Remember when the Premier League was wide open? When six teams with six distinct styles were gonna all challenge for the title? When we didn’t know who the best player in the league was? Well, it’s only late September, but Manchester City’s perfect, and Pep Guardiola is already telling everyone that Kevin De Bruyne is the best player in the world not named “Lionel Messi.”
He’s always been very good, but the marriage with Guardiola has launched De Bruyne up toward the world’s best playmakers. As a 20-year-old, he signed with Chelsea, but he soon joined the club’s wandering hoard of WhatsApp devotees and was sent on loan to Werder Bremen in Germany. (Chelsea currently has 38 players out on loan. A game-day Premier League roster has 18 spots. European soccer is a ponzi scheme.) De Bruyne scored 10 goals and assisted on nine more in the Bundesliga before returning to Chelsea in the summer of 2013. In what was the first season of José Mourinho’s second stint with the club, De Bruyne started the season opener, scored a goal, notched an assist … and then played one more game before being sold to another Bundesliga side, Wolfsburg, in January of 2014.
Despite the presence of Bayern Munich’s über-team of expensive superstars, De Bruyne won Bundesliga Player of the Year in his only full season with Wolfsburg, scoring 10 goals and assisting on 20 more in 2014–15. He moved to City last summer for a club-record £55 million and immediately produced at a near-elite level:
Except, with then-manager Manuel Pellegrini, the team sometimes felt like a group of disparate stars who were trying to figure things out on the fly once they got near the box. In some ways, that’s the ideal environment for a freelancing, innovating attacker, like De Bruyne’s teammate David Silva, but that’s not De Bruyne. His more straightforward creativity seems to work best when enough options are presented to him and he just has to make the right choice. But last year’s team played under freer attacking guidelines than they are under Guardiola — then again, everyone’s attacking guidelines are freer than Guardiola’s — so the patterns of play weren’t as clear.
De Bruyne typically played closer to the wing or directly behind a striker last year, but this season the 25-year-old has been used as something more like a traditional center midfielder, playing as part of a pair in front of Fernandinho, City’s omnipotent defensive midfielder. This gives De Bruyne more space to operate, and the farther back you play, the more options you have in front of you. So far this year, De Bruyne hasn’t made a wrong choice.
As soccer has hurtled toward total efficiency, the romantic ideal of the flawed attacking midfielder has all but disappeared. Gone are the days of Ronaldinho not exercising, (allegedly) having sex close to kickoff, disappearing for 20-minute stretches of game time, and then toe-poking his way back into your heart when you least expect it:
Guardiola got rid of Ronaldinho before his first season at Barcelona, and since then, he has essentially tried to systematize creativity — or at least structure it. There’s less room for, as Bruce Arena once put it, trying shit, and more of an emphasis on doing the right shit. Although he has the face of Dennis the Menace, it’s as if De Bruyne was built in a lab to be The Modern Attacking Midfielder. He’s the creators of old, but sanded down to remove all the ragged edges.
Through five games, he’s scored two goals, assisted on three, created 17 chances, and completed 84 percent of his passes. City have won five out of five, and they’re leading the league in both expected and real-life goals. Even though the assists say “three,” De Bruyne has been involved with nearly every goal his team has scored so far.
They lead the league in possession and annihilate teams in transition. And De Bruyne is Pep’s point guard. When the space opens up, he’ll get out and run, picking out the perfect pass right after he sees the defender commit:
And if things slow down, he’ll circulate the ball along the perimeter until the defense gets unsettled and someone cuts toward the goal:
That final pass is incredible — but not because it required some kind of ingenious foresight. We can all see Ilkay Gundogan making that run, but De Bruyne directs and weights the ball perfectly. Literally: It slows down, as if it’s been punctured by a nail, just before it reaches either of the Bournemouth defenders, and only Gundogan can get a touch on it.
Basketball watchers often talk about how LeBron James always makes the right play based on what the defense presents to him, and while he doesn’t have LeBron’s tidal wave of athleticism, De Bruyne does always seem to make the most effective decision — whether it’s carrying the ball at his feet, splitting the defense with a pass, or snapping off a shot. He won’t break down a back line with a succession of stepovers, and he won’t shatter the angles of a defense with a pass no one saw coming. In fact, De Bruyne won’t do anything you haven’t seen before. He’s not Messi, and he never will be for longer than random stretches when Messi gets hurt, but he always does what he’s supposed to. Five games in and fully integrated into City’s strategy, that’s been enough to briefly make him better than everyone else.