Given how relentless and complex the coverage of soccer has become, sometimes a player can stand out by carrying out basic duties with unbending conviction.
Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne, the shining star of the Premier League season so far, is a footballer who does the simple things supremely.
With the Pep Guardiola era in full swing at the Etihad Stadium, plenty has been made of the coach’s mantras and the seeming ease with which they’ve become entrenched into the psyche of the City squad. The speed of decision-making, sharpness of passing and cohesion in pressing have been joyous to consume in the nascent stage of the campaign.
These traits are not revolutionary, by any means; they’re attributes all managers should demand from their players at any level. But under Guardiola, City have been executing them better than anyone else.
In terms of individual execution, De Bruyne has surpassed the rest. Since he departed Chelsea in search of regular first-team football, the midfielder has found a tremendous consistency; it’s a standard, a high one, from which he is now blossoming.
It’s no surprise, because the finest facets of De Bruyne’s game are repeatable, for a player as talented as him at least. To impact a match he doesn’t have to jink past three opponents, throw in a couple of stepovers and fizz a long range strike into the top corner. His main strength is his clarity of thought and, subsequently, the speed in which he makes positive choices on the ball.
Of course, the Belgium international is a magnificent technician, a fine athlete—probably the most deceptively speedy footballer in the division—and a player capable of genius. Yet his finest moments of the campaign have come courtesy of him catching opponents on their heels.
His free-kick against Bournemouth, slotting a strike under a jumping wall, epitomized his clear thinking perfectly. “That wall is going to jump, I suppose,” you can imagine his inner monologue delineated. “I’ll just stick this one underneath.”
The Manchester derby was rife with similar instances. De Bruyne’s first goal, when he reacts quickly to leave Daley Blind toiling and then shoots early to kid David De Gea, made United look ponderous by comparison. The Belgium was key in the second too, with his snapshot leaving the Red Devils static, clattering off the post and perfectly into the feet of Kelechi Iheanacho.
During that contest there were moments, perhaps not the kind you’ll find on highlight shows, that summed up why De Bruyne will be such a success story for Guardiola. The speed and authority with which the former Wolfsburg man receives the ball, turns and moves it forward is striking. It’s a regular action in his position, although it’s done with such assurance.
De Bruyne has total mastery of the fundamentals of being an attacking midfielder. His weight of pass can be so delicate, while he’s just as adept thrusting the ball out of his feet and whipping devilish balls into the penalty area.
“He always seems to have time, he always seems to play the right pass,” said Gary Neville of the player on commentary during the Manchester derby. “He reminds me a little bit of David Beckham in the sense that when he gets into the last third he almost sets himself, and then a cross is almost like a pass.”
For Guardiola, he’s a dream squad member. De Bruyne’s ability to do so many things on a field with such class makes him so adaptable, allowing the manager flexibility in where he deploys him in the formation; he even led the line at times at Old Trafford.
Regardless of his role, De Bruyne remains a vivid influence on football matches. He’s arguably at his most effective when given license to roam from a central berth, although his speed and accuracy of delivery make him a big threat on the flank too.
At the fulcrum of this City setup under a manager like Guardiola, De Bruyne is a footballer that looks primed to join a select few players at the very summit of the game. “When we talk about [Lionel] Messi, maybe he can sit alone in the table, with no-one else allowed,” said the City boss of his star. “But the table beside, Kevin can sit there”
To remain there it’s imperative De Bruyne maintains these standards, although he’s well on his way to establishing himself as the Premier League’s standout player.
You sense there’s a stability underpinning the 25-year-old’s progress at last, having played for five clubs already in his career. City is set to be his long-term home and while Guardiola’s past suggests he may only be in town for three seasons, there’s an instant chemistry between the pair that’s poised to yield spectacular results.
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