Despite everyone who watches football knowing exactly how hard it is to play a 50-yard pass or kick the ball right into the top corner of the goal, we are hardwired to prefer those in whom we can see the cogs turning and the muscles straining.
There is nothing more alluring to fans than a player battling and achieving. In isolation, both leave us slightly unfulfilled. A hardworking player is more likely to be come a cult hero than a naturally brilliant one. We are gits for the ‘local boy worked hard and done good’ story.
It therefore follows that those who make the game look easy risk having their brilliance overrated. Their ease in displaying excellence makes them ethereal. Lung-bursting effort can be replicated, but we can never replicate that level of natural ability. It can be appreciated but can we have a true affinity with it?
There’s also a link to computer game culture here, I think, games played on sprint mode with every player at perfect health, outrageous skill only two or three button presses away. Are we guilty of overlooking just how hard it is to dribble past a professional player and play a pass while at sprinting speed with only half a second to look up and assess his options? I know I am.
These are the questions that surround Kevin de Bruyne, a player who is normalising brilliance on a weekly basis. The ability is so high that everything comes easy. The performance level is so high that our expectations rise with it. If De Bruyne then dips slightly, that level remains higher than almost any other player in the country and yet it is inevitably sold as comparative failure.
De Bruyne also suffers for his completeness. There is no standout physical attribute that sees him stand above the rest. Modern football players typically rely on either power, pace or both, and yet De Bruyne is a throwback. He depends on positional awareness, touch and vision. De Bruyne is king of the immeasurables, though those immeasurables do result in some pretty impressive statistics.
And yet, despite his sustained form, De Bruyne is still producing individual moments that astound us. His free-kick against Cardiff City confused six players in the wall, who all jumped as one. De Bruyne had the presence of mind to predict their behaviour, and the aptitude to pass the ball into the perfect place. The majestic looked so very simple again.
Watching the match, it had not occurred to me that De Bruyne might take this approach. The majority of us wondered whether he would go up and over the wall, opt for power to the goalkeeper’s side of the net or even play a clever pass to catch Cardiff out. Once again, De Bruyne was ahead of the curve.
Even in the heat of the moment, his game intelligence jumps out. At the end of the game, De Bruyne spoke eloquently in a second language about Manchester City’s tactical strategy for overcoming Cardiff, clearly delighted that it had worked perfectly. There was no hair out of place, no sweat pouring from forehead. De Bruyne’s cheeks were slightly reddened after playing 90 minutes in the cold, but this was a player clocking out nonchalantly on his way from the office.
These moments, the peaks above an already incredibly high average, are crucial. They reiterate De Bruyne’s brilliance and demand that we notice and appreciate it. This is the the highest-performing player for one of the highest-performing teams in the world. De Bruyne is Pep Guardiola’s perfect disciple, ruthlessly brilliant and brilliantly ruthless.