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HomeSportsRecharged Kevin De Bruyne energises Manchester City’s four-peat bid

Recharged Kevin De Bruyne energises Manchester City’s four-peat bid

When Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp was asked early this year if his side was the favourite to win the Premier League this season, the German spoke about how tight it was at the top. He talked up the qualities of the contenders, building to a punchline about the most dominant team in England football’s recent history — a side that has so often thwarted the Reds, Manchester City. “Kevin De Bruyne is warming up,” Klopp said. “The whole country is starting to shake.”

The line was delivered with humour, but many a true word is spoken in jest. De Bruyne had been sidelined after aggravating a hamstring injury during City’s Premier League opener in August. It was the same problem that forced the 32-year-old to be substituted during the Champions League final win against Inter Milan last June. 

Desperately seeking Kevin

Without De Bruyne — he missed 27 games across competitions — City looked beatable. The depth and quality of the squad ensured there were no major alarms, but it was clear that the reigning champion needed him back as the season entered its most hectic, decisive phase.

And it took De Bruyne less than five minutes to prove his value and the truth in Klopp’s words — five months after having surgery, he came off the bench to score the equaliser and set up an injury-time winner at Newcastle. 

With City trailing 2-1 and Pep Guardiola’s team struggling to find the bit of quality needed to break down the host’s defence, De Bruyne turned the game around with two perfect touches of his right foot. A pinpoint side-footed finish just inside the near post was the first. A supremely weighted ball, lifted into the box for substitute Oscar Bobb to score his first Premier League goal, was the second. It seemed as if he had never been away.

“I missed this,” De Bruyne said. “I think it was more willpower than anything else. It was crazy.” That display of game-changing genius at St. James’ Park came in the second week of January. More recently, making a second straight start after the long injury layoff on Monday, De Bruyne was threatening against a well-drilled Brentford side that had taken the lead. Phil Foden cornered the limelight for his hat-trick in the 3-1 victory, but De Bruyne was City’s agent of chaos.

It was his dangerous cross that Ethan Pinnock headed straight into the path of Foden for the equaliser. An inch-precise delivery then picked out Foden’s head for the second goal, illustrating the Belgian’s impact. As Guardiola said, “When Kevin has the ball and we have runners, Kevin is unique in the world. He is a really important player for us, not only in the past but in the present.”

While there continue to be questions about the legitimacy of City’s success — the club’s spending since Sheikh Mansour’s takeover in 2008 has repeatedly come under scrutiny, with the club facing 115 Premier League charges for alleged breaches of financial regulations — there is no denying De Bruyne’s unique gifts as a footballer.

Point of difference

Even in an expensively assembled squad — City has some of the world’s most intelligent, versatile, technically gifted players — De Bruyne offers an undeniable point of difference.

My precious! Pep Guardiola often speaks about the difference between players who ‘help you play better’ and those ‘who win games’. ‘Kevin helps to win games,’ the City manager said of the midfielder he prizes very highly. | Photo credit: Getty Images

Guardiola has often spoken about the difference between players who “help you play better” and those “who win games”. The first category of players is central to establishing control whereas the second puts opposition teams away. “Kevin helps to win games and there are few [like him] in the world,” said Guardiola. “We can play good football-wise but Kevin, [Erling] Haaland, Phil [Foden], Julian [Alvarez] — these guys win games.”

De Bruyne’s ability to create situations that lead to goals is one of his super powers. According to football statistics site, he is in the top 1% of midfielders in terms of shot creating actions, expected assists and assists, over the last year.

“I think there’s only certain players, the likes of Messi and Ronaldo, that you can say are in the same bracket as Kevin,” said City defender Kyle Walker. “When he came on against Newcastle, you could feel that push, you could feel that energy and that excitement. He gives you a lift. Kevin is at his best when he’s on the ball playing passes that you don’t think are even visible to play.”

Pictures in his head: De Bruyne sees passes most others don’t. So it’s no surprise that he is one of the Premier League’s leading assist-providers. | Photo credit: Getty Images

Pictures in his head: De Bruyne sees passes most others don’t. So it’s no surprise that he is one of the Premier League’s leading assist-providers. | Photo credit: Getty Images

It’s this vision — as well as the technical ability to hit a variety of perfectly weighted passes — that has helped De Bruyne become one of the Premier League’s leading providers of assists. In his first start this season after the injury, against Burnley, De Bruyne’s sublime disguised free-kick pass to Julian Alvarez brought up his 104th assist in the competition’s history. It moved him into outright third place in the Premier League’s all-time assists charts.

What’s more, De Bruyne’s 105 assists (he added another against Brentford) have come in just 246 games, a better rate than the man he passed (Wayne Rooney, 103 in 491) as well as those above him: Ryan Giggs (162 in 632) and Cesc Fabregas (111 in 350).

De Bruyne’s running power and ball-striking are two of his other super powers — these translate directly into advancing the ball and putting it in the back of the net. As per, he features in the top 3% of midfielders for progressive carries and the top 1% for non-penalty goals. At his best, De Bruyne is an unstoppable source of goals. It’s no surprise that he has featured in five triumphant Premier League campaigns as well as City’s maiden Champions League victory.

Protect the king

Goalkeeper Ederson described De Bruyne as the team’s “king”. “It’s just like chess — you have to protect the king! Now we have our ‘king’ back,” said Ederson. “He’s a player that our team missed a lot because he has such ability — he finds passes that very few players can find, he gets assists, scores goals, plays good football, he keeps the ball, so I’m very happy that he’s back and that he has returned to his high level.”

De Bruyne used the injury-enforced layoff to refresh himself mentally and allow the body to repair the wear and tear. “It’s not like I needed a break but I took it, to turn a disadvantage into an advantage,” he said. “When I reflect on my career, playing the last 10 years non-stop with a short break, maybe it was good for me to reset a little bit in a way and take care of myself when it is not really possible during the year. I hoped I could work hard and come back in a good way.”

With De Bruyne back, City has moved to second place, above Arsenal on goal difference, and two points behind leader Liverpool with a game in hand. “We are where we need to be,” said De Bruyne. Maybe “the whole country” isn’t shaking but those certainly are words that will cause City’s title rivals several sleepless nights.

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