After his third incredible assist of the night, Kevin De Bruyne’s raw emotion spilled out in an outburst part-gladiatorial and part, well… odd.
“This is our house, our house! This is our house!” he exclaimed repeatedly, pointing at the Etihad Stadium turf after Sergio Aguero put Manchester City ahead on aggregate for the first time in a helter-skelter Champions League quarter-final.
Unfortunately for De Bruyne and City, Fernando Llorente snuck in through the back door before Aguero triggered the hyper-sensitive alarm that is VAR, meaning Raheem Sterling’s apparent last-gasp winner was ruled out.
The heartache continued in that weekend’s Premier League rematch as the Belgium midfielder hobbled out of a knife-edge 1-0 win – a result pivotal in them claiming back-to-back Premier League titles.
While De Bruyne performed “beyond the normal situations”, in the words of Pep Guardiola, during City’s dominant 2017-18 campaign, last term failed to get off the ground. He seemed to be at full flight during that undulating Tottenham clash, only for a fourth injury of the season to bring him back to earth.
— Kevin De Bruyne (@DeBruyneKev) August 9, 2019
The table beside Messi
Guardiola has never been short of warm words for the player he inherited as a record signing from Manuel Pellegrini in 2016.
His first season in Manchester was one of struggle, in terms of bringing a squad in need of an overhaul in certain positions up to speed with his demands. De Bruyne was never a concern.
“Messi is on a table on his own. No-one else is allowed. But the table beside, Kevin can sit there,” he said after watching his star turn open the scoring in a 4-0 win over Bournemouth in September 2016.
De Bruyne’s exploits over the next two years lived up to that lofty status until he was halted by medial knee ligament damage in August last year. A further knee setback before the turn of the year gave way to muscular problems during his subsequent returns.
Guardiola seems keen not to apply too much pressure upon what essentially amounts to the third act of his City career.
“I think Kevin has the same motivation as always. What happened last season, it does not mean it will happen this season,” he said before Tottenham’s latest visit to the Etihad Stadium on Saturday.
“Every midfield player has his own qualities. Of course, Kevin has special qualities that [other players] don’t have.”
50 – Kevin De Bruyne has now had a hand in 50 @premierleague goals (16 goals, 34 assists). He has done this in 76 PL apps, which is the quickest by any out-and-out midfielder in the history of the competition. Wizard. pic.twitter.com/hNNYZZTyR5
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) November 18, 2017
De Bruyne has rarely lacked confidence in those qualities, to the extent he was unfairly labelled as a troublemaker during formative years with Gent and Genk.
But the 28-year-old conceded his seemingly unshakable belief was tested by last season’s trails.
“After the Tottenham injury, mentally I was done,” he told BBC Sport. “Four injuries in a year is a lot.”
Those comments came after De Bruyne re-announced himself with a blistering cameo in the 6-0 FA Cup final demolition of Watford in May.
“I feel somewhat blessed to end the season in this way and show everyone that I am still the same and hopefully next season will be better,” he added, having scored City’s third at Wembley before cutting their beleaguered opponents to pieces.
Boring, boring City
There were complaints over the perceived sterility of City’s domination following the cup final, with a similar tone accompanying some reaction to a comparatively emphatic opening Premier League win at West Ham last weekend.
Such an analysis obviously gives little weight to the suffocating pressure of last season’s title race, where three clutch 1-0 wins in the final five games helped to get City over the line. It ignores the beguiling brilliance of the Silvas, Bernardo and David, Sterling’s blossoming into a world-class talent, Vincent Kompany’s piledriver and that Tottenham game.
However, look at the Gabriel Jesus goal disallowed for a marginal offside at London Stadium last time out and you will find the nub of frustration.
It featured slick, quick exchanges of passes, a burst towards the byline, a cutback and a tap-in. One of those City goals. A Guardiola goal. Wonderfully crafted but also somewhat formulaic.
Spurs at home. You ready?
— Manchester City (@ManCity) August 16, 2019
Expect to see plenty more of those, potentially this weekend if Mauricio Pochettino elects to expose Tottenham’s flanks with a midfield diamond. But De Bruyne is the man who brings something more urgent, more direct and more visceral to the most talent-stacked creative department in world football.
According to Opta numbers, De Bruyne averaged 5.8 long passes per 90 minutes in 2017-18, with the number climbing to 6.1 last season. All the other players frequently selected in Guardiola’s playmaking positions attempted fewer than three in each match of the 100-point campaign.
Bernardo Silva hit 3.6 in 2018-19, with Ilkay Gundogan’s return of 4.3 owing much to his deployment in the holding role when injuries hindered Fernandinho during the second half of the season.
De Bruyne’s successful long passes in each match (3.8 for 2017-18 preceding 4.2) are also the highest figures for every midfielder in the past two seasons.
Since August 2017, he and David Silva are level in creating 2.2 chances from open play per 90 minutes, although the Belgian’s 218 minutes per assist leave him out in front. His “big chances” created in each match reads 0.7, with the elder Silva next on 0.5.
Those numbers are illuminated by every scything, rapier throughball and each driving run with bad intentions.
Such special qualities will be Tottenham’s concern when De Bruyne returns to his house for the first time this season. It will be reasonable to ask, “are you not entertained?”.
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