Going into the game with Watford at the Etihad back in December, Ilkay Gundogan had been in fine form.
He was given the Man of the Match award on his Manchester City debut against Borussia Monchengladbach, scored in his second against Bournemouth and starred in the famous 3-1 win over Barcelona, scoring two superbly taken goals and delivering a wonderful all-round display that was key to a victory that, at the time, felt seismic.
But in the 2-0 win over Watford just before Christmas, his season was ended in cruel fashion, a collision with Nordin Amrabat just before half time causing damage to his cruciate knee ligament. Pep Guardiola, clearly crestfallen, said afterwards the German would miss “several months”.
It was a prognosis that proved sadly accurate; the first signing of the Guardiola era snatched from the new manager after just 16 appearances for the Club.
It was one of the most painful moments of City’s season.
“To be honest I think watching from the sidelines is one of the most difficult things,” Gundogan says in an exclusive interview with mancity.com “Having to sit in the stands or watch the guys playing on the TV is hard.
“It’s also hard when I’m around the training or doing my own rehab on one side of the pitch and the team is training on the other.
“Sometimes I just look over during my session watching what they are doing or what type of exercises they are doing.”
He returned to light training earlier this week, a sight that brought plenty of cheer across social media. A well-liked, personable member of the City squad, he has been sadly missed since his setback, and the reaction of the City fans spoke volumes about the impact the midfielder had in his short stint in the first team.
For the first time since his injury, he worked with the ball alongside City’s coaching staff, a milestone in his recovery. It remains a long road back to full fitness, but it was a significant moment.
And in a bid to ensure he returns next season in peak fitness, he has promised to sacrifice his summer break to give himself maximum preparation time.
“I think I’m in a good way,” he says. “I’m working hard. I’m staying longer in Manchester than the rest of the squad. They are now on holiday but I am staying longer and I’m also coming back earlier to have my own little preseason before the rest of the team starts.
“So hopefully I can join the rest of the lads for preseason – maybe not 100 per cent but I am increasing day by day the work and hopefully being ready for the first Premier League game.
“I can’t wait to be back.”
Gundogan’s career began in 2008 with VfL Bochum, before a switch to FC Nurnberg a year later where he began to establish himself as a regular at senior level.
He joined Borussia Dortmund in 2011, signed by Jurgen Klopp, now in charge at Liverpool. Klopp constructed one of Europe’s most dynamic teams and Gundogan was central to their style. They won the Bundesliga title and DFB-Pokal in 2012, before reaching the Champions League final in 2013. It was a golden period in Dortmund’s history and one of the great sporting stories of recent times.
Having spent his entire career in Germany, achieving so much success with Dortmund, it was difficult for Gundogan to leave but he says the treatment he’s received at City since his arrival last summer has made him feel more than welcome.
“I am very comfortable” he says. “I am really happy. I did not expect to be treated like that when I joined. I was like, okay, I am joining now, I know what they expect on the field, then the rest we’re gonna see.
“But in that time when I got the injury in the Watford game and the time after - my teammates, all the staff, medical department and all the rest - the way they treated me was really, really nice and I appreciate that because for me it was not easy to join when I was injured and then fight my way back, doing well for two or three months, feeling better and better game by game and then to get injured again, and such a long-term injury, that was really difficult but I always felt the help of the Club and I just can’t wait to give that all back, hopefully soon.
“I’m just happy I could show people – especially the supporters – at least for a few games the potential in myself. I appreciate that and because of that my motivation is more to perform well next season. I’m looking forward to it.”
City’s season began strongly. They won their first 10 games, setting the pace in the Premier League and qualifying for the Champions League.
However, momentum stalled and a difficult period at the turn of the year saw Guardiola’s side lose some ground, before a strong finish saw them reach the FA Cup semi-final and finish third in the league.
But aside from the results, the style of play Guardiola introduced began to take hold. At their best, City were arguably the slickest attacking outfit in the Premier League.
Gundogan, who watched every match, says he saw plenty of positives.
“We were really strong,” he says. “The manager he always said it - not just to us but the media - he also needs to get used to the Premier League as it’s a completely different challenge.
“I also have my own experience from Germany in the Bundesliga. It’s a bit different – both in the way your opponents play and the way you need to play. It feels like every little mistake can punish you.
“We had control of the game and so many chances but didn’t score and then one mistake at the back and we conceded and we dropped six points in those three games.
“That’s massive. We just need to take care.
“The lads did really well during the final few weeks. It was important to get this third position in the Premier League to go direct into the Champions League.
“When you look at the games, not when you just watch the results and the third position – which is good – but maybe some people think we could have done more.
“I think it was still a good and successful season. The way we played; we started really well in the first seven or eight games – we won everything. Then we had a phase where we were not so strong or we were did some mistakes in nearly every game that punished us.
“Generally, the performances were really good and we just need to focus on small details for the next season.
“I am quite sure we can compete for everything, for all titles in every competition. That should be the target for next season and to keep playing the way we are playing.”
Gundogan was joined by fellow German Leroy Sane last summer, the young winger signing from Schalke in August. He emerged as one of City’s best performers, a player capable of reaching the very pinnacle of the game, with pace and the ability to beat defenders his most potent weapons.
The game against Arsenal in December was perhaps the turning point. His speed on the ball hurt Arsene Wenger’s side, who looked visibly unsettled every time he ran at them.
He scored his first City goal, impressed with his all-round performance and from there never looked back, ending the season with nine goals and looking like the finest young wide player in world football.
Gundogan, who lives near to Sane and has forged a close bond with the 21-year-old, says he isn’t surprised by his performance level.
“I expected it to be honest,” he says. “He is still so young. I knew before that the first few months are the hardest and you just need to keep going.
“It doesn’t matter if you are directly in the team or if you need some time to adapt, it doesn’t matter. When you are young you just have to keep going, never lose your motivation in yourself and that is exactly what he did.
“He had a few difficult months but that’s very normal for a young guy like him. Especially to join a new country, a new language at 20-years-old. When I was 20 I was in Germany. I was around my family, I had everything. I was in my comfort zone.
“He just went out of it, took the decision for himself for a whole new adventure. When you are so young it’s really difficult and the way he played in the second period of the season is just incredible. I am still quite sure there is more potential in him and he can be better next season.
“I think that is his aim and that should just motivate us to help him keep going. Hopefully he can create a lot more goals for us – whether he assists or scores on his own.
“We are quite happy to have him, especially me because he is my neighbour now. It’s nice to have him and nice to spend time with him away from the field.”
And ahead of the new season, Gundogan can only see good things for a City side he believes is full of talent.
“We should just aim for the best,” he said. “We have such a great team and the management will also take care to make sure we are better.
“That should be the target. The way we play is really, really good: dominant, a lot of possession, we are able to create a lot of chances.
“We have strikers, good midfielders, and we just need a little bit of stability at the back, so we will work on it for the next season.
“We showed already this season that we are able to beat anyone.”