Kevin De Bruyne: A defining year for a player on the edge of greatness

The Century: This week, The Independent is counting down the 100 best players of the last twenty years, with the magnificent Belgian placed at No 57

Mark Critchley
Wednesday 16 October 2019 10:15
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Kevin De Bruyne's best assists

The availability heuristic is the concept that humans make decisions based on information which comes to mind easily. When The Independent was compiling this list of the 100 greatest players of the last two decades, we had to be careful not to fill it with those leading the way today. We also had to take care not to entirely dismiss those who are still playing, particularly those exceptional few who have yet to reach their peak. Kevin de Bruyne is currently the best player in the Premier League. He has been for two-and-a-bit years. Is that enough for him to be considered as one of the best of the 21st century so far?

If judging him solely on what he has won, probably not. De Bruyne has two Premier League titles with Manchester City but his second came in a season interrupted by injury, where he only played half of his side’s games. He was named in the team of the tournament at the 2018 World Cup but Belgium only finished third. The remainder of his honours roll is good but unremarkable. An FA Cup and League Cup here, a Jupiler Pro League title there, a DFB-Pokal win too, but few of the very biggest prizes.

It is a fine list of achievements, though not yet the register of one of this century’s greatest players. Instead, what puts De Bruyne in this conversation is his sheer inexorable genius. From a personal perspective, watching him and covering his performances for City over the past few years has been to witness a galaxy brain playing 4D chess. When on form, he has not only an extraordinary understanding of where and how to exploit an opponent, but the ability to do so time and time again to a brilliant and devastating effect.

There is a growing predictability about what De Bruyne does with the ball at his feet. Whether it is down to Pep Guardiola’s juego de posicion, hours upon hours on the training ground or just muscle memory, De Bruyne regularly takes up the same positions and plays the same passes. This is not a criticism, though, because he keeps getting the same results. It is becoming almost inevitable now that whatever De Bruyne produces, it will be too good for a defender to cope with. There is perhaps only one player in world football doing anything similar with the same consistency. Without wanting to spoil anything, he will most likely top this list.

De Bruyne’s finest year at City to date remains the 2017-18 campaign, when he played an instrumental part in a Premier League title win which shattered almost every record. He registered 21 assists that year – 16 in the league – but his most memorable moment was perhaps an assist for an assist: a scarcely believable pass to open Stoke City’s defence, played while facing in a different direction. Writing in The Independent, Jonathan Liew compared De Bruyne to Watchmen’s Dr Manhattan, an aptly sky-blue character who “no longer perceives time in a strict linear sense but sees past, present and future all at once.” That is De Bruyne at his best: a supernatural talent, bending time and space to his will.

Even so, it simply did not happen for him the following year. He started just 11 league games during 2018-19, largely due to separate but persistent knee problems suffered in August and November. He claims not to cry at funerals but was reduced to tears by the second of those injuries. They are not expected to have any serious or lasting effects, but his bad luck has not passed yet. De Bruyne is currently making his way back from a groin strain at the time of writing, having missed the surprise defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers and sat out of international duty with Belgium. He is back in training and hopes to be fit for Saturday’s trip to Crystal Palace.

De Bruyne could take a leap towards greatness this year (Getty)

And yet, his start to the current campaign has been remarkable. He has eight assists from six league starts and one substitute appearance. De Bruyne has set up twice as many goals as the top flight’s next most creative player, his team-mate David Silva. At this rate, he will match his assist tally of two years ago in a couple of months’ time. He will surpass the record for number of assists in a single Premier League season, the 20 set by Thierry Henry during the 2002-03 season, not longer after. You would normally expect any player who made a blistering start to a new season quickly tail off. Not De Bruyne. Injury permitting, this is entirely sustainable.

The Man City star struggled with injuries last year (Getty)

And if De Bruyne’s ability is to be truly appreciated, he may need to sustain it. He is 28-years-old. He is approaching his peak, if not already at it. This season, he has the opportunity to win a third consecutive league title with City, obliterate Henry’s record and claim all the individual awards his talent deserves. In Europe, he is the most influential player on the team best-placed to win the Champions League. Internationally, he will almost certainly play at a European Championship this summer and Belgium will be among the favourites to triumph.

Pep Guardiola has helped take the Belgian to the next level (Getty)

Next season, meanwhile, is likely to be Guardiola’s last in Manchester unless he signs a new contract. City may well be excluded from the Champions League, pending Uefa’s investigation into their compliance with financial fair play. And a few days after the 2021 final in St Petersburg, De Bruyne will turn 30. He will have passed what are generally considered to be an elite midfielder’s peak years. He may enjoy many exceptional achievements beyond that point but if they come, they will come against the grain. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the next couple of seasons are likely to define how De Bruyne’s career and whether he is remembered as a modern great.

The Century

This week, we are counting down the 100 greatest players of the 21st century, revealing 20 per day until the winner is announced on Friday.

We asked 10 of our football writers to select 50 players, with each pick awarded points contributing to a final score.

Join us throughout the week for a wide selection of exclusive interviews and features, as we celebrate the best players of the last twenty years.

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