Kevin De Bruyne Injury Blow Exposes Chink in Manchester City’s Armour

Kevin De Bruyne Injury Blow Exposes Chink in Manchester City’s Armour

Tuesday, 21 August, 2018 - 06:30
Claudio Bravo is out for an indefinite period after picking up an injury on Monday. Photograph: Robbie Stephenson/JMP/Rex/Shutterstock
London - Paul Wilson
In slightly different circumstances 2018 could have been an annus mirabilis for Kevin De Bruyne, arguably the single most important reason why Manchester City won last season’s title by such a convincing margin. The midfielder remains out on his own in terms of quality and creativity, rivalled only by the slightly more fitful Eden Hazard at Chelsea. Yet what looked like a shoo-in for player of the season was derailed by Mo Salah’s insanely compelling contribution to Liverpool’s run to the Champions League final; Belgium lived to regret the win over England in the World Cup that set them on a course to meet France in the semis; and now injury has sidelined the player for at least a couple of months at the start of a new campaign.

It is a measure of De Bruyne’s importance to City’s expensively assembled squad that a two‑to‑three-month absence is being greeted as good news. Pep Guardiola and the City supporters would have been dismayed, equally, had they been told a week ago that De Bruyne might not start his season until October but, set against the possibility of missing the whole season with ligament damage, the prognosis seems almost worth celebrating.

If anyone has the squad depth to cover for a key player for a few months it is City and, if any coach has the ability to think quickly on his feet and reorganise playing patterns, it is Guardiola. Yet for all that, there is a sense that fate has struck a blow where the champions are most vulnerable.

No one ought to be irreplaceable, though De Bruyne at City comes close. While the other players work to make space on the pitch, he exploits it with the precision and timing of his passing, not to mention weighing in with a few goals from shots outside the penalty area and set pieces.

City have other creative midfielders, of course, and the task of pulling the attacking strings will probably now fall to Ilkay Gündogan or David Silva. But, while both have some similarities of style, no one in the country is actually that similar to De Bruyne.

Silva specialises in short passing and close control, trying and often succeeding to thread the eye of a needle. Gündogan’s game is more expansive but he lacks De Bruyne’s devastating accuracy, in terms of both passing and shooting.

Time and again last season De Bruyne would whip in low crosses from the flanks that seemed laser‑guided, uncanny in their ability to elude the first defender – just – then spin back slightly to leave an inviting opportunity in the penalty area for Sergio Agüero or Gabriel Jesus. Not every player can do that, just as not every player can engage defenders by moving one way while awaiting the perfect opportunity to play a pass into space in the other direction for speedsters such as Raheem Sterling or Kyle Walker to run on to.

While City cannot be accused of being a one-man team, in other words, they have developed a style whereby one player’s vision and sureness of touch showcases the various talents around him. This is why talk of City being even stronger this season than last – based on their opening results against Chelsea and Arsenal – has suddenly been replaced with something approaching relief among rival fans that a chink in their armour may have been exposed.

City will quite clearly not be the same team without De Bruyne. They were not the same team without him at Arsenal last Sunday. Granted they were in the lead when Guardiola brought the Belgian on after an hour, though they were not in control of the game. Some of their play was ragged and sloppy and Arsenal were threatening an equaliser. While Guardiola may have preferred to let De Bruyne sit out the whole match, he knew when a calming influence was needed.

Now Guardiola must work out, beginning with Sunday’s game against Huddersfield, whether to ask someone else to replicate De Bruyne’s role or abandon the idea until he is fit again and find instead a simpler way of playing that will prove effective in the meantime. At least Silva is approaching full fitness again, City have Phil Foden ready and waiting, and Riyad Mahrez no longer seems quite the luxury purchase he appeared a few weeks ago.

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