4th October 2017. By Ryan Baldi.
It was a strike worthy of winning any game, but Kevin De Bruyne’s left-footed rocket from 20 yards was made all the sweeter by the fact that it secured three points for his Manchester City side away to Chelsea, in one of the 2017/18 season’s early meetings of title contenders.
It was a tight encounter, as the champions attempted to adjust to life without star striker Álvaro Morata, who’d been forced off the field with a hamstring injury after 35 minutes. City, without their own top marksmen in the form of Sergio Agüero, absent due to a rib injury sustained in a recent car accident, rubber-stamped their title-favourites status by claiming the spoils at Stamford Bridge.
Viewed in isolation, De Bruyne’s stunning winner was a goal of the highest quality; breaking forward, the Belgian playmaker exhibited flawless technique in finishing powerfully with his weaker foot. But given the context of the opponent and where the 26-year-old now finds himself in his career, it took on extra significance.
Not that he needed it, but the goal offered affirmation to De Bruyne. The Ghent-born midfielder had signed for Chelsea as a 20-year-old in January 2012, joining the Blues at the end of the 2012/13 season in a £7 million deal after impressing with Gent in the Champions League. Regarded as one of the brightest prospects among Belgium’s “Golden Generation”, the youngster was tipped for a bright future at Stamford Bridge, but he found first-team opportunities hard to come by.
“To come to a team like Chelsea is a dream,” he said upon signing for the Premier League side, “but now I have to work hard to achieve the level that’s necessary.” Deemed to be lacking the requisite senior experience, he was loaned out to Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga in August 2012, before even making his competitive Chelsea bow.
An impressive campaign with the German club, which yielded 10 goals and nine assists in 33 league outings, should have been the springboard to brighter prospects with is parent club, but upon returning to West London, De Bruyne came under the rule of José Mourinho, who had returned to the Chelsea dugout after being sacked by Real Madrid.
Notorious, rightly or wrongly, for being mistrustful of young players, De Bruyne’s task of cracking the Blues’ first team got a whole lot more difficult with Mourinho in charge, and he was sold to Wolfsburg in January 2014, with just three Premier League appearances to show for his 18 months as Chelsea player.
Since returning to the Premier League with City, who paid a club-record £55 million to sign him from Wolfsburg, where he’d become one of the most sought after players in Europe thanks to his consistently dynamic and creative form in Germany, De Bruyne has shown that Chelsea were wrong to so hastily cast him aside.
Now, in the early part of his third season at the Etihad, the debate is no longer over whether De Bruyne can cut it in England’s top flight, but rather whether there is a better player within the division than the brilliant Belgian.
Working with Pep Guardiola has taken his game to another level, too. The Catalan tactician took charge of the Citizens last summer and quickly set about reinventing De Bruyne. The former Gent man had previously been viewed as being at his most effective either out wide or as a No.10. But the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach decided to deploy his prized asset as a No.8, deeper in midfield in a 4-3-3 formation.
The feeling among most observers was that playing De Bruyne and David Silva either side of a defensive midfielder in the central trio would mean City would be too lightweight, and would get overrun in a key area of the field.
But Guardiola has always placed more emphasis on his charges’ technical attributes rather than their physical ones, breaking the boundaries of what was previously believed to be attainable dominance with diminutive pass masters Andrés Iniesta and Xavi at the Camp Nou, and insisting that his Bayern side be built around 5ft 7ins Thiago Alcântara.
Moving De Bruyne into a deeper, more central role has allowed the 26-year-old to exert a greater influence on his team’s play, involving him in the creative process sooner and allowing him the freedom to push on into the more advanced zones he is associated with more effectively, benefitting from a greater vantage point in midfield.
The switch resulted in De Bruyne producing arguably the best form of his career to date last season, retuning a league-high 18 assists, as well as six goals, up from his return of directly contributing to 16 strikes in 2015/16.
His fine fettle has been sustained into the new campaign, too, scoring twice and assisting four times in nine all-competitions outings, as Man City lead the Premier League, one of only two remaining unbeaten sides and ahead of rivals Manchester United on goal difference.
Following his performance and spectacular goal against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, there was no one more effusive in their praise of the 51-cap Belgian international than his manager.
“Kevin made [the winner] once again,” Guardiola said in his post-match press conference. “Once again he showed us how good he is, that guy, and he won the game. That’s why we are so happy.
“He can do absolutely everything. With the ball, he’s a guy taking different positions, assist short and long. After, without the ball he’s the most humble, the most shy guy who says: ‘if I have to run 100 kilometres for the team, I will do that.’
“It’s not easy to find that with this kind of talent. That’s why it’s a big compliment. He’s one of our captains. I think he made a step forward and people feel comfortable having him on the pitch.”
If the midfielder continues to do “absolutely everything” at his current level, City will be a shoo-in for major honours come the end of the season. Guardiola’s side are dispelling their doubters, just as De Bruyne has done since returning to the Premier League.