Ilkay Gundogan v Mateo Kovacic: Have Man City made an upgrade in midfield?

  • After Ilkay Gundogan joined Barcelona on a free transfer, Mateo Kovacic was signed from Chelsea
  • Both midfielders have operated among the Premier League and European elite for years but with differing styles
Mateo Kovacic (left) was signed by Manchester City after Ilkay Gundogan left the club on a free transfer this summer
Mateo Kovacic (left) was signed by Manchester City after Ilkay Gundogan left the club on a free transfer this summer / SHAUN BOTTERILL/GettyImages

Ilkay Gundogan liked to think of himself as "the type of player who makes others shine on the pitch".

"I never try to put myself first," he continued. "I try to put the attention on others and that's also how I go through life a little bit." However, after ending seven gloriously successful seasons at Manchester City by lifting three more trophies in the space of 13 days, the spotlight has firmly been on the departing captain.

Mateo Kovacic does an even better job of sidestepping the limelight than Gundogan. Yet, the former Chelsea midfielder has now been tasked with filling the yawning chasm created by Gundogan's free transfer to Barcelona.

How does City's £25m recruit compare to Pep Guardiola's first signing at City.


Ilkay Gundogan
Ilkay Gundogan was in the squad for all 61 of Manchester City's games across all competitions last season / Eurasia Sport Images/GettyImages

This would not have been a particular strength for Gundogan across much of his career - or his life. As an eight-year-old, an ankle problem forced little Ilkay to don a "special sock" which meant he "wore one tiny shoe and one massive one".

However, Gundogan avoided injury throughout an entire season for the first time in his career last term - alongside Riyad Mahrez, the 32-year-old was one of only two City outfielders that made the squad for every match in the club’s historic treble success.

Kovacic may be three years younger than Gundogan but he has proven to be far less reliable. The slippery midfielder started less than half of Chelsea’s Premier League matches last season (17), missing eight games through injury.

The devout Catholic nicknamed 'the Altar Boy' has started more than 25 league games in the same season just once in his senior career.



End product

Across his entire senior career, which stretches back to his debut as a 16-year-old in 2010, Kovacic can lay claim to a grand total of 29 goals. Gundogan has scored the same number in just the Premier League over the last three seasons.

However, this is a byproduct of their radically different positioning. Kovacic has taken 85 touches in the opposition box throughout his five years in the Premier League - Gundogan registered 88 last season alone.

Kovacic slightly edges Gundogan for assists but neither midfielder has made a habit of providing the final pass.

Ball progression

Only one central midfielder in the Premier League carried the ball at a greater frequency than Kovacic last season (per Opta). That player already belongs to City but it isn’t Gundogan. In Guardiola’s set-up, Rodri is tasked with bringing the ball forward before rifling it between the lines to the likes of Gundogan.

This is the exact area of the game in which Kovacic thrives, spotting chinks of light in the opposition rearguard to drive into. Gundogan’s style is geared more closely towards short passes in tight spaces - although, Kovacic may experience a shift in his on-ball profile after joining in with City’s intricate skeins of passes.

Defensive discipline

Ilkay Gundogan, Mateo Kovacic
Ilkay Gundogan (left) let Mateo Kovacic know he was there when they were on opposite sides / Jan Kruger/GettyImages

On the face of it, Kovacic is more proactive off the ball - although, raw numbers for blunt statistics such as tackles and interceptions are swayed by the circumstances surrounding both players; Kovacic plays deeper in a team that sees less of the ball than City, naturally, he is going to have more opportunities to put a foot in than Gundogan.

Perhaps more importantly, previous Chelsea managers have highlighted Kovacic’s struggles to fully digest out-of-possession tactical instructions according to The Athletic. By contrast, few City players have shown a more complete understanding of Guardiola's endless reams of complex instructions than Gundogan.

Crucially, Kovacic is open to improvement. At his unveiling as a City player, that was the keyword. "I think there is always room for improvement and when you are in such an amazing squad that tends to have the ball a lot, to play and to keep the ball all the time, you can improve a lot," the four-time Champions League winner and former World Cup finalist acknowledged. "So that’s my aim: to improve and to learn."

If Kovacic hopes to get anywhere near Gundogan's calibre, he will certainly have to do plenty of both.


On this week's edition of Talking Transfers, part of the 90min podcast network, Scott Saunders is joined by Toby Cudworth, Graeme Bailey and Sean Walsh to discuss Tottenham's denial of receiving a bid from Bayern Munich for Harry Kane, Arsenal and Manchester City's tug of war for West Ham captain Declan Rice, Man Utd's ongoing pursuit of Mason Mount & more!

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