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Kevin De Bruyne

Manchester City, 2015-Present

If Manchester City succeed in winning the Premier League title for a third successive season, it is likely that Kevin De Bruyne will have been particularly influential. His absence throughout 2018/19 told, when Liverpool came so close to denying Pep Guardiola and his team, but the Belgian was crucially available towards the end of the season and has so far excelled in 2019/20. This is particularly significant, with Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool having made such a fine start to the season – and with David Silva perhaps finally showing signs of decline.

Of the many millions City have spent in their pursuit of success, there may likely come a time where, alongside David Silva and Sergio Agüero, the £55m spent recruiting De Bruyne will be considered the soundest they have spent. “Kevin sometimes is a special player,” Guardiola, who has worked with many of Europe’s finest players, recently said. “He sees things others cannot see on the pitch, or even off the pitch.”

Tactical analysis
De Bruyne possesses numerous qualities and in all areas of the pitch. His ability to create goalscoring chances from accurate deliveries is perhaps unrivalled – he can reach the smallest spaces behind an opposing defence (below) with passes or crosses that are so powerful that defenders and goalkeepers struggle against them. Any attackers already committed to a forward run would thrive on such deliveries.

The Belgian can also pass equally well with both feet, shifting possession from one to the other and playing it accurately over varying distances. He can thus penetrate opposing defensive lines from different angles, and adapt to the press applied by his direct opponent. That he can do so prevents him being forced on to a specific foot or side of the pitch; he instead works the ball away from pressure, regardless of a defender’s intentions.

Even if his priority is to create rather than score – his goal return does not thus match some of the world’s other leading attacking midfielders – De Bruyne also offers a significant goal threat within the final third, and often from outside the penalty area. When he shoots from distance he largely avoids using backlift, which can surprise opponents who therefore struggle to react to or block those efforts, and he most commonly aims low and towards the bottom corners with power.

As is crucial when playing for Guardiola, De Bruyne is capable of pressing ferociously, particularly within close quarters. His tenacity, and his desire to directly regain or contribute to regains after losses of possession, further demonstrate his assertiveness. It is only when he presses over longer distances that his enthusiasm can lead to less consistent outcomes – particularly when faced with a nimble or experienced opponent.

If he does regain possession, De Bruyne’s explosive qualities can lead to more effective transitions into attack (above). He is capable of driving forward with power, especially into empty spaces and over larger distances – which, when coupled with his ability to play the ball, is as effective during counter-attacks as it is against a compact, defensive block.

Role at Manchester City
De Bruyne’s deployment as an attacking number eight in City’s 4-3-3 system means the Belgian largely occupies the right inside channel, and occasionally positions wide on the right. When City build and attack with increasing width – one player will remain in each of the two outside lanes – the spaces between opposing units often become stretched, inviting De Bruyne or one of his teammates to carry possession forwards or to deliver it into those running in behind. 

Most commonly, City’s right-sided attacker – Bernardo Silva or Riyad Mahrez – will provide attacking width while right-back Kyle Walker prepares to offer a delayed overlap or moves inside to create a double pivot. This works to free De Bruyne up to occupy the inside channel (above), and to provide the key link between attack and defence.

If that right-sided attacker drops towards possession, the defending left-back will likely advance to prevent them receiving and turning, creating an increased space and allowing De Bruyne to move forwards as a third attacker, receive in those spaces and deliver low crosses in behind.

Many of City’s opponents attempt to form a deep, compact defensive block and for lengthy periods, so De Bruyne’s versatility becomes particularly valuable. When Bernardo Silva and Mahrez attack the inside channels, and City’s lone striker – Agüero or Gabriel Jesus – withdraws to link with those in central areas, De Bruyne can instead provide the attacking width and find those advancing with his sublime deliveries.

His, and therefore potentially City’s, most effective method of attack may even be his crosses from narrower positions. When they attack with runners around an opposition block, De Bruyne’s reserved movements encourage backwards passes from the right; that he intentionally positions himself the maximum possible distance from opponents means that he can step forward on to those passes and deliver first-time whipped balls into far-side runners with both accuracy and dip.

De Bruyne already has eight assists in the Premier League – double the amount of those next in the list, teammate David Silva and Norwich creator Emi Buendia. If he isn’t the best player in the league, he is doing a very passable impression of it – and if City are to win a third straight title, it is unthinkable to believe he won’t be at the very heart of it.

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