Kevin De Bruyne: Belgium’s Killer Pass Specialist
Over the last two decades, we have been able to witness the magic of various playmakers who have thrilled fans all over the world with what we often refer to as “killer passes,” or defence-splitting passes or line-breaking passes that produce goal-scoring opportunities for their attackers. They can also be regarded as the final pass before the goal or the final pass before a shot is taken. Several of these ‘killer pass’ specialists of the past two decades are: Juan Carlos Valerón, Juan Eomán Riquelme, Zinedine Zidane, Guti, Rui Costa, Mesut Özil, Kaká and Dennis Bergkamp.
Today, perhaps no player is capable of threading the needle and delivering an inch-perfect through ball like Kevin De Bruyne, with the exception of Lionel Messi. The Belgian is a two-time winner of the English Premier League Playmaker of the Season award since its inception in the 2017/2018 season, where he finished with 16 assists in a season that would see Manchester City become the first Premier League team to reach the 100-point tally.
Following an injury-plagued 2018/19, De Bruyne grabbed his second Playmaker award in 2019/20 when he picked up 20 assists, tying Thierry Henry’s record for most assists in a Premier League season. The next two seasons would see him pick up 12 and 8 assists, respectively, as City reclaimed their domestic crown from Liverpool and picked up two consecutive league titles under Pep Guardiola.
He is on course to win his third Playmaker award this season as he leads the way with 9 assists, three more than second-placed Bukayo Saka. In stark contrast to his attacking partners Romelu Lukaku or Eden Hazard, De Bruyne enters the 2022 FIFA World Cup in red-hot form and will be looking to engineer another deep tournament run in Qatar.
Belgium’s golden generation has seen them defy the odds and stake their claim as one of the top sides in football, with Les Diables Rouges achieving their best-ever finish in 2018 where they topped their group of England, Tunisia and Panama and defeated Japan and Brazil before losing to France and beating England in the third-place match. However, they have been unable to achieve any silverware thus far — since winning the Gold medal in football in the 1920 Summer Olympics, Belgium have reached just one major final, where they would lose 2-1 to West Germany in the 1980 Euros Final.
From Belgium’s 26-man World Cup squad, half of the players are 29 or older. This includes defensive stalwarts Jan Vertonghen (35) and Toby Alderweireld (33), starting right wing-back Thomas Meunier (31), attackers Dries Mertens (35), Eden Hazard (31), Thorgan Hazard (29) and Yannick Carrasco (29) as well as center forwards Romelu Lukaku (29) and Michy Batshuayi (29), goalkeepers Thibaut Courtois (30), Simon Mignolet (34), and Koen Casteels (30), and midfielders Axel Witsel (33) and Hans Vanaken (30).
Roberto Martínez has included his fair share of youngsters in his squad such as center backs Wout Faes (24), Zeno Debast (19), Arthur Theate (22), right back Timothy Castagne (26), midfielders Youri Tielemans (25), Amadou Onana (21) and Leander Dendoncker (27) as well as attackers Charles De Ketelaere (21), Loïs Openda (22), Jérémy Doku (20), and Leandro Trossard (27).
It is a star-studded group of veterans like Alderweireld and Witsel who are gunning for one last hurrah and youngsters like Doku and Onana who will be looking to make a name for themselves in their first major tournament. At 31, De Bruyne is at the peak of his powers, and whilst there’s no guarantee that he will it to a fourth World Cup in 2026, there can be little doubt that he is firmly amongst the game’s best players, having finished behind Karim Benzema and Sadio Mané in the 2022 Ballon d’Or rankings.
De Bruyne plays best as either a Number 10, behind the striker role or as the right-sided #8 in a 4-3-3 where he can pick the ball up during attacking transitions and counter-attacking situations, drive towards the opposition goal and place an inch-perfect through ball or a cross to the forwards. The weight of De Bruyne’s pass is the real beauty as he knows how to just place the perfect force on the ball depending on the distance.
In addition to the quality of his passes, his inch-perfect crosses hark similarities to David Beckham in his pomp. The Belgian’s crosses from the right side boast a deceptive direction as it usually goes towards the goalkeeper’s direction, in behind the defenders before curving backwards towards the strikers.
De Bruyne finds Erling Haaland with an inch-perfect cross to open the scoring in the 20th minute, with City proceeding to win 4-0 at Sevilla.
De Bruyne finds Julián Álvarez for the go-ahead goal against Sevilla in the 73rd minute, with Riyad Mahrez adding another to secure a come-from-behind 3-1 win.
After opening the scoring from the penalty spot, Haaland latches onto a through ball from De Bruyne to double his account in a 2-0 win against West Ham on opening day.
Three minutes after pulling one back via Haaland, City equalize as De Bruyne finds Bernardo Silva for the third goal to secure a 3-3 draw at Newcastle.
Kevin De Bruyne has solidified his status as one of Europe’s finest players since making the move from Wolfsburg to Manchester City in 2015. He has emerged as the chief orchestrator behind City’s Premier League-winning dynasty under Pep Guardiola, and today, he has the chance to write himself into the history books by leading Belgium to their first-ever major title.
By: Kayode Dave Ogunbameru / @daveogunbameru
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Getty Images