Ilkay Gündogan lives alone in Manchester and, during the past strange and solitary year, there have been times when a yearning for other people has left an ache inside him. Apart from one fleeting trip to Turkey in August to visit his family, he has not seen the people he loves most for more than a year. It is even longer since he was able to be with his closest friends in Germany. And so, when he has not been training or travelling to and from games or enjoying the purer pleasure of playing football for Manchester City, Gündogan has often been lonely.
At the same time, the 30-year-old midfielder has been in the form of his life, scoring 11 goals in 21 Premier League appearances. Even more notably, City are in the midst of a record-breaking run of 21 successive wins. “It’s great,” Gündogan says of City’s sustained blue streak. “It’s extraordinary, especially with the difficulties this season brings. And it’s maybe unexpected, also for us, because I remember struggling at the beginning of the season.”
Gündogan shrugs wryly at the memory of losing 5-2 against Leicester and 2-0 against Spurs, in their only two defeats of the season. “But we learned from it. Our manager did the right things because he adapted our style and we are on an incredible run. It doesn’t come automatically. It comes with the right mentality and we have done that for more than a couple of months [since drawing successive games against Manchester United and West Brom in mid-December]. It’s an incredible achievement.
“I also think this season brings more responsibility than ever. We all know the difficult situation the world is in. Everyone is struggling. But, as footballers, we are in a fortunate situation. We are still able to work and be in a routine, not sitting all day at home and waiting for better times. I’m still able to bring joy into people’s lives because I get feedback from my mates back home in Germany. They keep telling me that football at the moment is the only thing that gives them a normal feeling in their lives.”
Gündogan talks freely, almost as if an interview is a chance to chat a little more deeply than he would do on a typical Thursday afternoon in his empty apartment. He looks into the computer screen which closes the 200-mile distance between us. Is this the first time he has lived alone for an extended period?
“Yes. People always came to visit me in Manchester before. When I played for Dortmund I had family there and my close friend living around the corner. So every day I spent time with them. Even when I was playing for Nürnberg as a teenager I always had people visiting me. So this last year is the first time no one is able to be with me.”
Does he feel lonely? “Yes, of course I do. It’s normal. I find myself in a lonely place sometimes. But I try to stay positive and speak to all the people around me on video calls and WhatsApp.”
Has the pandemic changed him? “In making me appreciate what I have, definitely. But mostly it showed me the most important thing is family and friends, people really close to our heart. Having that taken away is the hardest thing about this pandemic for me. It’s not like I didn’t know all this before but it was maybe good to remember what matters most. This affects so many people – even those who live close to their families. I don’t know what’s worse, having them so far away and not being able to see them, or having them so close but being apart.
“I was lucky I visited my parents in Turkey in August together with my brother, his wife and my little niece who was born last year. It felt like a family reunion but I also have a lot of family in Germany and my grandparents in Turkey. I was unable to see them for more than a year.”
At least football has been a ceaseless diversion and winning has softened the brutal overload of fixtures. “It’s intense,” Gündogan says. “I agree that winning makes it easier but it’s still very difficult. We had a lot of injuries to deal with but we’ve done this in an amazing way. Now it’s a proud moment to have so many consecutive wins. But if you don’t win silverware it’s not worth anything.”
Gündogan takes me back to before the start of the winning run and it seems timely because on Sunday City play Manchester United at home. United lie second in the table but are 14 points adrift of the runaway leaders. Yet when they met on 12 December they played out a dismal draw as City languished in ninth place, five points behind Tottenham. Three days later they faced West Brom, deep in the relegation zone and about to sack their manager Slaven Bilic, and they could only draw 1-1 at home.
But something had changed. Gündogan scored his first goal in 22 games and Pep Guardiola, his manager, began to implement the tactical changes which would transform City’s season. “I remember that game,” Gündogan says. “We were in control but it was such a frustrating result. The most important thing was that against United we played a little differently and that was the start of our game changing in a tactical way.
“We began to have a full-back [João Cancelo] going into midfield to create an overload of players there to give us an advantage. It took a bit of time until everyone understood what our manager wanted from us. But we now feel that if we play well we will get the results. I’m really convinced that all the credit has to go to Pep.”
City have been without Sergio Agüero and Gabriel Jesus for long periods but Guardiola has turned the absence of a striker into a virtue. He had encouraged his most versatile players, such as Cancelo and Gündogan, who now operates in a more advanced role, to drive their changed formation. But has even Gündogan sometimes found it strange to see Cancelo suddenly pop up alongside him in midfield? “Not really, because João is technically so good at keeping the ball, moving the ball to the right man, in the right space, so it didn’t surprise me that he is doing great in this different formation. João’s quick and he gets back to his own position of being a full-back again. So we have a great defence, too.”
In the first six weeks of the year Gündogan’s nine goals meant he had found the net in that period more than any other player across Europe’s top five leagues – which is remarkable for a midfielder. Did his hot streak stem directly from Guardiola dispensing with the need for a striker? “It’s a mix of playing in that position and getting into a routine. Maybe I was also interpreting the position in a way which allows me to make runs into the opponents’ box or trying to be in the right space at the right time. It’s all about very responsible training so you get into a certain rhythm. By repeating this every game it helps you get on the score sheet.”
The way in which Gündogan can keep the ball and then release it quickly at the right moment, raising the pace of City’s play, are quintessential attributes for Guardiola’s favourite players. He also makes runs with vision and accuracy which can shred the opposition. Gündogan often looks like the definitive Guardiola player.
“I take it as a compliment,” he says, “because when I played for Dortmund against Pep’s teams at Barcelona and Bayern it was so difficult. Those teams always had an incredible plan from Pep. You feel the struggle on the pitch against his teams. So it was always clear that if I have the opportunity to work with him I have to take it. I always learn from him and an example is this season. In my career the maximum amount of goals for me during a season was five or six. Now I’m already on 11 in the League [with two more goals in the Champions League]. I can do much more than I expected.”
He was Guardiola’s first signing for Manchester City in June 2016 and they live in the same apartment block. They have had a couple of dinners together at their respective homes but, as Gündogan says, “he respects my privacy, I respect his privacy and for life to be normal when you get back from training you switch off. But when we meet each other in the building we always talk as people who like each other.”
Gündogan cried on Guardiola’s shoulder when he understood the severity of his ACL injury in December 2016. He was out for 276 days but he sustained a more serious back injury which meant he missed playing for Germany when they won the World Cup in 2014.
“That was definitely worse than my knee injury. I was out for 14 months but the worst part was that no one really knew what kind of injury it was. I saw a surgeon and he wanted to put a big screw in my back which would not allow me to play football at that level. So I was scared of not playing again and I’m really grateful I found the right [surgeon]. Of course I still have to deal with issues but I’m feeling well enough.”
There have been many moments of adversity in Gündogan’s life which help to explain his social conscience. During the pandemic he has led or contributed to schemes which help nurses in Germany and local businesses in Manchester, while also working on refugee programmes and for people in community care. “When this pandemic came out of nowhere I understood I was not in a perilous situation myself. I had good food every day, my work routine and being in contact with family for video calls. There are people in much worse situations and I felt a responsibility to help in Germany and here.
“I was inspired by Larry Nance, the NBA player for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and all he is doing with his charity. I met him three years ago when he came to our game and I heard about all his projects to help people in Cleveland. I thought it was a great idea to do the same in Manchester. We collected enough money and in the next few days we will make an announcement about where it will go to. It’s an opportunity to bring a bit of light in this pandemic. It also makes many of us feel higher responsibility to do something which is a great thing.”
City’s slick blue machine, meanwhile, will achieve their 22nd successive victory if they beat United and match Real Madrid’s winning run in 2014. Only Bayern and Ajax will be ahead of them in the European record books. Bayern won 23 games in a row last year while Ajax won 25 in 1995 and 26 matches in 1971-72.
Is Gündogan aware of these records? “Yes,” he says before nodding when I point out all four of those winning runs were in seasons sealed by victory in the European Cup or Champions League. City should win the Premier League again but they have endured disappointment in Europe and lost surprisingly to Spurs and Lyon the past two years. Is there a psychological hurdle they need to conquer in the Champions League?
“I wouldn’t say so. We made mistakes and struggled. But we have a new chance this year. We will try to play as well as possible, but it’s a difficult time and challenging for us as human beings dealing with this pandemic. So I have no idea how even the next two weeks will look like. I just hope that as soon as possible we all can go back to our normal lives and socialise again.”
Amid this quest for normality the remorseless aim for Manchester City will be to maintain their abnormal winning run. “If that comes,” Gündogan says with a little smile, “I’ll take it.”