Unhelpfully for Pep Guardiola, Manchester City’s most accomplished outfield players are roughly split into two groups: Ageing and under-aged. In the first camp sit Vincent Kompany, Aleksandar Kolarov, Bacary Sagna, Gael Clichy, Pablo Zabaleta, David Silva, Yaya Toure and Fernandinho, 30-somethings who will probably need replacing either this summer or next. In the other, much smaller, group sit Raheem Sterling and Kelechi Iheanacho, bright young things aged 21 and under who will blossom given time and patience. Manchester City’s top five outfield appearance makers this season are aged 30, 30, 21, 32 and 30.
There are not many outliers. Fabian Delph is a back-up, Eliaquim Mangala still error-prone and Wilfried Bony emphatically not good enough. Sergio Aguero is one exception, the best striker in the world when fit and firing. Kevin de Bruyne is the other.
Even among these exceptions, De Bruyne is different. He is City’s only player who is entering his peak. With Aguero there are concerns that, turning 28 in June, his injuries may hamper his explosive pace. With De Bruyne, we’re on the verge of witnessing something very special indeed.
The evidence is clear: De Bruyne has played 36 games in an injury-affected season, yet has scored 15 goals and contributed 13 assists. Before Saturday, De Bruyne’s 1,643 league minutes accounted for a participation in 57% of Manchester City’s league season. He was still their joint-second highest goalscorer, their second-highest assist provider and their highest chance creator.
Most impressive of all was how De Bruyne had hit the ground running after injury. When he suffered knee ligament damage and a sprained ankle against Everton in the Capital One Cup in January, many expected his season to be over. Rather than protect his Euro 2016 hopes, De Bruyne recovered ahead of schedule. He’s sprinted back from a standing start.
Against Chelsea, De Bruyne was irresistible. John Obi Mikel barely featured in the same screen once City’s playmaker started running. In the absence of David Silva, De Bruyne took on a dual role of dribbling in wide areas and creating centrally. As the image (via Opta) shows, Manuel Pellegrini gave De Bruyne a free role to run where he pleased. It paid handsome dividends.
Like the finest attacking midfielders (including Eden Hazard last season), De Bruyne is at his best when in his own half. When he strays into attacking territory the opposition can put two players on him to cover the threat, but when picking the ball up deep and dribbling forward, he becomes almost impossible to stop. Twice Chelsea experienced that to their cost, De Bruyne starting both counter attacks from which Sergio Aguero scored his first two goals. If City keep both fit for long periods of next season, they will surely win the league.
It is easy to see why De Bruyne might have been motivated against Chelsea. “I don’t feel I have to prove anything to anyone because there’s nothing really to say,” the Belgian said before the game. “It’s not a case of I played a lot and played badly – I just didn’t play.” More fool Chelsea, whatever their reasons.
Yet Saturday’s performance was not a case of good player raising his game, just an excellent one playing to potential. Pep Guardiola will arrive in Manchester to find a squad littered with issues, not least the exhaustive list of City players aged between 22-26: Eliaquim Mangala, Fabian Delph, Kevin De Bruyne. In De Bruyne, he has one of the Premier League crown jewels. He is (by some way) City’s best signing since Aguero. Imagining both of them in tandem under their new manager is a tingling thought.
There are valid reasons for De Bruyne’s omission from the PFA’s nominations this week, but there was one obvious conclusion to take from Stamford Bridge on Saturday: We may just have been watching the Player of the Year for 2016/17.