The ball looped high into the Wembley air. Below it, manoeuvring himself across the halfway line, Kevin De Bruyne’s gaze remained fixed. With Eric Dier at his back, one arm pulling him off balance, the Manchester City man kept his focus and watched the ball drop out of the sky and onto his right boot. With one swish of his foot, De Bruyne clipped the ball onwards, up and over the head of Davinson Sanchez, into the path of Raheem Sterling.
Sterling, as he has so often in the past week, spurned his chance to propel his side further in front. But this passage of play was significant not for Sterling’s profligacy but rather for his teammate’s audacity. This was 2017/18 De Bruyne in a nutshell, the Belgian in a microcosm, another feat of individual brilliance set against the backdrop of a season shimmering with quality.
Balling in the deep
Kevin De Bruyne has spent much of this title-winning season making the impossible, possible. On a weekly basis, he has wowed with slide-rule passes and no little imagination. Situated on the right of a midfield three, De Bruyne’s role is markedly different from the more attacking one he often occupied during his younger days.
He is asked now to shuttle from box to box, to build from deep and draw the attention of opposing sides such that his more advanced teammates can take full advantage of the resultant space. If we were to identify reasons Manchester City have blown away the rest of the league this season, De Bruyne’s transformation would top the list.
His is a tale of why bare statistics do not always tell the full story. Context is required. De Bruyne’s passing accuracy in the league this season sits at 83.7%; by no means shabby, but only Sterling, Leroy Sane, Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus, all forwards, have worse figures in the Manchester City side. Set against the ‘ninety-per centers’, Ilkay Gundogan, Fernandinho and so on, one might surmise that De Bruyne has been rather wasteful this term.
Far from it. Rather, that statistic helps to highlight the ambition Pep Guardiola has imbued in his talisman. Passes have gone astray not through carelessness but through the sheer audacity of undertaking them in the first place, the willingness to embrace risk in search of great reward.
Guardiola was not the first man to deploy De Bruyne in a deeper role than most were accustomed to seeing him in. That (considerable) accolade is owned by Belgium manager Roberto Martinez, who fielded him there during a thumping 8-1 victory over Estonia in November 2016. But in placing so strong a faith in De Bruyne’s ability to start from deep and truly dictate games, Guardiola has unleashed one of the most complete midfielders ever seen on these shores.
Guardiola saw in De Bruyne a game intelligence few others possess, and he has been rewarded in spades. The Belgian’s decision making has been continually excellent, his influence on all around him clear to see. He has managed seven goals, one more than last term, two of those being decisive, thumping finishes at the homes of the two most recent Premier League champions.
His current assists tally of 15 sits three lower than last season’s haul, underlining his deeper role, but also confirming that his eye for a killer pass remains unconstrained. More important still has been that door-opening presence, that ability to shift from defence to attack in an instant, to grease the wheels for another full-throated assault on the opposition goal.
Leroy Sane and David Silva, now fellow Premier League champions, also find themselves shortlisted. Yet their recognition, though gifted by virtue of their own individual efforts, would have been less likely were it not for De Bruyne. It is he who is the fulcrum, the instigator of all that is good about Guardiola’s side.
Across Manchester, David De Gea has earned plaudits. But De Gea’s brilliance is of a more isolated nature, his feats underscored by the fact that while he might be able to save games, quite literally, he cannot win them in a way outfield players can. Such is the life of a goalkeeper.
Perhaps De Bruyne’s two main adversaries come in the form of the league’s top scorers. Harry Kane’s finishing prowess continues to amaze, even if his claiming of a recent goal at Stoke City has been the subject of much derision. Kane is an outstanding striker, capable of finding the net where others would need a map, but his side’s lesser successes this term will surely rule him out of contention.
Thus Mohamed Salah becomes the most likely other winner. Salah’s first season in a Liverpool shirt has been nothing short of outstanding. 40 goals have arrived; 30 of them in just 32 Premier League games. The sight of the Egyptian scoring has at times been met almost without fanfare, so likely is its occurrence. Like De Bruyne, Salah was sold on by a Chelsea hierarchy who deemed him either too green or not good enough. Like De Bruyne, he has highlighted the size of their folly.
Yet Salah, for all his brilliance, has not propelled a club to the title. He has been Liverpool’s main thrust of attack, but he has benefitted from the facilitation offered by others. De Bruyne, on the contrary, is that facilitator. It is he who has driven from one box to the other with metronomic frequency, he who has created the space for the likes of Sterling and Sane to thrive within, he who has conjured up continuous magic from a seemingly bottomless box of tricks.
The PFA Player of the Year award has been fiercely contested and will, no doubt, be endlessly debated, even after a decision is made. Kevin De Bruyne deserves to be its winner.