It is rare for a club to sign an injured player and especially when that injury is a dislocation of the patella. Fractures fuse back together and hamstrings heal but a kneecap dislodging itself from its patellofemoral groove is a trauma that can, and often does, lead to further complications.
That is true for a coach potato, whose post-rehabilitation exercise consists of a short stroll to the fridge. When the sufferer in question is a finely tuned athlete; whose remit is to twist and turn, perform 120 intense actions or sprints per game, and all the while competing in the brutal, uncompromising environs of a Premier League midfield then, well, you do the math.
When Manchester City purchased Ilkay Gundogan last summer they got a player who had been astonishingly good at Dortmund; a lock-picking, ball-cherishing whirl of creativity who would undoubtedly be an extremely useful addition to Pep Guardiola’s refurb and all for just £21 million. He was also an enormous risk.
That risk spectacularly back-fired at home to Watford last December when Gundogan crumpled under a clumsy but seemingly innocuous challenge and lay motionless on the turf. The subsequent diagnosis revealed a cruciate ligament rupture to the same knee that ended his Euro 2016 hopes that summer and necessitated a wait until mid-September for the German to make his City bow. His season was over.
What soured the cruelty all the more was the fact that the 26 year old was beginning to showcase his impactful influence. Until then there had been bright moments and a scattering of superb performances – most notably away to West Brom and a Man of the Match here-there-and-everywhere display against Barcelona – but Gundogan’s late introduction to City’s season coincided with a reversal of fortunes and a switch to a defensive back-three and rightly or wrongly the feeling among the fans was that he disjointed the side’s natural balance. He was too good to leave out but accommodating him was proving costly. From being highly anticipated the player who Jurgen Klopp once described as a ‘complete midfielder with numerous strengths’ was now a conundrum.
That perception was fading fast as autumn turned to winter. Returning from an international break Gundogan looked sharper and more comfortable in his surroundings and consequently his input was measured, an improvement that can best be summarised by the suspicion that he was now the third or fourth player supporters talked about as they departed the Etihad rather than the first for good or bad reasons.
Manchester City would not have won the title had Ilkay Gundogan remained fit throughout 2016/17 but they would have reached their turning point quicker and with greater ease.
The latest reports on the player’s recovery pitches him at 70% with a return pencilled in for early September and while some degree of caution must be applied here (we need only look at Santi Cazorla at Arsenal and City’s very own Vincent Kompany to appreciate how quickly that pencilled in date can be erased) should he indeed pick up where he left off almost a year to the day when he made his first delayed English debut there will be symbolism included. It would make last season a rehearsal. It will make this one Gundogan to City 2.0.
To Blues, his availability for selection will feel like a new signing but it potentially goes much further than that: while the club’s desperate search for full-backs and aggressive courting of Alexis Sanchez dominates the headlines Gundogan’s return might even prove to be the most important ‘new signing’ of all.
At present even a cursory glance at City’s squad reveals a surprising lack of depth for their engine-room and with Fabian Delph and Fernando both expected to move on this summer and Aleix Garcia primed for a loan spell that leaves just the aging legs of Yaya Toure and Fernandinho in contention. The former surely will be used sparingly and circumstances might yet require the Brazilian to once again be deployed at right-back. As for a specialist coming in that remains only on the very periphery of this summer’s transfer gossip.
So what then? What does Pep have in mind for the beating heart of his revised revolution? The answer – perhaps – lies in the occasions last term when Kevin De Bruyne was switched mid-game into a deeper role, acting as a baller pivot that helped change the narrative of that fixture. Might Pep now have Gundogan in mind for such a task?
On the surface it makes sense. The German certainly has the skillset to be City’s classy dictator, to orchestrate the side’s build-up play with team-mates ahead of him rather than alongside – a Modric if you will –and there is additional logic too in taking a player with a dodgy knee away from the scything tackles up ahead. Remember also that this year will be an exhibition of peak Pep. No compromises and no excuses. City will live or die stylishly and the functionality of a midfield destroyer serves no function at all.
The brouhaha that surrounds the club’s transfer activities – or lack of – is dominating all conversations right now and correctly so. But behind it, in the silence that follows as a pint is sipped, is the private thought that many are sharing: where will Gundogan play next season? And if it’s central and deep how bloody exciting will that be?