In the eyes of Manchester City fans and people with their heads screwed on correctly, Kevin De Bruyne was the best player in the Premier League during the 2017-18 season. The Belgian lead the league in both assists (16 A) and expected assists (13.1 xA), while also contributing 8 goals and a strong defensive work rate. He was undoubtedly the most influential asset on perhaps the greatest domestic side English football has ever seen, the rare midfielder who could do it all.
Coming into this season, De Bruyne was one of the primary reasons people would point to when arguing why City would continue to dominate. Those individual expectations have not gone to plan so far, as De Bruyne has battled through injuries throughout, limiting him to just over 1,500 minutes in all competitions and only 16 league appearances. And when he has been on the field, he hasn’t looked himself despite the fact that his advanced statistics per 90 minutes have actually improved this season.
City have thrived despite all this due to the ridiculous improvements of Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling, among others, but all fans of the club know that their ceiling is highest when Kevin De Bruyne is the 2017-18 version of himself.
Fortunately, it appears the long awaited return to greatness may be upon us after his play over the past week, particularly against Cardiff City at the midweek. The goal he scored may have actually been the least impressive thing he did against the Bluebirds (he was trying to cross it, right?) because he was in “I got this” mode all match. De Bruyne just looked to have that burst and precision back, finishing the match with 6 key passes to go along with the goal. The sight of him driving through defenders with the ball at his feet is one of the most terrifying things an opponent can experience, and that might be a sight we can start to get used to again.
Though his influence in the FA Cup semifinal against Brighton wasn’t as prominent as it was against Cardiff, in part due to the tactics on both sides, he still showed how close he is the regaining the form from last year. De Bruyne assisted Gabriel Jesus on the lone goal of the match and it was a pass worth fawning over. It fell into the category of pass that the Belgian frequents, that being the type that make you say “How did complete that?”, immediately followed by “Wait, how did he even see that?” This isn’t the first time this season’s De Bruyne return to form has been claimed but the evidence has never been as clear as it is now.
If peak De Bruyne is truly back, he’s just in time given the sheer number of must-win games City have over the next month (hint: there all must win games now). From a tactical perspective, his presence will be critical because he provides two things that no one else really can. The first one is the vision and passing skills shown in the video above and for the assist against Brighton. In 2017-18, he had the most key passes in the Premier League with 106, with the third most from distance with 27. Moreover, he also had the most key passes (9) and assists (4) from through balls, making him a danger from anywhere on the pitch.
De Bruyne’s ability to place an inch perfect long pass isn’t matched by any other City player and allows him to thrive from a variety of positions, from a double pivot to a wide attacking midfield role. Positioning him in a deeper role will pull defenses out of their shape, as they must step to close down before he curls a pass into a hole that isn’t even there yet.
He also distorts opposing defensive shapes with his ability to shoot from distance as well, the second aspect of his game unmatched on City’s roster. Last season, he was tied for first in goals from outside the box with 5 and his ability as a sniper can not be overstated. It’s not at all out of the ordinary when he does something like this.
Or like this.
It’s been a challenging season for De Bruyne, that much is clear, but his recent performances lend credence to the idea that City could be even better than we’ve already seen so far this season. There’s certainly a possibility the Blues can accomplish their goals with a less-than-optimal version of De Bruyne, but the margin for error is much smaller in that scenario. He does things on the pitch that a very small group of people can do, and those things just happen to be the exact things Manchester City are missing right now. If this is Kevin De Bruyne’s renaissance, he picked the perfect time for it to happen.