The playmaker has become a leader on the field for club and country during his peak years, emerging as one of the best midfielders in the world
When Raheem Sterling was clumsily hacked down in the box by Dani Carvajal in Manchester City’s Champions League last-16 first-leg clash against Real Madrid, it was Kevin De Bruyne that took charge of the situation.
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City were suffering a confidence crisis from the penalty spot with Sterling, Gabriel Jesus, Ilkay Gundogan and Sergio Aguero all missing in their last four attempts. Wearing the captain’s armband, De Bruyne immediately pointed to himself, telling team-mates that he was going to take it. A couple of deep breaths later, he calmly sent Belgium team-mate Thibaut Courtois the wrong way with his first spot-kick in three-and-a-half years.
It was another signpost in the development of the midfielder from what people viewed as a talented but hot-headed prospect to a fully-rounded and inspirational leader.
De Bruyne was sometimes seen as emotional in years gone by but those close to the 28-year-old say he has developed a maturity on the pitch, helped by being settled in Manchester with his young and loving family.
As a youngster coming through at Genk, he earned a reputation for being difficult. It’s something he denies, insisting he was shy and introverted, but in no way a troublemaker. Certainly it didn’t impact his development on the pitch and, after a blistering breakthrough in the Jupiler League, he was quickly on his way to Chelsea.
However, at Stamford Bridge, former boss Jose Mourinho described him “as an upset kid”, who trained badly and wanted to leave because of a lack of first-team opportunities. De Bruyne holds no grudges against Chelsea or Mourinho. His departure on loan to Werder Bremen before a permanent move to Wolfsburg helped his career to blossom with the freedom to be adventurous.
Pressure on him to be the creative force only grew when he moved to the Etihad Stadium in August 2015, but he was an instant influence on Manuel Pellegrini’s ageing team as they reached the Champions League semi-final.
Now he has the experience and knowledge to be a key influencer in Pep Guardiola’s side with an ability to play in a number of roles. When he broke into Genk’s first team, his best position was as a wide midfielder or as an advanced number 10 where he could take risks without the danger of a loose pass being expensive.
For club and country, he is now often used as a number eight where his energy gives him the opportunity to make a difference all over the pitch, including scoring goals because of his perfect timing and finishing.
One coach who works closely with the player even rates him above playmakers such as Xavi and Andres Iniesta because he is so influential at speed, even accelerating attacks, while the brilliant Barcelona players often slowed down the play.
De Bruyne has even been trusted to play in a deep-lying number six role by both Guardiola and Belgium boss Roberto Martinez where he can affect matches with his passes and willingness to pick up the ball from the goalkeeper or centre-backs.
“A few years ago he couldn’t have played pivot, because he didn’t quite have the capacity to transmit orders to those around him,” Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta said in the book Pep’s City: The Making of a Superteam. “Now he can – he understands the pitch, his team, the demanding, associative football which links parts of the team with passes and movement.”
But it hasn’t impacted on his creative influence. Before the coronavirus pandemic shut down football, De Bruyne had 16 Premier League assists and needs just five more to break Thierry Henry’s record for a season.
Extra responsibility has seen him thrive, even if City’s campaign hasn’t gone as well as the previous two seasons. De Bruyne is a co-captain for his club and country and could potentially take the armband full-time when David Silva’s spell at the Premier League champions finally ends, with the midfielder taking tips from the experienced Spaniard and his predecessor Vincent Kompany.
“The main thing is that I’m helping the team, I’m helping these guys, leading them, especially the younger guys. I know I can make a difference to them,” he said earlier in the season. “I just push myself. There’s nobody who puts more pressure on me than myself. It’s not difficult for me to work hard and to push myself to the limit.
“Sometimes you have good games, some other times you don’t, but even when you play average or bad, you still have to do your job and help the team. I’m a midfielder, so I’m there to help the team the best I can and make the team play good together. That’s my main focus.”
While De Bruyne has grown into possibly the ultimate team player, he still possesses the ability to turn matches single-handedly. That 2-1 victory over Real in February, which may be considered City’s greatest ever performance in Europe, had De Bruyne’s fingerprints all over it. Irrespective of the calmly-taken penalty, dispatched when many nerves around him were frazzled, he set up the opener for Gabriel Jesus and dictated many of City’s best moments.
After the disappointment of the injury that disrupted much of the previous season, De Bruyne has improved his game again and would be some pundits’ shout for the Player of the Year, even with Liverpool’s ridiculous run of form factored in.
With the Ballon d’Or duopoly of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo surely having to end at some point, there is the potential for De Bruyne to claim the award one day, particularly if he could lead City to a first Champions League success.
“Probably not too far,” De Bruyne said when asked if he was close to winning the award. “But who am I to decide that? I just try to be the best I can be.
“I’ve been playing well over the last few years and even last season, I had a lot of injuries but the times that I was on the pitch, I was doing okay.
“Even in Germany, I had good years and I felt happy, but who decides that [the best footballers]? I don’t know, but I think I’m pretty close.”
It’s why City are lucky to have De Bruyne and why, with a Champions League expulsion looming over the club, they will consider a contract extension once the Covid-19 crisis has calmed down.
“I told my wife I’m going to play a little longer,” De Bruyne said in a Q&A on Instagram last Tuesday. “After this lockdown. I cannot stay at home, I told her I’m going to take two years more.”
There could be many more years to come from the brilliant De Bruyne at the Etihad yet.