Few eyebrows were raised when Chelsea cashed in, quite handsomely, on Kevin de Bruyne last January. The Belgian was a classic modern day graduate of Chelsea’s ‘trading arm’ side project, bought as a hot-prospect and then sold on for a steady return once he’d proven his potential.
De Bruyne fell victim to the Jose-Mourinho-Juan-Mata treatment; gifted a (very) temporary spell in the first team before eventually being shelved to the edge of the squad. Relations were a little ugly upon de Bruyne’s Wolfsburg departure, with a bitterness towards Mourinho’s handling of him apparent. That really isn’t something you hear of often with players that the Portuguese has worked with.
‘I didn’t leave Chelsea because I have to go to the World Cup but just because I lost my joy.” He explained. ‘It’s a pity he told a press conference that I wasn’t doing well on the training pitch,” he continued. ‘That’s not me. I’m always a player who gives the full 100 per cent in training. Those remarks created a wrong image.’
Seemingly, like Mata, De Bruyne’s playing style was not compatible with Mourinho’s more defensive-aligned principles. In turn, those principles relate strongly to having attacking midfielders with a tenacity and hunger to close and press opposition teams aggressively. Mata and De Bruyne, both technically talented ball players, were deemed too incomplete in a defensive sense to lay down a marker, and both subsequently became necessary for one purpose; to be sold on for a maximum fee.
It wasn’t entirely clear that Mourinho was going to adopt this unique style of play when he re-joined last year. True, his teams have always been defensively conscious, but this new found focus on hounding the opposition had never been as prominent at his previous clubs than it is now. With Eden Hazard, Oscar, Willian, Mata and Andre Schurrle all offering arguably a better attacking threat at the time than De Bruyne, it was entirely unsurprising to see Chelsea cash in on a player who had significantly less pedigree.
But there was undoubtedly a talented player waiting to be unleashed. During his loan spell at Werder Bremen prior to rejoining, De Bruyne scored 10 and assisted 11 in a 34 games. For a 20 year old, that was a very impressive return.
And now, by all accounts, De Bruyne has been Wolfsburg’s best player this season, with his new team enjoying a fantastic revival in both Europe and the Bundesliga. Wolfsburg sit second, nine points clear of third, looking comfortable to join Europe’s elite next year in the Champions League, while they lead Inter 3-1 in the Europa League after a De Bruyne brace.
There are some staggeringly encouraging things about what the Belgian is doing at the moment- not least being voted the best attacking midfielder in the Bundesliga two months ago (to put that in perspective, he beat off Mario Gotze and Thomas Muller to win it). Interestingly as well, he’s yet to have a bad season, with his stats improving year on year. That indicates that his impressive form is sustainable, that he’s a genuine contender to become a great player, not a pretender.
So should Jose be eating his words now that the Belgian is looking like the real deal?
No. Despite the accolades, the 30-yard screamers, and the glowing references that have raised him up as a potential world-beater, Mourinho probably still made the right decision to let him go. A contradictory assertion in light of his unquestionable ability, but think about it.
Chelsea have an obligation to meet their Financial Fair play targets, and Mourinho (allegedly) wants to actually stay at Stamford Bridge for sometime. With a pre-existing cohort of wonderfully talented attacking midfielders (Willian, Oscar, Hazard), and a very defined style of play to conform to, De Bruyne (at the time) didn’t stand much of a chance. And retrospect is a wonderful thing; did anyone really know that De Bruyne would be this good?
De Bruyne was a good player that Chelsea probably shouldn’t have let go, but ultimately Mourinho’s hardly missed him in the last year. Of course, if De Bruyne’s projected improvement maintains itself at this rate, then things may be different, but for the time being this was more a shrewd masterstroke for Wolfsburg, as opposed to a Mourinho-mistake.