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Kevin de Bruyne return brings Man City’s greatest threat - and one old problem to solve

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Jurgen Klopp has a habit of conjuring a memorable phrase. He does not restrict his attentions purely to Liverpool. “When Kevin de Bruyne is warming up, the whole country is starting to shake,” the German said last week. When De Bruyne has been warming up, the Etihad Stadium has started to roar. “Oh, Kevin de Bruyne” is scarcely one of the wittier chants around; nor does it need to be. The mention of the man is a reminder of his menace.

After 28 games out, De Bruyne was back. His comeback occurred in the FA Cup but the tremors Klopp referenced might have been reverberating around the Premier League and the Champions League.

He returned in fitting fashion, with an assist 17 minutes into his cameo in the 5-0 victory over Huddersfield, a deft cross that showed precision and vision. Jeremy Doku converted it. “The quality of the assist for the Jeremy goal,” Pep Guardiola marvelled. “We are incredibly delighted he is back.”

Guardiola is far from alone in thinking that. The choruses of his name, like those eight days earlier when De Bruyne, an unused substitute against Sheffield United, warmed up were celebrations of perhaps Manchester City’s greatest ever player. “I am pretty sure Kevin felt how people love him and other people are in love with him,” Guardiola said. “It will be eternal; this mutual respect will be forever.”

That respect stems from a capacity to create that is almost unrivalled. De Bruyne is four away from a century of goals for City, almost at 150 assists: because the latter is a relatively modern invention, there is no definitive way of knowing but it is probably the most in their history. Stay fit for the second half of the campaign and he could rank second only to Ryan Giggs in the Premier League. In all competitions, there were 29 assists last season. His current campaign has only spanned 113 minutes of football but he has already made two goals.

“He has a special, special, special ability to do something that is not easy to find,” said Guardiola, the deliberate repetition emphasising the rarity of De Bruyne’s gifts. The Catalan has reconfigured his squad and feels additions can benefit from De Bruyne’s distribution. “With all the runners we have now – Phil [Foden], Erling [Haaland], Matheus [Nunes], Oscar Bobb - to have guys who love to run and a guy in behind who can find these passes, Kevin is exceptional, he is unique.”

Even in City’s galaxy of talent, there is no one quite like him. “Because Kevin helps to win games and there are few in the world,” said Guardiola; De Bruyne is world class as a maker of goals. And if City have won plenty of games in his absence – 20 of 28 matches, including the penalty shootout victory over Sevilla in the European Super Cup – it has sometimes felt harder without the man who can unlock a defence on his own. As a match-winner, he has few peers.

In De Bruyne’s absence, and then Haaland’s, Phil Foden has begun to relish the responsibility of being the main man. His two goals against Huddersfield rendered him the man of the match in a game where the greater significance may lie in De Bruyne’s return.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The Mancunian has floated around the Belgian over his City career: as left and right winger, as false nine, even as genuine centre-forward. He led the line when De Bruyne came on and Julian Alvarez went off. With Haaland’s return in forthcoming weeks, with Foden’s pronounced preference for a central role as an attacking midfielder, it raises the question if they can be accommodated together.

“Always I am a big fan of the talent, why cannot talent play together?” mused Guardiola. “When I arrive in Barcelona, people say Xavi and [Andres] Iniesta and [Sergio] Busquets cannot play together. Why not?” He proved a point, creating perhaps the finest team ever by overloading on likeminded individuals who believed in keeping the ball.

Yet Foden and De Bruyne have a different ethos, a greater element of risk, a more evident determination to score and create goals. In a sense, neither is an archetypal Guardiola midfielder. And yet his concerns are more defensive than attacking; out of possession, Rodri could have too much to do. Neither Foden nor De Bruyne spends much of his time behind the ball. Last season, City would often defend with De Bruyne near Haaland and Ilkay Gundogan alongside Rodri.

“For our structure,” said Guardiola. “We [would] have to change something in the 4-4-2.” But if accommodating Foden and De Bruyne is the sort of problem many another would love, the emotion some rivals may be feeling is fear. De Bruyne is not just warming up, but taking the field, and there may be shudders of terror.