Kevin de Bruyne made the difference for Manchester City at St James’ Park on Saturday. Coming off the bench to make his first Premier League appearance since August due to injury, the Belgian registered a goal and an assist in a comeback victory over Newcastle United for Pep Guardiola’s team.
The return of de Bruyne could be a catalyst for City who have lacked consistency over the course of the campaign so far. With the 32-year-old available again, though, last season’s Treble winners might look like their old selves. That was certainly the case in the final 20 minutes against Newcastle United.
De Bruyne’s cameo off the bench at St James’ Park hinted at the sort of player he will be for Manchester City in the final phase of his career. Renowned for being one of the best attacking midfielders of his generation, de Bruyne’s future will almost certainly be as a deeper lying playmaker.
This is where de Bruyne made the difference against Newcastle, pulling the strings behind Julian Alvarez, Phil Foden and Oscar Bobb, who scored the winning goal from an assist produced by the Belgian. De Bruyne still had Mateo Kovacic and Rodri as midfield anchors to give him security, but his role was to dictate the pace and direction of City’s attacking play.
There are certain players who have a natural gravity on the pitch and de Bruyne is one of them. Matches revolve around him. The ball is drawn to the Belgian. Games are played at his speed. De Bruyne gives Manchester City a degree of control that no other player in their squad can provide for them.
Andrea Pirlo had a similar quality. He was the most important player on the pitch in nearly every match he played. It wasn’t just that the Italian’s passing range was among the broadest ever seen in the game, it was the way he played too. He had the same gravity that de Bruyne now has. The Belgian can be Manchester City’s Pirlo over the coming years.
Paul Scholes was the last Premier League deep-lying playmaker of this ilk, particularly in the latter years of his career when he became the ticking clock within the Manchester United midfield. Some might argue Scholes got better after dropping deeper where he could get on the ball more often.
Xavi Hernandez was another central midfielder who dictated matches through his use of possession and aura on the pitch. Guardiola coached Xavi at Barcelona and likely sees element of the legendary Spanish international in de Bruyne and the way he controls matches for Manchester City.
“Kevin is a legend,” said Guardiola after de Bruyne’s impressive performance off the bench against Newcastle. “He is loved by our people and, hopefully, in the last months he can help us be there to the end. We need players like Kevin. We need him to do something special in the final third. That is not tactical ability but talent, individual talent.”
After eight-and-a-half years at the Etihad Stadium, de Bruyne has already secured his status as one of the best players in Manchester City’s history. He is up there with the likes of Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Vincent Kompany as a club icon who helped establish City as a superpower in English and European football.
However, the next few years could make him more than a City icon. De Bruyne could become one of the most influential midfielders in modern football history, putting himself on the same level as Pirlo and Xavi. The best players adapt as they get older and de Bruyne is doing that now that his injury troubles are finally behind him.