ensuring the coach's ideas are realised on the pitch.

How could City look next season?

Guardiola is also known to be targeting Athletic Bilbao defender Aymeric Laporte and Everton centre-back John Stones has also been linked with a move. Certainly, City need a big overhaul at the back with Vincent Kompany’s injuries wrecking his season and Nicolas Otamendi and Eliaquim Mangala failing to convince.
Borussia Dortmund forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who was named the player of the year in the Bundesliga, scoring 40 goals in all competitions, is said to be high on Guardiola’s wish-list too and his capture would certainly liven up a City attack which looked too rigid during the absence of Kevin de Bruyne due to injury for long spells last season.
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