The day after his Manchester City side thrashed Liverpool 4-1 in the Premier League on April 1, Pep Guardiola enjoyed a well-earned afternoon off.
Guardiola had invited some friends to watch the match on the Saturday, and after attending a morning recovery session at City training on the Sunday, he met them for lunch at Japanese restaurant Musu in Manchester’s city centre.
Naturally, football was never far away. There had already been rumours of Ilkay Gundogan potentially leaving to join Barcelona at the end of his contract in June, and his future was a hot topic.
Gundogan had scored one of City’s goals against Liverpool and, just like the rest of the team, he had performed at an excellent level. The question for Guardiola, therefore, was practically unavoidable. Was his influential captain really about to leave?
“Right now, Gundogan is too important for us. We can’t afford to let him go,” Guardiola replied, a confession to his closest circle.
A little over two months later, City have not been able to fulfil their manager’s wish, and Gundogan is joining Barca. This is the final outcome of a process that started in the final months of 2022.
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That was when City started making contact with Gundogan’s entourage in order to discuss a possible renewal. There was an understanding, back then, that his wish was to extend his stay in Manchester beyond 2023. But both parties were still a distance apart.
City initially proposed a one-year extension, with a potential option for a second year. This first offer included a lower annual salary than what Gundogan was earning.
According to sources familiar with the negotiations, who, like all sources in this story, preferred to speak anonymously as they did not have permission to comment, the maximum amount Gundogan would have received was around €16million (£13.7m; $17.4m) after tax, if the second-season option was triggered.
The player’s camp was not fully convinced by this. Foreign clubs were starting to show an interest, and there was the prospect of a longer deal being offered. Negotiations with City continued, but not much progress was made.
When Barcelona fully stepped into the race to sign Gundogan, it coincided with the player finding his best form of the 2022-23 campaign. By March, The Athletic reported Barca were feeling increasingly confident that a deal could be reached. After City beat Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-finals in mid-April, Guardiola urged the club to make an extra effort and try to secure his captain’s extension.
City re-opened talks, and their final proposal came before the FA Cup final, when Gundogan’s representatives met with City’s chief football operating officer, Omar Berrada.
The Manchester club offered a €12m net salary over 2023-24, which sources familiar with the situation describe as a slightly higher figure than what Gundogan was already earning. The deal was still for only one year, with the option of an extra season. There has been a feeling at City in recent days that if they had offered two guaranteed years with the same conditions, he would have chosen to stay.
There are far more reasons for Man City to keep Gundogan, than there are to let him go
As The Athletic reported a week ago, the Spanish champions made a concerted push for Gundogan after the Champions League final, improving the conditions of a previous contract offer, with manager Xavi insisting on the Germany international’s importance to his plans.
After missing out on the signing of Lionel Messi, Gundogan became the absolute priority for Barcelona’s coaching staff and sporting direction alike. There was the feeling within the club that there was no better reinforcement, both in terms of footballing skill set and financial viability, than landing Gundogan on a free transfer. That was a motivation to make an extra effort.
According to Barcelona sources, Gundogan will receive a salary of just over €9m after tax per season. Months ago, the club’s first proposal was closer to €7m.
He will sign a two-year contract, with an option to trigger a third year seen as “very likely” among sources involved in the negotiations. Gundogan will need to play over 60 per cent of Barca’s games during his second season for this option to be valid. The contract length was one of the deal-breakers, according to multiple sources involved in the operation.
Gundogan became a dad in March, when his son Kais was born. Since then, the stability of a longer project has become increasingly attractive, and this factor played an important role in Gundogan’s decision.
However, sources close to the player say there was no bigger reason behind his choosing to leave City than a desire, at the age of 32, to live a new experience. After seven seasons in Manchester, they said he felt like now was the perfect time to start a new challenge, having now won a Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League treble.
The player’s camp also insists money was not the biggest factor, revealing he also received multiple lucrative offers from Saudi Arabia in recent weeks, which all surpassed by a distance the proposals from City and Barca.
Barcelona target Man City midfielder Ilkay Gundogan on a free transfer
Gundogan believes City are the best team in the world, but Barca were also able to convince Gundogan on the football side of things — with sources involved in the negotiations describing Xavi and the now-departed sporting director Jordi Cruyff has playing key roles.
Xavi revealed to Gundogan that he plans to employ him mainly in attacking midfield, and that he is looking for him to provide another threat in the final third. The manager feels his team had a tendency to over-rely on Pedri in this regard, and given the 20-year-old’s injury record over the past two seasons, he wanted to bring in more options.
Cruyff was closely involved in negotiations, but it was Mateu Alemany who took the lead and finalised details with the player’s representatives after a trip to Munich on Wednesday, when Gundogan passed his medical and signed his contract as a Barcelona player, effective from July 1.
Gundogan’s former team-mate at Borussia Dortmund, Robert Lewandowski, also played a role in convincing him to join, with the Poland striker strongly recommending life in Catalonia.
Barcelona were also determined to assure Gundogan and his representatives that, despite the club’s ongoing financial issues, they will have no problem registering him before the start of the new La Liga season on August 12. Barcelona are still over La Liga’s salary limit, which means the competition body won’t register any new signings until they are satisfied with the club’s projected wage spend for 2023-24.
This was one of the hottest topics discussed during contract talks. Despite Barca’s insistence that there will be no problem, sources close to the player confirmed to The Athletic that there is a clause in Gundogan’s contract that would protect him in case an unexpected turn of events sees his registration denied.
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A single source from Barcelona said this clause means Gundogan would be entitled to leave for free before the end of the transfer window, having been paid the entirety of his first year’s salary, if the club cannot register him.
For now, the only slightly sour note of his move to Barca is the fact the club are moving out of the Camp Nou while redevelopment takes place. He can, however, expect to be playing there in two years’ time, when works are anticipated to be completed.
With the deal now done, Barcelona are celebrating. They are very pleased to be welcoming a world-class midfielder, one of the best in Europe over recent seasons, and a player they came close to signing years ago.
In 2015, a year before Gundogan joined City, Barcelona held advanced negotiations to sign him from Dortmund. They were also in talks over Atletico Madrid’s Arda Turan, who they ended up signing instead. It’s fair to say many senior officials from the club have regretted this decision.
In Manchester, this is going to be a tough loss. Gundogan is not the sort of footballer who can be replaced easily — there’s hardly another in the world with his versatility and quality.
However, the general feeling at City is that they did what they can within the business limits they have set themselves. With his excellent performances, Gundogan had earned the right to receive a pay rise for next season, but they did not want to commit to a multi-year deal with a player who is going to be 33 in October.
Barca are making an extra financial effort for him, at a time when money is very tight, as they seek to achieve the so-called second revolution Xavi has been calling for, after the transformative lever-pulling of last summer.
City are losing a legend, Barcelona are pocketing a jewel, and Xavi is getting the top-class midfielder he was desperate for. The manager now has to make it work.
(Photos: Getty Images; design: Samuel Richardson)