Gündogan is now a totemic figure in City’s journey towards domination

<span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

It might have felt slightly too good to be true for Ilkay Gündogan when, in the 71st minute of the FA Cup final, he gobbled up a rebound to beat David de Gea for the third time that afternoon. He wheeled away anyway but the flag went up immediately and there were no complaints from the scorer, who smiled knowingly and could reflect that he had not quite returned quickly enough from an offside position.

Stan Mortensen’s record as the only player to complete a hat-trick in this fixture at Wembley was preserved and it was one of those rare moments, in recent months, when Gündogan’s timing had erred from perfection.

Related: Jack Grealish ruling in FA Cup final further proves absurdity of handball | Jonathan Wilson

Everything else has met the moment and there is something poetic about the transformation of Pep Guardiola’s first signing into the standard bearer who will, if Internazionale do not find a recipe that has eluded everyone else, lead Manchester City to the treble. The risk seemed pronounced when Gündogan, stricken by a dislocated kneecap at the time, arrived from Borussia Dortmund in 2016 but all parties are now a humid Istanbul night away from reaping the ultimate reward.

Should they do so then the £20m fee City paid for him may, even allowing for inflation over the past seven years, go down among the most spectacular modern-day bargains. Gündogan was 25 when the deal went through, the best years of his footballing life patently ahead of him. He had already lost a year to a back injury and, when that knee issue was followed by a torn cruciate ligament in his 16th game for City, the long-term absences were mounting up. Injuries could easily have defined Gündogan; instead, he has emerged as a totemic figure in the more palatable side of the club’s journey towards all‑consuming domination.

It was Gündogan who raised the Cup and presumably will, again, on Saturday if City prevail in the Champions League. “I think it is about how I was behaving in the last few years, my character and just a reward from my teammates,” he said shortly afterwards when asked about the significance of captaining City, an accolade awarded via a vote from the squad, in this of all seasons.

“I try to do the same things I’ve been doing for seven years now and don’t feel like there is something I have to change because I have the captain’s armband.”

Gündogan had planned a speech for his colleagues in the pre‑match huddle at Wembley but stood aside: Rúben Dias had some words to get off his chest and was given permission to pour forth instead. It is a minor detail but a telling one: Gündogan is no stranger to giving others the floor, flashier or more prolific names often stealing the show at City, and his metamorphosis into their difference-maker has come without the smallest hint of ego attached.

The Manchester City manager, Pep Guardiola, celebrates with Ilkay Gündogan after the FA Cup final.
Pep Guardiola and Ilkay Gündogan celebrate after FA Cup final success at Wembley. Photograph: Xinhua/Shutterstock

Six weeks before the layoff that stalled his early City career, he scored twice in a 3-1 win against Barcelona that felt like a seminal exchange between Guardiola-led powers old and new. Neither strike had the range of his pair at Wembley or the invention of that remarkable finish at Goodison Park last month; both were, though, firmly of the right place, right time genre he has mastered. Guardiola always felt Gündogan had more of those in him: since being given greater licence to get forward three seasons ago he has found the net 38 times, winning them the 2021‑22 title with one of them, marrying the instinct of Frank Lampard with the acutest touch and grace.

A masterful continuity player is now one who provides those telling moments of resolution. The one area around Gündogan that lacks clarity is his City future, both sides proclaiming their adulation for one another while thus far failing to agree new terms. Player and manager embraced on the Wembley pitch after the final whistle, both visibly emotional.

Losing a figure of this quality and character would be a blow, although probably not a grievous one: City are perfectly used to adapting when key players depart and the timing has tended to work mutually in favour. At 32 there will be a need to move on from Gündogan in the next two years even if he agrees to stay. Perhaps departing with a crescendo, in keeping with his impact on this version of Guardiola’s team, would hold some form of attraction for all.

“It feels special to lift this trophy and hopefully I can do it one more time,” Gündogan said. He was not hinting at a subsequent departure: the reference was specifically to the prize City have chased all season. Erling Haaland may have been brought in to secure for them that elusive European title but it speaks volumes that no eyebrows would be raised if the player Guardiola asked to start his revolution provided its crowning moment.