Ilkay Gundogan: Borussia Dortmund’s Unsung Hero

25 May

Courtesy: Michael Kranewitter

Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich has set up the first all-German Champions League final. The newly crowned Bundesliga champions enter the match as heavy favourites, but it would be irrational to count out Dortmund. The two sides have met 10 times over the past three seasons – the pattern of these matches have been similar, Bayern dominates possession, while Dortmund rely on quick transitions on the counter-attack.

Bayern has won two of the four meetings this season, while both league encounters ended in draws. Heynckes’ summer signings in Dante, Mario Mandzukic and Javi Martinez have seen Bayern evolve tactically, allowing them to nullify the strengths Dortmund executed against the Bavarians in the past. As a unit their pressing is exceptional – Martinez has improved Bayern’s superiority in midfield, as they now possess strength and superb ball retention – at the back Dante has been a massive improvement, as Bayern was susceptible to counter-attacks in the past. Dortmund has yet to defeat Jupp Heynckes’ men this season and without Mario Gotze available they face a daunting task.

Like several young footballers, 22-year-old Ilkay Gündoğan has many dreams. Playing abroad, preferably in England or Spain, along with his inclusion into the German first team ahead of the World Cup is what the German international is working towards in the near future. Gündoğan has seen one dream come true as he’ll feature in the Champions League finals at Wembley – he also received the opponent he desired. “I hope to lock horns with Bayern Munich in the final,” Gündoğan said ahead of their quarter-final tie against Malaga.

Marco Reus, Gotze and prolific striker Robert Lewandowski have all shared the spotlight in Dortmund’s fantastic European run – yet Gündoğan has been their unsung hero. The German midfielder has developed into one of world footballs top midfielders since his €4.5m move from Nurnberg in the 2011/2012 season – as he replaced the Bundesliga player of the year Nuri Sahin. Prior to his arrival, Klopp shared his insights on Gündoğan.

“He has a fantastic attitude and is very clever and keen to learn,” Klopp said.

“Ilkay has an excellent passing game and is overall a very high quality player who fits perfectly into our system.”

Despite not having an impressive start to life at Dortmund, Gündoğan found his feet midway through the season as Dortmund won a domestic double – the German also became a regular in Klopp’s starting lineup.

Without Gotze, Dortmund’s attack is limited, but they still possess a few match winners. Lewandowski is the ruthless poacher that can drop deep to link play – Reus is the flashy dribbler that can skip past defenders, but Gündoğan is different.

He is a nifty midfielder that often drops into deep positions – he possesses great vision, which allows him to play inventive forward passes, and he holds no fear to surge into advance positions and dribble past defenders. In the Champions League this season, the German international has averaged 49 passes per match, with an 87% accuracy rate – completing an average of five long balls. Quietly, he’s been Dortmund’s key man in the Champions League this season.

With Klopp’s men keen on playing from the back, Gündoğan’s ability to drop deep and create plays is vital.


The German midfielder is the link between the midfield and the front four – against Shakhtar Donetsk, Dortmund were allowed to play from the back, while Gündoğan pressed Fernandinho and Tomas Hubschmann whenever they attempted to receive the ball from deep.

This also occurred in the semi-finals against Real Madrid, as Luka Modric failed to press the German and he imposed his authority on the match.



Gündoğan also displayed his tactical discipline, as his defensive work in midfield disrupted Madrid’s attack.

Malaga provided a sterner test, as they kept a compact shape and allowed Dortmund to have possession. Gündoğan received more of the ball, and was the key man in the tie – albeit being seconds away from a quarter-final exit.

In the first leg, he was Dortmund’s best player, as he was allowed time to play incisive balls across the pitch – Gündoğan received the ball 68 times, and frankly poor finishing from Gotze and Lewandowski was the solitary reason why the match ended in a draw.


Gündoğan was excellent in the second leg as well, but Malaga’s pressing decreased his influence on the match. Most of his passes were sideways, and he struggled to receive the ball from deep positions – unlike the first leg Gündoğan was unable to produce penetrating runs or passes.

Gündoğan has flourished on European nights, producing scintillating performances that caught the eyes of many. Unfortunately for Dortmund fans, he’s been unable to replicate his extraordinary performances against Bayern Munich this season.

Unlike their two title-winning seasons, Dortmund has failed to cause Bayern many problems. Klopp’s men have failed to expose this well-equipped Bayern side on the counter attack, while Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos and Javi Martinez have dominated the midfield.

In both competitive meetings this season, Klopp has reacted to Bayern’s system, playing in a cautious 4-3-3 opposed to their natural 4-2-3-1. A recurring theme in these fixtures has been Kroos finding space to receive the ball in key areas – mainly behind Gündoğan and Bender who sat deep in the midfield. In the first encounter, Gündoğan failed to impress, as Bayern’s pressing nullified his offensive threat.


Defensively, he was better, making key tackles and vital interceptions on the left flank, which may have been enough to earn a draw.


Although Klopp hasn’t defeated Bayern this season, he may have found his solution in Dortmund’s DFB-Pokal loss against the Bavarians. Despite Bayern’s dominance for majority of the match, Gündoğan became an influential figure in the second half as he dropped in between his centre-backs to build plays. This was effective as it gave Dortmund an initial outlet that they lacked in the first half, and it provided Gündoğan with several passing options that enabled Dortmund to break past Bayern’s press – Dortmund was the better side in the second half due to Gündoğan’s tactical awareness, and considering it was the last competitive match between the two sides, it may be an approach Klopp takes in the final.

In an interview with, Klopp was full of praise of the German international,

“We got him [in summer 2011] and he has turned into a real strategist. It is extraordinary. Not many players can do that,” Klopp said.

“Many players can play in a small space, play fast and do a lot of great things, but to have such vision, such a passing game, such an eye for the situation, is extraordinary and makes him an extraordinary player.”

Kroos’ dominance has been the theme in both competitive matches this season – with the German playmaker out indefinitely, and Gündoğan’s success in the second half of the Pokal match, Klopp’s men will fancy their chances.

Bayern’s pressing as a unit, tactical flexibility and their ability to keep a compact shape has been one of their main strengths this season. There’s no question that Heynckes’ will instruct his midfield to limit Gündoğan’s time on the ball – when no pressure is applied Gündoğan controls the game with ease, but he becomes highly ineffective when players attempt to close him down.

Gündoğan faces two challenges when Dortmund meets Bayern for the fifth time this season. His battle with Schweinsteiger could be the difference maker – finding pockets of space to receive the ball, along with imposing his authority on the match is vital, but preventing Schweinsteiger from dictating the tempo of the match is also necessary.

Nevertheless, the key man is Gündoğan, and he will need to be at his best if he intends on driving Dortmund to European glory for the first time in 16 years.

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Posted by on May 25, 2013 in FIFA


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