Ex-Man City captain Ilkay Gundogan joining Barcelona on a free transfer

Ilkay Gundogan ended his trophy-laden seven-year stay with Manchester City by agreeing to join La Liga powerhouse and defending champion Barcelona on a free transfer Monday.

The Germany midfielder’s last act as a City player — and as the team’s captain — was to lift the Champions League trophy after completing a treble of major titles for the English club.

Now, he’s heading to Spain on a two-year contract for a new experience, even though Pep Guardiola wanted to keep the 32-year-old Gundogan — the first signing of the City manager’s era from 2016.

“This club made me realize all my dreams and I will forever be thankful for this opportunity,” Gundogan said. “I will carry City always in my heart. Once a blue, always a blue.”

Having missed out on securing the return of Lionel Messi, Barcelona made the signing of Gundogan a priority to add some experience to a midfield already containing youngsters Pedri González and Gavi Páez — two of its pillars going forward — but no longer including veteran leader Sergio Busquets, who is leaving to reportedly rejoin Messi on MLS club Inter Miami.

Frenkie de Jong also played an important role last season for Barcelona coach Xavi Hernández, despite efforts by the club to sell him in the 2022 offseason and continued reported interest from Manchester United, which are coached by de Jong’s former Ajax coach Erik ten Hag.

Barceloa has set Gundogan’s buyout clause at roughly $435 million (400 million euros).

In a statement, the Spanish champions described their latest signing as a player “who reads the game to perfection” and “one of the world’s best midfielders of the last decade or so.”

Gundogan’s arrival comes while debt-ridden Barcelona is still struggling to meet the Spanish league’s financial rules. Only recently was it able to find a way to officially register Gavi as a first-team player. It is widely expected that the club will need to sell players to reduce its expenses, and the addition of Gundogan will only add to that burden unless compensated by exits.

While Barcelona sold off part of its future television revenues and other assets to have the cash necessary to sign star Poland striker Robert Lewandowski and other players last year, its financial problems have increasingly forced the club to find free agents who want to come to Spain. Last year, the team picked up current players Andreas Christensen, Marcos Alonso and Franck Kessie on free transfers, while other free agents like Memphis Depay have come and gone in recent years.

City was reportedly only offering Gundogan a one-year deal, whereas he wanted a longer contract for some security for his family.

He will go down as a City great, not just for being the team’s captain in its greatest ever season but because of some of the crucial goals he scored and performances he delivered in the midfield, where he could play box-to-box, as an anchorman or — in his favored role — as a player supporting the striker.

No goals were more important than the two he scored to complete City’s late comeback from 2-0 down to Aston Villa on the final day of the 2021-22 season, winning the team another Premier League title.

After joining from Borussia Dortmund, where he was a Bundesliga champion in 2012, Gundogan won five Premier League titles, two FA Cups, four English League Cups and the Champions League with City.

“He has played a huge part in the successes we have enjoyed in recent seasons and Ilkay’s intelligence, leadership and commitment to the club — both on and off the field — has been an inspiration to everyone,” City director of football Txiki Begiristain said.

Gundogan now arrives at a club that won the Spanish league title last season but failed for a second straight campaign to move past the group phase of the Champions League.

Reporting by The Associated Press.

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