Man City have done just fine without Kevin De Bruyne this season, but with the Belgian midfielder back to his best, the tightest title race for years could be tilted in their favour.
On Sunday afternoon Manchester City put another notch on the post of their title run-in in their tit-for-tat battle with Liverpool for the Premier League trophy, beating Crystal Palace 3-1 at Selhurst Park. It was a routine victory, not one that will live long in the memory or feature very prominently in the end of season DVD should they finish top of the table this May.
It was, however, notable for one thing. Something that could have a big impact on the final destination of the coveted crown: the return of Kevin De Bruyne.
It wasn’t strictly a return; the Belgian has played in all but one of City’s last 12 league matches, and started eight of those. And yet, he wasn’t having the same influence as he was last season. Last season he contributed eight goals and 16 assists in the league, or a goal involvement every 1.5 games, marking him out as the only challenger to Mo Salah for Player of the Year. Before last weekend he had contributed a measly two goals and no assists in 17 games this season, which equates to a goal involvement every 8.5 games.
The difference is stark. If David Silva was City’s metronome in 2017-18, then De Bruyne was the conductor, pulling all of the strings to a relentless beat. In 2018-19 he’s barely played a beat and Pep Guardiola knew it, choosing to keep him in reserve until the 89th minute of their eventual 1-0 loss to Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League quarter-final.
That is all thanks to a bad knee injury he suffered early on in the season against Fulham in the League Cup, which kept him out of the team for almost all of the first half of the campaign. His first 90 minutes in the league didn’t come until the 3-0 win against Huddersfield in January.
De Bruyne wrote in the Players Tribune this week about his injury woes, about how he burst into tears over his knee issues despite not being the kind of person that cries.
“This season has not been easy for me,” he wrote. “The injuries and the matches that I’ve missed have been extremely difficult for me, mentally. Sitting and watching a match from the stands is basically worse than torture for me. I can’t cope.”
Going from not being able to put on his underwear without assistance to once again dominating football matches is hardly your classic fairytale, but it retrospectively added an extra layer to his performance against Palace, where he got his first two assists of the season. It felt like this was his true return to the City team. And his return — that of the true De Bruyne — could hardly come at a more crucial juncture.
City hold their destiny in their own hands; win all of their games and the title is theirs. But that is easier said than done. They have a tougher set of league fixtures than Liverpool, with Spurs and Manchester United to come. The Reds also have a two-goal cushion to fall back on in the Champions League, whereas City have to claw back a one-goal deficit. They are also fighting on more fronts, with a FA Cup final against Watford to contend with.
Hence, De Bruyne rekindling the scintillating form of the past, and the timing of it, cannot be underestimated. In the 15th minute on Sunday he took control of the ball, striding forward confidently before playing a slide rule pass through the lines to Raheem Sterling for the goal. His second assist of the day was a much simpler lay off to Gabriel Jesus to kill off their opponents, but his decision making throughout the game was near perfect.
The performance illustrated how relentlessly progressive he is with the ball, constantly looking to move it forward, into places few other players can. And if the pass isn’t on, he will bring it forward himself until it does. City is chock full of good passers, but none of them are as incisive as him. It feels like a new weapon in the armoury.
The only question though, is when Pep choose to deploy his fair-haired weapon. If, as one can only deduct from the manager’s refusal to give him more game time in the first leg, De Bruyne is not quite fit enough to play twice in one week, so which Spurs game does he play: in Europe or on the domestic front? Pep’s decision might well betray his priority for the season.
On those occasions when De Bruyne was not present last season, City looked slightly off colour. Still brilliant, yes, but not as seamless, not quite as smooth, and definitely not as cutting in the final third. This year, aside from a rough patch in December, they have managed quite well without him, with Bernardo Silva stepping up in a big way. The number eight played no part against Liverpool in January, yet they came away victorious nonetheless. The advantages of having such a ridiculous amount of strength in depth.
With the midfielder back in full throttle though, City possess the difference maker in this tense title race.