Last season, we were robbed of the pleasure of watching Kevin De Bruyne run the show for Manchester City. And we barely realised it at the time.
You almost forgot the Belgian was sidelined for the Citizens, as they went on to lift the domestic treble, a first in England. And yet, when he suited up for the first Premier League game back in August, bossing the midfield for the reigning champions, it was like he had never been injured.
The 28-year-old has been nothing short of majestic this season, boasting the most assists in Europe, and has been only absent for seven games, showing he’s well and truly got past his various injury problems that frustrated him during the 2018/19 campaign.
And if there was one game this season which showed why he’s one of the best players in the world, it was the Champions League round of 16 clash at Real Madrid in February.
Having excelled as the right-sided central midfielder, it was a surprise when Guardiola selected his star Belgian in a false nine role, much higher than the midfield role we’ve grown accustomed to watching him in. How would he do against the centre-back pairing of Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane – one of the best pairings in the world?
Yes, the 28-year-old had played in that role a month earlier against rivals Manchester United, so it wasn’t a complete unknown for fans. But he himself admitted then that they hadn’t spend much time training and adapting to this unfamiliar system, so why would Pep try it out now at the Santiago Bernabéu now?
Well, it turns out that Pep is a tactical genius. And that De Bruyne can excel in any position for the Sky Blues.
From the very start of the game, he looked dangerous, picking up the ball in between Los Blancos’ midfield and defensive lines. It took only 20 minutes for him to thread a ball that sent Gabriel Jesus into a one-on-one chance with Thibaut Courtois, only for the keeper to parry the ball away. But it was certainly a warning sign for the Spanish side of what was to come.
No Real Madrid player could get near him. The mutual understanding between himself and Bernardo Silva in knowing how to drag the home side’s midfield trio out of position was superb, with Luka Modrić and Casemiro forced to cover so much distance just to keep up with the dynamic duo. As a result, the Belgian always looked a threat on the counter-attack, free from the shackles of any midfield marker tiring to keep up with him.
The hosts’ backline had no idea how to deal with him either. By dropping deep in the first half, they gave up far too much space for him to operate in. When Zinedine Zidane changed this after the break by pushing his defenders higher up to close him down, it left the Spanish side vulnerable to a simple ball over the top, or one of the 28-year-old’s trademark defence-splitting passes.
Yet for all the free space De Bruyne occupied, his assist for Jesus’ equaliser came in the tightest of spaces, surrounded by four opponents. Somehow, he managed to hook in a perfectly weighted cross met by the head of the Brazilian to make it 1-1.
And when substitute Raheem Sterling was fouled by Dani Carvajal, giving the Premier League club a penalty, there was only one man for the job. With the coolest head in the stadium, the Belgian swept the ball into Courtois‘ bottom-left corner to put his side in front, ensuring the victory for his team.
If anything, the 28-year-old’s performance was a reminder to the rest of Europe that he’s still the finest playmaking midfielder in the world. With many of the belief he should have won the PFA Player of the Year award two years ago, there’s no doubt that his name is back up there as a fitting winner for his terrific season.
With City set to lose David Silva in the summer, the former Blue will become even more important for Guardiola. With Phil Foden not trusted to play regularly yet, he should be City’s creator-in-chief for the next few seasons to come.
While this hasn’t been the season Citizens would have wanted, there’s no doubt that the return of De Bruyne has been universally welcomed given the creative quality he brings to their midfield.
As his match-winning performance against Los Blancos showed, the Belgian can pretty much thrive in any position Guardiola asks of him. Fingers crossed we don’t see him injured any time soon.