Kevin De Bruyne is a world class footballer. That’s a statement that a lot of people – mainly under 21s on Twitter – make about a lot of players (see Nacho Monreal, Dele Alli, Anthony Martial). Saying “Such and such is world class” on Twitter is the equivalent of saying “I love you” in real life. It’s a sentence thrown about after a couple of nice games/dates; romantics believe it should be reserved for the very best.
De Bruyne is arguably in the top five footballers in the world of his position, though. To not rank him alongside the likes of Özil, James Rodriguez, Di Maria and Iniesta is petulant, and like all players of a certain bracket, he brings his A game to the bright lights. £55m can often be wrong, but in the case of KdB, it certainly hasn’t been yet; the signs of how important the Belgian is to City were always there too. Though their Arsenal-esque midseason capitulation last term coincided nicely with the Guardiola announcement, it had just as much to do with De Bruyne’s injury; he is a talisman, there’s no doubt about it, and while Agüero and Kompany are the two lynchpins always mentioned in City’s spine – Yaya’s no longer spoken about as one of the vertebrae – the most expensive derby in footballing history only shone a light on why KdB is so pivotal to City, and their new Peppified style of play.
The luxury number 10 in football has seen a bit of a decline in recent years with playmakers often deployed deeper, further out wide or even as false nines, as the sport evolves into a higher octane, higher pressed game. Many have declared the 4-2-3-1 formation dead in this sense. As the late, great Johan Cruyff pointed out, to have a number 10 further forward is to have less players behind the ball when you’re out of possession; a 4-3-3 that doesn’t have the ball is structurally more prepared to win it. This is something that Arsenal, Real Madrid and Barcelona have all found out in recent years. If field an Özil or James, or just about any number 10 designed to pick locks in an opposition defence, you’re outnumbered when a counter attack washes back through your pivot in midfield. In other words, it’s hard to look good as a number 10 in modern football: most managers don’t protect their number 10s with a system that both moves the ball through midfield, and provides a number 10 with the defensive cushion behind, to dictate play from around the area freely.
Hazard seems to dictate wherever he plays, but De Bruyne doesn’t look nearly so influential on the wing; a case in point would have been Belgium at Euro 2016, but then again, Fellaini was being used as the number 10 in that team. In Guardiola’s setup City have a box-based target as a focal point, and in the midfield, they have strength in numbers with Fernandinho sitting deep, David Silva acting as a deep-lying playmaker and both full-backs tucking inside. This leaves De Bruyne not only with more cover behind him, but as proved against United, Iheanacho works as a strike partner up front to run beyond. It’s nothing like the hapless Belgian side that Marc Wilmots lumped together, it’s more like the French side that unearthed Antoine Griezmann as a national hero.
But while the way Pep sets up gives De Bruyne the freedom to express himself, it’s down to Kevin himself to actually do that. So many number 10s in the game are seen as the lightweight link in the team, threading balls through needles for strikers to latch onto, but De Bruyne is more dynamic than most. His movement is excellent, he drifts wide to link up with wingers and while he creates space for his striker, his striker creates space for him. He acts almost as a trequartista in his role, isn’t afraid to drop deep to help win possession, but crucially, his decision-making and finishing bristles with electric confidence. He’s sure of himself, strong on the ball and provides a seamless link between the midfield and attack, but doesn’t hold that CAM position long enough for you to catch him.
Players like that are rare: it’s no wonder Manuel Pellegrini barely hesistated before writing out a mammoth cheque for the former Wolfsburg man. Stopping Man City has long been a blackboard dedicated to marking Agüero though, and while multiple marquee names have moved to the Etihad in the past decade, it’s barely been considered that City might find a talisman as important as Sergio.
De Bruyne could well be that man. The derby demolishion demonstrated that despite a plethora of big names being absent, the Citizens could steamroller teams like Man United. Gündoğan, Sané, Kompany, Kolarov and Agüero himself all omitted from the starting line-up, Guardiola’s side still produced possibly the best first half of football since the club were bought by billionaires. De Bruyne was the catalyst. Agüero has been arguably the league’s best striker since Suarez headed to Barcelona, but he doesn’t determine the way the club play football.
Guardiola claimed early on arrival in Manchester that his latest side may be a little more direct than his previous clubs. An in-form Agüero will never not be needed by any club, but in De Bruyne, City have something altogether more exciting. They’re unpredictable in attack, and when the Guardiola machine clicks into gear, KdB is the one that brings the best out of those around him. He might not have been as hyped as other City players before the United game, but De Bruyne might just become the most important man at the club in the next couple of years.