Ilkay Gundogan’s Barcelona transfer: Why Manchester City’s captain decided to leave

The day after his Manchester City side beat Liverpool 4-1 in the Premier League on April 1, Pep Guardiola enjoyed a well-deserved afternoon.

Guardiola had invited some friends to watch the game on Saturday and, after attending a morning recovery session at City training on Sunday, met them for lunch at Japanese restaurant Musu in Manchester city centre.

Football was, of course, never far away. Ilkay Gundogan had already been rumored to potentially leave 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, like the rest of the team, had performed at an excellent level. The question to Guardiola was therefore practically inevitable. Was his influential captain really going?

“Right now Gundogan is too important for us. We can’t afford to let him go,” Guardiola replied, a confession to his inner circle.

Just over two months later, City have been unable to fulfill their manager’s wish and Gundogan joins Barca. This is the final result of a process that started in the last months of 2022.

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That’s when City began making contact with Gundogan’s entourage to discuss a possible renewal. There was an understanding at the time that his desire was to extend his stay in Manchester beyond 2023. But both parties were still some distance apart.

The city originally proposed a one-year extension with an option for a second year. This first offer included a lower annual salary than what Gundogan earned.

According to sources familiar with the negotiations, who like all sources in this story preferred to speak anonymously as they were not authorized to comment, the maximum amount Gundogan would have received was around €16m (£13.7m; 17, $4 million) after tax if the second-season option was triggered.

The player’s camp was not entirely convinced of this. Foreign clubs began to show interest, and there was the prospect of a longer deal. Negotiations with City continued but little progress was made.

(Photo: Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images)

As Barcelona went all out in the race to sign Gundogan, it coincided with the player finding his best form for the 2022-2023 campaign. For March, Athletics reported that Barca were feeling increasingly confident that a deal could be done. 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 reopened negotiations and their final proposal came before the FA Cup final when Gundogan’s representatives met with City’s director of football, Omar Berrada.

The Manchester club offered a net salary of 12 million. EUR over 2023-24, which sources with knowledge of the situation describe as a slightly higher figure than what Gundogan was already earning. The deal was still only for one year, with the option of an extra season. There has been a feeling in recent days at City 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 Athletics reported a week ago that the Spanish champions made an all-out push for Gundogan after the Champions League final, improving on the terms 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 both Barcelona’s coaching staff and sporting direction. There was a feeling at the club that there was no better reinforcement, both in terms of football skills and financial viability, than landing Gundogan on a free transfer. It was a motivation to make an extra effort.

According to Barcelona sources, Gundogan will receive a salary of just over 9 million euros after tax per season. Months ago, the club’s first proposal was closer to €7m.

He will sign a two-year contract with the option to trigger a third year, which is considered “very likely” among sources involved in the negotiations. Gundogan must play over 60 percent of Barca’s games during his second season for this option to be valid. The length of the contract was one of the deal-breakers, according to several sources involved in the operation.

(Photo: Frederic Scheidemann/Getty Images)

Gundogan became a father in March when his son Kais was born. Since then, the stability of a longer project has become more and more attractive, and this factor played an important role in Gundogan’s decision.

However, sources close to the player say there was no greater reason behind his choice 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 now was the perfect time to start a new challenge, having won a Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League treble.

The player’s camp also insist that money was not the biggest factor, revealing that he also received several lucrative offers from Saudi Arabia in recent weeks, all of which far outbid those from City and Barca.


Barcelona are targeting 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 footballing side of things – with sources involved in the talks describing Xavi and now-departed sporting director Jordi Cruyff as having played 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 side tended to rely too much 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 the negotiations but it was Mateu Alemany who took the lead and finalized the details with the player’s representatives after a trip to Munich on Wednesday as Gundogan passed his medical and signed his contract as a Barcelona player with effect from July 1.

Gundogan’s former Borussia Dortmund team-mate Robert Lewandowski also played a part in convincing him to join, with the Polish striker strongly recommending life in Catalonia.

(Photo: Will Palmer/Sportsphoto/Allstar Via Getty Images)

Barcelona were also determined to assure Gundogan and his representatives that, despite the club’s ongoing financial problems, they will have no problem signing him before the start of the new La Liga season on August 12. Barcelona are still above La Liga’s salary cap, meaning the Competition Authority will not register new signings until they are satisfied with the club’s expected wage bill 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 Athletics that there is a clause in Gundogan’s contract that would protect him if an unexpected turn of events sees his registration rejected.


Barcelona need to sell to spend this summer – so who will go?

A single Barcelona source said this clause means Gundogan would be eligible to leave for free before the end of the transfer window, having been paid his full first year’s wages, if the club fail to sign him.

So far, the only slightly sour note of his move to Barca is the club moving out of the Camp Nou while the rebuild takes place. However, he can expect to play there in two years, when the work is expected to be completed.

With the agreement that has now been concluded, Barcelona are celebrating. They are delighted to welcome a world-class midfielder, one of the best in Europe in recent seasons, and a player they came close to signing many years ago.

In 2015, a year before Gundogan joined City, Barcelona held advanced talks to sign him from Dortmund. They were also in talks for Atletico Madrid’s Arda Turan, who they ended up signing instead. It is fair to say that many senior officials from the club have regretted this decision.

In Manchester it will be a tough loss. Gundogan is not the kind of footballer who can be easily replaced – there is hardly anyone else in the world with his versatility and quality.

However, the general feeling at City is that they did what they could within the business framework they set themselves. With his outstanding 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 turns 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 called for after the transformative leverage move last summer.

City lose a legend, Barcelona pocket a jewel and Xavi gets the top-class midfielder he was desperate for. The manager must now make it work.

(Photos: Getty Images; design: Samuel Richardson)

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