Kevin De Bruyne remains a perennial contender for the Playmaker Award as long as he graces the Premier League. However, a four-month hiatus may impede his quest for a fourth consecutive Premier League title. Despite the setback, injuries haven’t hindered his immediate impact, marked by a game-changing cameo on his return, propelling Manchester City to a 3-2 triumph over Newcastle before proving instrumental in their win against Burnley.
Both Pep Guardiola and City supporters can attest to the severity De Bruyne’s absence has caused. During his absence, City suffered setbacks against Wolves, Palace, Spurs, and Chelsea, pushing them down to fourth place and complicating their pursuit of a historic fourth consecutive title. Recently, the defending champions seemed like a mere shadow of themselves, but with four consecutive wins, they have now closed the gap to just five points behind Liverpool, with a game in hand on the Reds. The return of De Bruyne undoubtedly serves as a warning to the rest of the league.
Last season, Pep Guardiola’s side managed to wrestle the Premier League title away from Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal side, who led the league for 248 days – the longest for a team to lead the Premier League without going on to win it. As expected, Kevin De Bruyne played the leading creative role in the City team. During this campaign, the Belgian was averaging the highest number of progressive passes (9.16) and shot-creating actions (6.55) per 90 among Premier League midfielders.
This represented broader trends in the league too. In 2022/23, Manchester City amassed more progressive passes (54.6) and shot creating actions (28.92) per 90 than any other side. Brighton and Arsenal were close to City in these areas but like the previous few seasons, Guardiola’s side were creating at the highest volume.
Intriguingly, this season has seen Brighton, Arsenal, Liverpool and Spurs all top City in progressive passing. A criticism that has been levelled at City early in the season was there slow and almost meandering approach to build-up in the opposition’s half. Moreover, Jurgen Klopp’s ‘Liverpool 2.0’ now lead the league for shot-creating actions per 90 (32.70).
This does paint a picture of a more risk-averse and blunted version of Manchester City and it is worsened by the fact that other sides around them are sharpening their creative output. Nevertheless, Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden and Julian Alvarez are most certainly holding their own with their performances this season. They have 32 goals and assists between them this season and they’ve been critical to City’s recent run of form.
How Does De Bruyne Change This Team?
Although De Bruyne has failed to complete 90 minutes for his side this season, he has demonstrated his creative superiority in his very limited playing time. Per 90, De Bruyne has the most key passes and passes into the penalty area among the City team. Additionally, his cameo against Newcastle in City’s recent Premier League outing showcased his game-changing qualities.
De Bruyne entered the field, replacing Bernardo Silva with 21 minutes remaining, at a point when City trailed 2-1. Making an immediate impact, he seamlessly dropped into the half-space, receiving the ball on the turn and elegantly drove the ball into the corner past Martin Dubravka to equalise. Adding to his masterful performance, De Bruyne delivered an inch-perfect cross for the Norwegian youngster, Oscar Bobb, who scored his first Premier League goal with an exquisite first touch, securing a priceless three points for City.
The game also exhibited what City have struggled with at times this season; finding gaps to create in a congested midfield. Newcastle set up effectively to block out gaps for Foden and Alvarez to receive the ball in the middle of the pitch, which curbed City’s ability to progress through the middle, forcing them out wide.
When De Bruyne was introduced his intelligent movement out of possession was crucial. It gave City more control through the middle because Rodri was able to step up with the ball and bait Newcastle into engaging a press while De Bruyne looked for gaps to receive the ball in the spaces vacated by Newcastle midfielders.
He came off the bench within 65 minutes in their following match, with Nathan Ake scoring on the cusp of extra time to secure a 1-0 win at Tottenham in the FA Cup, before starting against Burnley and setting up Julian Alvarez’s second goal right before the interval, as Rodri added another goal after halftime to secure a 3-1 victory against the Clarets.
The game against Newcastle encapsulated the problems City have faced this season and potentially unveiled the answers to solving them. De Bruyne is not only City’s most experienced midfielder but he is also the best equipped to perform the functions that Guardiola needs.
With eight consecutive wins in all competitions, City are growing in confidence. The return of the indispensable Belgian will mean the addition of one of the finest playmakers in world football. While his hamstring issues have sidelined him since August, City’s title bid now looks as strong as it has all season. And if they go on to win the title, De Bruyne will undoubtedly play a leading role.
By: Viktor Akinola / @Only1Victor10 / Only1victor10@gmail.com
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