Today, Kevin De Bruyne celebrates his 26th Birthday, surpassing a milestone that often divides how we view footballers.
Those aged 25 or younger are largely judged on the heights we believe their abilities can reach at some point in their careers; thereafter, it becomes a question of what they’re actually producing, how consistently and how influential they are as a consequence.
Of course, the Manchester City midfielder isn’t your average footballer in that sense – he’s already producing to a high degree, not least including the second-most assists of any player involved in Europe’s five leading top flights last season. Nonetheless, his 26th Birthday feels like an important occasion, one that ushers in the cliched question of whether he qualifies as world-class.
That term means may different things to many different people. If it’s taken as a footballer who would get into any team in the world, De Bruyne may not necessarily count. Real Madrid would argue their central midfield options are superior, whereas plenty are ahead of the Belgium international in the world-class queue if he’s being judged as a wide-man. But in many senses, that sums up why De Bruyne slips under the radar somewhat; he’s an offensive-minded but largely all-round midfielder, who can be utilised in a variety of different roles.
Much of that stems from De Bruyne’s juxtaposing qualities; the absence of explosive physicality and seemingly limited stamina that leaves him red-faced after half an hour of bombing up and down, but simply sublime technique that renders him a lethal goal threat from long range, a sensational deliverer from wide positions, particularly set-pieces, and an aesthetic passer of the ball. No doubt, there’s an excellent footballing brain in there as well, one with a fine eye for goal and fantastic creative vision.
Consequently, much of De Bruyne’s Premier League career has seen him jostled between the flanks, where his prolific crossing is maximised, No.10, which implores his shooting from long-range and deeper midfield, where his passing quality becomes most evident.
During his three league outings under Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, De Bruyne featured exclusively as a winger, whilst his utilisation under Manuel Pellegrini encompassed the right wing, central midfield and No.10. Pep Guardiola, meanwhile, fielded him in eight different slots last term, including as a false No.9.
That’s perhaps why it’s so difficult to put De Bruyne in any particular spot in a hypothetical ‘world XI’, but that nonetheless certainly didn’t diminish the City star’s influence offensively last season. Indeed, in addition to his staggering haul of assists, only eight forwards and midfielders across Europe’s five leading top flights scored more goals from outside the box last term, despite him producing only the 68th most efforts at goal, whilst he ranked third for accurate crosses per match and seventh for key passes per match. That’s some going, especially from a 519-man sample including the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Furthermore, De Bruyne’s best role remaining somewhat inconclusive won’t deter Pep Guardiola – in fact, quite the opposite. City used eight different formations in the Premier League last season and it will be a similar case in 2017/18 as well. The fact De Bruyne can play in a variety of different positions but still affect the game – perhaps excepting the largely unsuccessful false 9 experiment – will only please the Etihad Stadium’s tactical tinkerer as he looks to out-think the rest of the Premier League. It also makes a pretty strong case for De Bruyne being world-class – that versatility should be seen more as a strength than a weakness.
Yet, if there’s one criticism of De Bruyne at the age of 26, it’s the feeling that a player of his quality still has a little more to give, another level he can reach. Although his assists return was nothing short of phenomenal last season, six goals is a little underwhelming considering City scored the third-most of any Premier League side, 80, not least because De Bruyne has shown how deadly he can be from outside the box. Compare that to Yaya Toure, for example, a player of similar technical quality who scored 30 times over two seasons for City at his peak. In fairness, however, only Manchester United’s Paul Pogba hit the woodwork more times than the Belgium international last season.
Likewise, there were times last season when De Bruyne bordered upon anonymous, fading in and out of games. In fact, he didn’t score a single goal in the last half hour of any game last season, whilst all but two of his goals and two of his assists came before the end of November or after late March. The gap in between was one of diluted form, underwhelming output and a struggle to truly impose himself on games in the way you’d expect of a player with such high status at the Etihad Stadium.
However, it’s hard to be uber-critical of De Bruyne, simply because 2014/15 was his first real full campaign in the Premier League and last season saw him work under Guardiola, one of the most particular and demanding managers in the business, for the first time. In spite of this, last season was still the closest we’ve seen to the 49-cap international’s irresistible form for Wolfsburg in 2013/14, producing a goal or assist every 101.6 minutes, which earned him a big-money move to the Etihad Stadium in the subsequent summer.
If the debate over whether De Bruyne counts as world-class is currently unsettled, there’s a feeling the answer will be far more conclusive in a year’s time. City will almost certainly make a more convincing bid for the Premier League title next season and regardless of where he’s fielded, the midfielder will be expected to be one of the deciding factors in all 38 games – whether that’s threading through to the front-line from deep midfield, whipping in crosses from the right or providing an extra goal threat playing just behind the striker.
Should De Bruyne prove up to the challenge to a higher and more consistent degree than last season, few would be able to begrudge him a place in the ‘world XI’.