If you’re a team with realistic title ambitions, sat on the top of the table with fifteen points from five matches, then suffer a 2-1 home defeat to West Ham United, it’d be understandable if finding post-match positives becomes a challenge. And while there should be some head scratching and concern at the Etihad, Manchester City was given one ray of light this weekend: Kevin De Bruyne.
Quite often in football, players are written off too early and never given the chance to settle. The only leeway afforded is overseas players are given time to adapt to the pace of the Premier League. Another curse is the exciting star with an unusual name that peaks too soon before becoming the hot potato in the transfer dealings of smaller clubs. What negates both of these conditions is when pure undiluted class reveals itself. Against the Hammers De Bruyne showed he is all about ability, not large transfer fees.
What prevents the compliments coming De Bruyne’s way being the ingredients for a flash-in-a-pan success is the undeniable talent he has already given glimpses of. There are times a football fan can step back and enjoy a player’s ability for what it is – a work of art.
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Stats often mean very little, and can be twisted to fit any argument, so his impressive numbers from last season were read while erring on the side of caution. Across the top five European leagues he was second in the most chances created table, with 112.
This was 11 more than Eden Hazard, but lagging way behind Dimitri Payet’s 135 for Marseille. The obvious disparity here is the standard of the leagues involved.
Even with his assist tally for Wolfsburg reading like one every other game, it wasn’t a certainty he’d be able to achieve those figures on his return to England.
There is no guarantee impressive stats like those will continue. He is now at a team of superstars and it’s probable he’ll squad rotate regardless of performance. On Saturday he was given a roaming role by Manuel Pellegrini behind an out-of-sorts Aguero. This allowed the Belgium international to dictate the play. Previous run-outs for the Citizens saw him take a wide berth and this restricted his freedom.
Unleashed, he showed that his eye for a pass is unmatched. It’s as if he watches the game from an aerial view. And when the pass is made they are dispatched with precise engineering. His time in the Bundesliga has taught him about German efficiency. He sees lines and paths of direction that even if the game was paused and analysed most of us wouldn’t see or believe could be viable. To De Bruyne it looks as simple as lacing up boots.
What also became obvious is that he needs to be given the central role behind the front line. The free-roaming midfielder is only effective if the rest of the team are on the same page. Suddenly there’s an irony that a team needs time to adapt rather than the new player. But for now he may as well be given the prime position.
The roaming role was ineffective because Sterling and Navas couldn’t alter their runs, or use openings made by De Bruyne’s movement, to City’s advantage. Throw into the mix the random Yaya Toure surges forward and suddenly you have an unbalanced looking midfield.
The problem with offering De Bruyne the central role on a fulltime basis is David Silva. That’s where the player nicknamed Merlin produces his best. It borders on sacrilege for City fans to level any criticism at Silva but it can’t be denied that one aspect of his game that has always been lacking is his goals tally. It’s for this reason he’s never mentioned in the ‘World Class Players’ argument. The West Ham game also gave a glimpse of De Bruyne’s firepower – he has some.
The Wizard can conjure up moments of magic, this has been shown time and time again. There have also been times when a floundering City performance has needed a mystical touch and Silva has gone missing. On such occasions there’s a case to made that while Merlin looks unplayable when the team’s at its best, if all around fall apart his spells fail to work.
De Bruyne could be the antidote to this phenomenon. He is The Scientist to Silva’s Merlin. Honing his use of physics there’s no reason why the two can’t produce good chemistry, with the Spaniard in the wide role. Silva is already an all-time City legend; he’s just found someone to share the creative burden.