İlkay Gündoğan 22 Midfielder Borussia Dortmund
The strength-in-depth of the German national team is so terrifying that it very quickly becomes a thing of beauty. There are of course, a couple of weak spots, but overall there is enough young, talented footballers progressing through the Bundesliga that it should make fans of other nations cry.
It is probably summed up by the fact that Schalke’s Lewis Holtby can be afforded the luxury of finishing out his time in the German under-21 squad. Named as the team’s captain 18 months ago, Holtby will stay with the underage panel through to next summer’s European Championships because quite frankly, it’s better for him to stay there and play more than join the senior squad and scrap around for a precious ten minutes. He’d have to do that scrapping in the company of Messrs Gotze, Reus, Ozil, Kroos, Muller and Podolski who all like the look of those crisp white German shirts.
All of that comparison considered simply makes the feats of İlkay Gündoğan in the last twelve months all the more remarkable. This time last year, he was mere weeks away from losing his starting place in Borussia Dortmund’s team. Admittedly, it wasn’t completely Gündoğan’s fault that he struggled and it was a little hard to spot. When the 2011/12 campaign began, he had to fill a Nuri Şahin-shaped hole in the Dortmund midfield and Gündoğan is not, despite his many fantastic attributes, Nuri Şahin Mark Two.
The Turkish midfielder had been everything and then a little more to the title winning Dortmund side of 2010/11. His all-action play in the centre of the park rightfully caught the attention of Real Madrid and he departed in the summer following their first success. Şahin was never going to be directly replaced. He was far too brilliant for that.
But in Sven Bender and the newly-signed Gündoğan, Dortmund possessed two very exciting prospects desperate to make their own mark in the team. Either way, one was going to work out. Unfortunately for Bender, his early season injury allowed Gündoğan an unchallenged early run in the team as the 2011/12 season got going.
He struggled - maybe it was pressure or maybe it was the system. He was never going to be Şahin and the team struggled to deal with the players that were now playing central midfield for them. For the most part, Dortmund’s overall style saw them through the winter championship in reasonable comfort. However, it was when the Rueckrunde got going that Ilkay reached the lowest point of his season.
Dropped from the side and struggling for form, Gündoğan gave way to Bender in the battle to partner Sebastian Kehl in Dortmund’s title charge. The team’s basic plan saw them through even if it wasn’t with the same joy and poise of the previous year. There was high, concerted pressing from the point of the team and they attacked with ferocious pace that allowed them to, at times, bypass what was a faltering midfield pair.
And then there was a moment of release. With 119 minutes and 55 seconds of the clock of Dortmund’s DFB-Polkal semi-final clash with Greuther Fürth, Gündoğan, an 82nd minute substitute for Sven Bender, fired home the winning goal. Glorious scenes of celebration erupted around the team, the staff and the supporters and more importantly, Gündoğan seemed to gain a little bit in confidence.
It is of course easy to blame that single moment for turning around his year, but there has been something about Gündoğan and the Dortmund since that goal. The rest of the team came to accept that they don’t have Nuri Şahin to rely on; but in the same thought, they don’t have Nuri Şahin to rely on.
The team as a collective became a better group of players. The centre-back pairing of Mats Hummels and Neven Subotić learned to take more responsibility in possession while Shinji Kagawa developed himself more as a provider of goals as well as a scorer before his departure for Manchester United. The Japanese star grew his game to drop deeper in order to collect the ball, rather than waiting for Şahin to pick him out.
Gündoğan doesn’t play with the swashbuckling adventurous nature of the now-Liverpool midfielder. He likes to receive the ball higher up the pitch and dictate the team from a more advance position, rather than dragging everyone along with him. In İlkay, the Dortmund team now have more of a midfield pivot that they can all work around. He doesn’t shoulder the same responsibility that Şahin did and that has been to the benefit of his team mates.
İlkay himself has gone from strength-to-strength. As well as making himself pivotal in Dortmund’s title run-in, he secured himself a place in Germany’s 23-man squad for Euro 2012. Sven missed out as did the highly-rated Julian Draxler. Remember what was said about their depth being frightening?
The only worry for İlkay going forward will be his international opportunities. We can’t help but think that if someone had got a hold of him and Özil when they were promising teenagers, they could have been convinced to turn out in the red of Turkey along with Şahin and the Altintop brothers. It would, at the very least, have added another name to the list of potential Euro 2016 winners and made the tournament all the more tantalising.
Instead, Gündoğan is in for a real struggle. He’s got the small matter of about 10 very capable players all setting their sights on the two coveted midfield places. Those places are currently occupied by Real Madrid’s Sami Khedira and Bayern Munich’s Bastian Schweinsteiger. For the sheer joy it would bring, we might argue the idea of a second German national team being allowed to rock up to the major tournaments.
Thankfully, it’s a struggle that he is more than capable of coming out the other end of. Gündoğan has shown in the last 12 months that he’s becoming the sort of quick-thinking, tempo-setting and disciplined midfielder that future national coaches will no doubt love. He has helped Dortmund become a better all-round team in the last year and yet he still hasn’t shown us everything that he can.
If İlkay Gündoğan stays fit, continues to work hard and gets lucky here or there with chances for Germany, he’ll reach dizzy heights. That’ll either be with Dortmund as they conquer European football or with a large pocketed rival that throw more money at Die Schwarzgelben than they can turn down. Either way, he’s going to be a star.
“Although his time with Dortmund did not live up to expectations Gündogan improved as the 2011/12 season wore on and finished as one of the league's best performers in the second half of the season as Dortmund won their second consecutive title in record breaking fashion. Now Gündogan is firmly established at Dortmund as well as the National Team.” - Cristian Nyari (Bundesliga Fanatic)
“Doesn't get the credit he deserves in the Borussia Dortmund side that's been so entertaining over the last few years, but do not underestimate the job he does for the Schwarzgelb. He is absolutely pivotal in allowing the likes of Goetze, Reus, Lewandowski et al to do what they do. A quietly impressive performer.” - John Dobson (European Football Correspondent)
C+ Well on his way to being a Champions League winning captain
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