With help from the international coaches who named Kevin De Bruyne as the world’s best player, Adam Bate looks at why the midfielder is so important for his side, changing the dynamic of the Manchester City team – and of the Premier League title race.
Image: Kevin De Bruyne is back for Manchester City and that changes the Premier League title race in a big way
Manchester City are odds-on to retain their Premier League title despite being five points behind leaders Liverpool. Injury to Mohamed Salah coupled with the spectacular return of Kevin De Bruyne has swung the race back in their favour.
It is an illustration of the importance of the individual. In this era of systems and of super coaches, a time when Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have been able to sustain success even as the personnel has changed, special talents can still make the difference.
Guardiola’s style of play provides the platform on the pitch. It is the reason why we can all be sure that Manchester City will be towards the top of the table. But the difference between disappointment and glory could come down to one swipe of De Bruyne’s boot.
Highlights from the Premier League as Newcastle took on Manchester City
The celebrated City coach knows this as well as anyone. He talks of how Erling Haaland and De Bruyne do not help his team to play well but they do help his team to win. He has also said the midfielder cannot solve the team’s problems – but he sure can mask them.
That was evident at Newcastle. City were superb for periods but they still needed help when one goal down with 25 minutes to play. De Bruyne scored the equalising goal following a solo run and his sublime assist for Oscar Bobb settled the result in stoppage time.
It was a reminder of his technical excellence and the imagination that illuminates his passing but it was also about his personality. De Bruyne has the ability to be decisive but he is also demonstrative enough to want to be. He has the appetite required to seize a game.
He misplaced more passes during his brief cameo appearance than Phil Foden did across the entire match. In part, that was because he attempted nine crosses, four more than any other player did in the whole game. He took risks with the ball and he had his reward.
There are many ways to illustrate just how rare this quality is but try this one. Since making his City debut in 2015, De Bruyne has played 192 through-balls in the Premier League. The only other active player in three figures during that time is Christian Eriksen with 101.
De Bruyne has surrendered possession of the football on 4,422 occasions in Premier League competition during that period but it is all worth it because of what he creates when attempting the ambitious. He tries the passes few can see and fewer can execute.
Guardiola has sought to add that unpredictability to his team’s play in other ways, introducing the dribbling skills of Jeremy Doku as well as bringing in more drive from midfield. The bustling Julian Alvarez is a busy presence, although a little less precise.
But De Bruyne restores balance. The onus is on him again now.
Watch the best of Kevin De Bruyne’s 100+ Premier League assists The English coaches who voted for Kevin De Bruyne in the FIFA Best awards…
Gary White, head coach of Chinese Taipei:
“Kevin De Bruyne has everything that you are looking for in the modern footballer,” White tells Sky Sports. “For me, he is easily the most enjoyable player in the world to watch at the moment. I think he is very underrated, to be honest, as you can see by the votes.
“He is as close to a football genius as you can get. I am always excited to watch him play. He is like a silent assassin. His vision is just world class. The range of pass, the ability to pick a pass, the detail, the weight, the feel. The way it sits up for players in their path.
“He disguises his passes so well. Everything he does is very thoughtful. It is elite. You saw against Newcastle what a team is like with and without him. When he comes on, he has an impact. You can see Manchester City are not the same team without De Bruyne.
“It is like taking Andres Iniesta and Xavi out of the great Barcelona team. Lionel Messi would not be the player he is without those players. You look at how De Bruyne partners with Erling Haaland and how many goals are put on a plate for him and others in the team.
“He is a joy to watch. He is a player my son looks up to. He is the best.”
Stephen Constantine, head coach of Pakistan:
“He is one of those players who you would call a luxury player – but he works his ass off,” Constantine tells Sky Sports.
“He is always chasing back. You never see Lionel Messi do that unless the guy is within two feet of him. I like his work ethic. He is a player who, if he did not work, people would not say anything because he is so good in everything else he does. But he does that as well.
“That makes him, for me, the complete player with and without the ball.
“Some can see the pass and hit it five times out of 10 and when it works it looks brilliant. But he hits it eight or nine times out of 10.
“For me, all-round, he is the best player in the world.
“That is why I voted for him.”
It is no surprise that Jack Grealish has suffered in his absence or that Rodri appeared to up his levels once De Bruyne arrived on the pitch at St James’ Park. That clever pass in between the defensive lines to find the substitute earned Rodri an assist for his efforts.
Against Arsenal earlier this season, when City were unusually passive, content with a modicum of control, the balance was not quite right. Up against organised opposition, circulating the ball in the hope that the opening would surely come just did not work.
Image: Kevin De Bruyne loses possession more regularly than any Manchester City player
Image: Kevin De Bruyne creates a chance more regularly than any of his Man City team-mates
Grealish’s ability to retain possession makes more sense when the ball will eventually work its way back towards the playmaker supreme. Put simply, it is more efficient to wait for De Bruyne to try something than allow a lesser player to risk giving the ball away.
The statistics since the start of last season show that De Bruyne loses possession of the ball more regularly than any other Manchester City player. They also show that De Bruyne creates an opportunity for his team more regularly than any of his team-mates.
He is perhaps the best player in the world’s best team and he changes the dynamic. It has already won three points at Newcastle. Expect more to come. His long absence opened the door for City’s rivals. The return of Kevin De Bruyne now threatens to close it.