Ilkay Gundogan is one of the game’s more cerebral players, so it is fascinating to see him embark on his coaching career, taking his first session with Manchester City’s U16 team earlier this month.
There was fun to be had with a crossbar challenge and some two-touch keep-ups. But there was also real insight on offer for the club’s young players too.
Gundogan quietly explained the role of eye contact with the passer and the importance of drawing opponents towards one side of the pitch before switching the ball to the other. When a drill appeared boring, he stressed how much repetition had helped him.
Such is Gundogan’s understanding of the game, a move into coaching feels entirely natural. Whether he would want the attention that comes with top-level management is another matter.
Speaking to him during his scoring streak last season – Gundogan scored 11 goals in 12 Premier League games over that winter period – he made it clear that such individual achievements mean relatively little to him. He leaves you believing it too.
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“It does not make me any happier at the end of the day. What makes me happy is the drive that we have within the team to win games, to fight for all the trophies that are possible in all the different competitions, and to lift trophies at the end of the season.”
His favourite goal during that run? It came at home to Saturday’s opponents Tottenham and not because of anything that he did himself. It was because he recalled the joy of his goalkeeper Ederson in having provided the assist for his second goal that day.
Always thinking of the team.
Image: Ilkay Gundogan takes a training session with Manchester City's U16 side
That ethos helps to explain why he might be suited to coaching. Pep Guardiola certainly thinks so. The Manchester City head coach was himself identified as a potential manager long before his own playing career was over for exactly the same reason.
“If the midfield player wants to become a manager, they can do it, because when you are a midfield player you have to think about the team,” Guardiola tells Sky Sports.
“When you are a striker you are thinking about goals. You are not thinking about what is happening around you.
“Midfield players, if you want to survive, you have to think about what is happening in front and what is happening behind, playing in the heart of the team, in the middle.
“And that is why, if you play there, if you are intelligent and if you have the passion, you can do it.”
Image: Germany international Ilkay Gundogan is someone who is a keen thinker about the game
Gundogan has that intelligence.
Much like Guardiola, his metronomic use of the ball appears designed to shift opponents around the pitch before playing that key pass. He is someone acutely aware of how his own work fits into the whole. He sees that bigger picture already.
Few players can articulate the nuances of a team’s build-up play as Gundogan can. He talks of trigger movements that he looks for in his team-mates before making certain runs. He explains that a run might be designed to open up a pass to someone else entirely.
Such is the detail, he discusses the need to find a team-mate’s favoured foot and why misplacing even one pass in a hundred as a midfielder is one too many. “We talk about tactics,” says Guardiola. “He is so intelligent and that is why he has the passion for it.
“I think the academy players should be grateful to have these kind of coaching sessions with him. I think Ilkay is such an intelligent man. And, of course, if you are an intelligent man you are an intelligent player. With the quality and the skills that he has, if he decides to become a manager it will be nice to watch him in the future.”
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Guardiola might not have to wait so long.
“I will go one day to watch him,” he reveals, smiling mischievously.
“Maybe I can learn something from watching his training sessions.”
Praise does not come much bigger than that.
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