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Ilkay Gundogan talks Barcelona, Xavi, De Jong, Pedri, Yamal, Guardiola, Hansi Flick

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Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

In a little over seven months, Ilkay Gundogan has become a crucial part of the FC Barcelona setup. Having arrived at the club on a free transfer from Manchester City, the veteran midfielder has become a mainstay in the centre of the park for the Blaugrana.

Thus far, the 33-year-old has played in 36 matches across all competitions, chipping in with five goals and ten assists and has been one of the Catalans’ better performers this season.

The treble-winner with Manchester City recently sat down for a candid interview with La Vanguardia, during which he discussed a plethora of topics, starting off with his adaptation at Barcelona.

“My family and I are very happy here. We have a little boy and we can go out with him even in December,” Gundogan remarked.

Adaptation at Barcelona

When asked if he and his family were happy at the club and in the city, he replied: “We are.”

On how he copes with the stress of playing for a club like Barça, Gundogan said: “I’ve had a career for 15 years and I know that my happiness depends on my work, you can’t separate the two, but it’s good to try, even if it’s impossible.

“Sooner or later you end up taking your frustrations home. The key is to try to keep as optimistic a frame of mind as possible. Family is vital in my case, they always support me.”

On whether Barcelona meets what he expected of the club, he replied: “I knew I was coming to one of the biggest clubs in the world. With thousands of fans and, with them, opinions on everything and of all kinds. I try to keep a balance.”

Having spent a large part of his career at Manchester City before moving to Barcelona, Gundogan is used to playing under pressure. And when asked at which club the pressure was greater, he remarked:

“I don’t see too much difference. I put the pressure on myself. I’m smart enough to know when I’ve had a good or a bad game. I look at myself, even when I get criticism from family or friends. ‘You could have been better today, Ilkay.'”

“My mother is the worst (laughs). My parents accompanied my older brother and me everywhere from a very young age and they still follow my career today. My mother is always the most critical: ‘You weren’t good today….'”

On which of his performances for Barcelona his mother rated the highest, he replied: “The one against Alavés. A goal and an assist.”

When asked if he agreed with that assessment, Gundogan said: “I don’t think so. Numbers are one thing but that feeling when you’ve just played a great game doesn’t have to match the statistics.”

“You can play very well in a more defensive position even if you don’t score. This season I have played in the pivot with more defensive duties and that makes me appreciate more the teammates who have my back when I attack more,” he stated, highlighting his role as a pivot midfielder.

On his role and the team’s situation

An integral part of this Barcelona team. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

In recent games, though, Gundogan has been deployed in an advanced role, with Andreas Christensen and Frenkie de Jong operating in deeper positions. And it has seen Gundogan’s attacking output increase.

“If I play there, I have to put in the numbers. In the final third, I’m closer to the goal and that’s where you have to be noticed, making the final pass or scoring. I think I’m good at interpreting what each position demands, whether it’s at the back or upfront. The key is that this gear works collectively,” Gundogan noted.

On whether this Barcelona team has the potential to perform better, he replied: “Yes, without a doubt. Every one of us can do better. We are not playing according to expectations. It’s not an excuse but we’ve been through a lot of difficulties, injuries, young players under a lot of pressure….”

Highlighting the next couple of months as key to turn things around, Gundogan added: “These next two or three months will be key. It’s the decisive moment of the season. We must take maximum care of our bodies and train well to arrive in the best shape. Raise the level.”

On his teammates

Gundogan is part of a world-class midfield unit with Pedri and De Jong, which has the capability of being one of the best in the game. When asked if he felt the same, the German international said:

“I wouldn’t say we’re the best, but there’s a lot of talent there. But how many games have we played together? Ten?

“We have to find a balance and that comes with time. To trust each other one hundred per cent, to know each other better, to create connections and automatisms. It happened with De Jong and now I have moved the position forward.”

“Now I’m trying to create more chemistry with Lamine Yamal and others,” he added.

Yamal has been shining brightly with the Barcelona first-team setup despite just being 16 years old, leaving the dressing room amazed. When asked if he had seen another talent like the La Masia graduate, he replied:

“No, because amazing starts with his age and I never trained with such a young kid professionally. I can’t compare him to anything. He’s very special, you have to be careful, he’s a teenager. He already takes a lot of responsibility.”

Gundogan thinks highly of Yamal. (Photo by ANDER GILLENEA/AFP via Getty Images)

On his role of mentoring the youngsters, he added: “The best I can do is to lead and act as an example to those around me. Convey that if you work hard and give your all, you will be a better player. That’s what Lamine must see around him.”

On the Champions League and Barcelona’s situation

Barcelona take on Napoli in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg tomorrow in Italy. And the midfielder was asked if he felt the team is ready to compete for the continental tournament, to which he replied:

“Yes, of course we are. We need these games to raise our level. That’s what the Champions League is all about, competing, demanding the maximum. I love this kind of pressure. We are travelling to Naples to get a good result.”

Addressing the lack of leaders in the current team, he said: “The team has lost a lot of leaders in just two years and that is difficult to replace. Leadership is earned by what others see in you. It comes naturally but it takes time. In my case, I need to improve my Spanish to communicate better. I am working on it.”

On whether he realistically believes that Barcelona can win the Champions League this season, Gundogan said: “I’ll be honest. I see other teams with more possibilities and experience. But if we qualify for the quarter-finals we’re in special territory.

“Who could have expected Inter to reach the final last year? I’m a realist, but I also know it’s difficult for everyone.”

When asked how far this Barcelona team is from his former side, Manchester City, Gundogan replied: “We won’t know until we compete with them. Every game starts from scratch in the Champions League. I would love to see us compete with these kind of teams but let’s focus on Napoli now.”

On Xavi, Guardiola, managerial change

Gundogan was then asked about his relationship with manager Xavi Hernandez, to which he replied: “He was fundamental for me to come to Barcelona. If the conversations we had would have been different, I wouldn’t be here. He made the difference. I am very grateful to him.”

At the same time, the German international also admitted that he is still in touch with his former Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola, saying:

“Yes, from time to time. We talk about life and, above all, about Barcelona and Barcelona. It’s a team that is in his heart and you can feel it every time he talks to you.”

Discussing how he felt after Xavi announced his decision to leave in the summer, he replied: “I was surprised, I didn’t expect it. I wish I could have done more for him. I have that feeling.”

On whether he understood where Xavi was coming from, Gundogan added: “I respect his decision, he deserves a lot of credit. He thinks of the family, the players and the club before he thinks of himself. Xavi loves Barça…”

One of Xavi’s motives to announce his decision was to get a reaction from the squad. On whether that has come about, Gundogan said:

“I see a very good dressing room, a good atmosphere. But nothing changes in terms of my performance or my mentality, I will continue to do everything I can for the team and for the club, giving my best to help raise the level of this team.”

Hansi Flick has been mentioned as one of the potential candidates to replace Xavi as Barcelona manager next season. Gundogan played under him for the German national team and gave his opinion about the tactician, saying:

“There are a lot of names coming out and that’s not my league and I won’t comment on that. I can only say that Hansi Flick is not only a fabulous guy but also a great coach, as he proved by winning the treble for Bayern. He came to the national team in a very difficult situation, but he was always genuine and I respect him a lot.”

Responding to those who wonder why Gundogan opted to swap Manchester City for Barcelona and not to a club where things would be less stressful, he replied:

“It’s football. You compete. I’ve been in this business for a long time and winning is not something you get for free. I’ve had more unsuccessful years in my career than successful ones. You have to fall to get up and appreciate success more. Football is like life.”

Concluding, Gundogan said: “I want to be better, to enjoy success here.”

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