Imagine for a second that Saturday’s final went down the other way.
For the first time in history, Manchester’s two clubs were meeting on the biggest domestic stage possible, the FA Cup final at Wembley. In a tightly contested game between two rivals, Manchester United’s captain scores both goals to bring the trophy to the red half of Manchester.
The term ‘United legend’ would be instantly bestowed upon him. The Stretford End would be singing songs about the performance for years to come. The captain himself would be serenaded with songs and cheers every time he stepped onto the pitch at Old Trafford in the coming seasons.
That last part won’t be happening for Ilkay Gundogan at Manchester City.
We can make jokes that it won’t happen because Manchester City don’t have fans and go through our whole rolodex of “Empty-ad” jokes, but the simple reason it won’t happen is because Ilkay Gundogan will not be at Manchester City next season.
Gundogan isn’t leaving because he’s won all there is to win in England and wants a new challenge (as of this writing, he hasn’t done that yet). He’s not leaving because he’s had a falling out with his coach. He’s not leaving because someone else is making him an offer he just can’t refuse.
Ilkay Gundogan is leaving because after making 303 appearances over seven seasons, scoring 60 goals, and adding 40 assists, Manchester City have decided that their plans for the coming seasons don’t include a 32 year old midfielder.
It should be stated that it’s most likely that Gundogan will leave this summer but it’s not set in stone just yet. Both Gundogan wants to stay at the Ethiad and City manager Pep Guardiola wants him to stay as well.
The decision is coming from above Guardiola’s head and speaks to the structure that exists at Manchester City. Director of Football Txiki Begiristain will provide the players. Guardiola’s job is to coach them. Guardiola may have a vision of how he wants to do things, but it’s Begirstain who picks the players that will fit that vision.
It would be an over simplification to say that Begirstain has decided it’s time to move on from Gundogan. The two sides have been negotiating an extension all season long. The hold up comes from Gundogan wants to be paid like a player who made 50 appearances this season, scored 11 goals, and captained the side to at least two thirds of a historic treble.
Begirstain sees a player who’s on pitch influence is waining. As Gundogan puts more and more miles on his legs his impact will only deteriorate more. There’s room in the squad for him over the next few years, but it’s in a smaller role then what he’s been playing the past few years and therefore they want to pay him based on what that role would be. City won’t budge on that price.
When it comes to players, Manchester City are a club that looks forward. They don’t care about the past, they don’t care about what you’ve done for them. They care about what you’re doing now and what you will do in the future.
Gundogan’s performance in the FA Cup final spat in the face of a commonly held belief by fans - and sometimes the media - the belief that an outgoing player doesn’t want to be here anymore and shouldn’t play.
When City handed Gundogan a four year contract in 2019, they expected him to be productive through 2023. It doesn’t matter where Gundogan will play in 2024, if he’s still in his window of productivity and under contract with City they should benefit from it. Had they fallen into the trap of thinking that Gundogan wasn’t committed to the team because he hadn’t signed a new contract yet they would have missed out on a man of the match performance in the FA Cup final.
At the same time, they aren’t going to be influenced by a man of the match performance in a cup final into giving out a new contract that they don’t think presents fair value.
This isn’t the first time City have done this. Two years ago, midway through the season City announced that the club’s all time leading scorer, Sergio Aguero, would depart at the end of the season. Aguero was coming off a season where he scored 0.87 non-penalty goals per 90. He never fully got going that year due to a meniscus injury. But City didn’t think the 32 year old striker would ever hit the same heights again so it was thank you for your service and good luck on your next endeavor.
Raheem Sterling scored 11 non-penalty goals in just 23.6 Premier League 90s last season. But the club knew he was a player who broke into first team football at 17. He had played over 70 games for England. He may only be 27 years old but were his next years going to be as productive as his last? They didn’t hesitate to sell him when Chelsea came calling.
The message from City is clear: It doesn’t matter what you did this year or last year. Your new contract is about what we believe you’re going to do over the span of that contract. That’s what we’re going to pay for. If you don’t like it, don’t take it. Manchester City are a team that know how to cut ties with a player.
Now juxtapose that with Manchester United. A club that two years ago handed Eric Bailly a new contract even though they knew Raphael Varane would be coming in.
Manchester United have no idea when to cut ties with a player and because of that, their squad continues to be a mess. United are still running their club under the old belief that puts far too much stock in previous seasons. They still believe clubs will look at a player’s resume and pay based on that. They extend contracts because they still believe that a player having Manchester United on their C/V will him more in demand. They think they’re protecting his value.
Manchester United are a club that’s become stuck making decisions based on what a player has done lately rather than looking at what they might do over the next few years.
They’e a club desperate to land a transfer fee for every departing player, City aren’t afraid to lose a player for free. They understand the value of clearing a player’s wages off the books is far greater taking the risk of extending a player and maybe getting a small fee, but if not having the player become deadweight on their books.
It wasn’t always like this. Under Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill Manchester United had a policy that once a player turned 30 the club would only extend them one year at a time. They recognize that players above the age of 30 are still valuable. They still have something to contribute. But by extending them only one year at a time the club maintained the flexibility to move on from them as soon as they stopped contributing.
This policy was kept in place by United until the summer of 2018, when Jose Mourinho fought for the 30 year old Mauroanne Fellaini to be given a two year contract. Fellaini departed the club six months later but precedent was set. A year later Juan Mata signed for three years, Nemanja Matic followed suit. These days the club now shops for 30 year olds, not only willing to give them multi year contracts but pay for a fee for them as well!
The best clubs in the world all abide by the same belief. It’s better to move on from a player one year too early than one year too late. In fact, it’s far more beneficial to move on from a player one year too soon.
When you move on from a player a year too soon for that year everyone thinks you made a mistake. That means someone else will be willing to take another player that you’re trying to offload the following season, before they too realize they’re left with a dud.
Manchester United are so caught up in the here, now, and most recently, they don’t know when to move on from a player. Anytime someone shows a hint of potential they immediately make them a new part of their plans. They basically broadcast to the world that they’re going to use anyone with value, and if they’re not using them it’s because they’ve figured out that they’re just not good. And you wonder why United are no good at selling players. You’d need to find a sucker to take most of these players - only the sucker is usually Manchester United.
We can’t forget to mention the 115 charges currently held against City. They were able to get to where they are now because they (allegedly) cheated. In Pep’s first few years in charge they sold several players at great loss for what they initially paid for them. Given how players don’t like to leave big clubs to take less money at a smaller club, it’s impossible not to think that they weren’t given everything they were owed by City - even if that wasn’t reflected in the club’s books as the charges state.
That played a big role in getting to where they are, but we also must state, if they didn’t have smart people making decisions no amount of cheating would have brought them this success. City’s brass no when to say goodbye to a player. If the vision of the team shifts, they’re not afraid to cut ties with a player - and given that they’re signing young players who still have value, they’re often able to profit on it.
You can’t compare where City are right now with Erik Ten Hag. It’s his first season in charge. You can compare the long term squad building that each manager did. In Pep’s first season the average age of his outfield signings was 21.57. The average age of United’s signings last summer was 25.6 - a full four years older.
That alone can prevent United from getting to where City are. City are at the point where they can watch players leave and not worry because they’ve already signed their replacement. They’ve already signed their replacement because they’re at the point where they’ve already built a strong squad. Every summer they can focus on changing one or two parts of their core and keeping the team young. They never have to do it all at once.
United have made multiple signings over the past two years who will need to be replaced in the next two years - taking up resources from other positions that need filling. United don’t know when to say goodbye to a player because they never have someone that can step in. They may finally have that vision, but it’s hard to get to the point where you can sign replacements in waiting when can never even complete building the initial squad.
On Saturday the two Manchester clubs met at Wembley and contested an FA Cup final that looked closer than it probably was. Manchester City’s captain stepped up and scored two goals to bring glory to his team. He’ll be thanked by being sent on his way.
That would never happen in the red half of Manchester, but next season City will once again be favorites to win the Premier League. As for United, we have to see how the summer plays out.
The gap between the two teams is on full display.