İlkay Gündoğan: Barcelona’s Free Transfer Turned MVP

Joan Laporta has not been shy about bringing in free transfers to bolster Barcelona’s squad since his reelection as the Blaugrana’s president in 2021. Given the financial circumstances of the club he inherited, adding quality players without paying an exorbitant transfer fee is probably one of the most shrewd maneuvers one could make. During his tenure so far, the list of free transfers consists of:


  • ‘21/22: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Memphis Depay, Sergio Agüero, Eric García
  • ‘22/23: Franck Kessié, Andreas Christensen, Héctor Bellerín, Marcos Alonso
  • ‘23/24: İlkay Gündoğan, Iñigo Martínez


The output of these transfers has been a mixed bag, and an expensive one to say the least. While these were free transfers, many of them were high-profile players that came with high wage demands. According to figures from Capology, by the end of this season, Barcelona will have paid an estimated €102.5m in wages to those ten players over the course of the past three seasons. 



There have, however, been plenty of positives that stemmed from aggressively leveraging the free transfer market. For example: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Memphis Depay combined for 26 league goals + assists during the 2021/22 league campaign, and Andreas Christensen has started an impressive 43 La Liga matches over the past two seasons.


That said, in my opinion, there has been one man who stands above the rest in terms of immediate on-field contributions to the team: İlkay Gündoğan. 


The German midfielder is known for his time with Borussia Dortmund and Manchester City, especially his penchant for title-winning goals for the Cityzens. He scored the winner in a 3-2 thriller against Aston Villa that sealed the Premier League title for Manchester City on the final day of the ‘21/22 season, then scored twice in the next season’s FA Cup final in a 2-1 victory over Manchester United. But his goal-scoring prowess isn’t the reason why he has been such a spectacular addition to this Barcelona side… more on that later.



Gündoğan’s value to this Barcelona side comes in two forms; the first being his availability. NFL Hall of Fame safety Brian Dawkins once said, “Availability is the best ability”, and this could not be more true for Gündoğan. He leads Barcelona in matches played (42), starts (36), and minutes played (3,375) this season across all competitions. This is particularly valuable to the Catalan giants because of their mini-injury crisis in the midfield this season. All three of the other would-be first-choice midfielders are currently injured, with Pedri having missed significant time with lingering soft-tissue problems and Gavi suffering a season-ending ACL tear in November. 


These injuries (along with the departure of long-time holding midfielder, Sergio Busquets, this past summer) have left Xavi with quite the task of trying to patch together a functional midfield three. To understand Gündoğan’s exceptional value within this group, let’s compare the six primary midfielders’ “vertical positioning in possession”.



Pretty quickly, we can divide them into two distinctive buckets by the percentage of the player’s touches that occur in the attacking third. Andreas Christensen, Frenkie de Jong, and Oriol Romeu have the profiles of more traditional “holding” midfielders, while Gavi, Gündoğan, and Pedri traverse further up the pitch more often. Worth noting: all statistics are from La Liga this season. I also used Andreas Christensen’s 445 minutes playing in midfield, so his numbers are not skewed by his time playing as a center half for a good portion of the season.


The other way to segment the midfielders is by how (and how often) they progress the ball in possession. See below for their progressive actions per 90 minutes in La Liga this season.



We can group them a couple of different ways, but the best in my estimation is to say which players progress the ball via each action.


  • Midfielders that progress the ball with their passing: de Jong, Gündoğan, Romeu, Pedri
  • Midfielders that progress the ball by carrying: de Jong, Gavi, Gündoğan, Pedri
  • Midfielders that aid progression by receiving the ball behind the opposition’s midfield line: Gavi, Gündoğan, Pedri


This is evident watching Barcelona this season: Frenkie de Jong is one of the best progressive passers in world football, and Gavi, Pedri and Gündoğan complement this with their forward carrying. The aspect of the two graphics that stood out to me the most is how similarly Pedri and Gündoğan profile.


The Spaniard and the German shared each of the four buckets we established, which leads us into his exceptional value to the group: Chance creation. In both quality and quantity. Gündoğan leads the midfield sextet in expected assisted goals per 90 (quality) and chances created per 90 (quantity).



İlkay Gündoğan is the best facilitator in Barcelona’s midfield this season, which has been especially crucial considering the other three that would normally bear this burden (De Jong, Gavi, and Pedri) are the ones with injury issues this campaign. His commitment to getting forward and supplying chances for Robert Lewandowski to squander (I’m joking, but his finishing this season deserves more scrutiny than it gets) is the primary driver behind him being arguably Barcelona’s best player this season. If you look at football rating apps like Sofascore, he is actually first.




For me, this was pretty surprising. I’ve watched a good bit of Barcelona this season, and I personally would have rated Frenkie de Jong or Lamine Yamal as the best players, but I certainly understand the reasoning. But let’s take a step back: the German is an elite-level chance creator? That wasn’t the İlkay Gündoğan I watched for several years at City. Was his chance creation prowess a blind spot in my football viewing? Turns out, no.



Plotting chances created and xAG per 90 minutes as before, but this time using Gündoğan’s Manchester City seasons + this Barcelona one as the data points, it is clear this season is an extreme anomaly. He has never generated chances at a rate like this before, and the timing of his improvement could not be better for the Blaugrana.


Considering the rollercoaster of free transfers Barcelona has signed during the Joan Laporta era, it is hard to point to a better addition than İlkay Gündoğan. His reliability has been undeniably crucial preserving any semblance of continuity in the squad, and his evolution into a monster chance creator has proven vital to the team’s progress in the Champions League and current second-place standing in La Liga. 


The move to the Camp Nou (well, the Lluís Companys Olympic Stadium for now) has brought forth a mid-career metamorphosis for İlkay. Whether this is something that was discussed when he made the move, or a product of the team’s lack of midfield runners and final-third creativity, the end result has been a season which fits the American sports award “Most Valuable Player”.


By: Spencer Mossman / @fc_mossman

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Nick Potts – PA Images