Kevin De Bruyne is still the Premier League’s true grand master

Manchester City's Belgian midfielder #17 Kevin De Bruyne celebrates scoring the opening goal during the English Premier League football match between Brighton and Hove Albion and Manchester City at the American Express Community Stadium in Brighton, southern England on April 25, 2024
Kevin De Bruyne scored a remarkable first-half header at the Amex - Ben Stansall/AFP

In hindsight, it all feels rather obvious. Of course Manchester City are stampeding towards another Premier League title. Of course they are coming into this defining period of the season on a run of 18 league matches without defeat. Of course they swept past Brighton here, winning 4-0 and barely breaking into a sprint.

We should have known this was coming from the moment Kevin De Bruyne trotted onto the field in the 69th minute of City’s trip to Newcastle in mid-January. At that point of the season, Pep Guardiola’s side were not top of the league. They were within reach of the leaders, though, and they had stayed within reach despite being without De Bruyne since August.

It will be no surprise if history shows that De Bruyne’s return was the key moment in this season’s title race. The Belgian is not the player he once was and, at the age of 32, he never will be. But he can still be the most decisive player in this division and he can still produce nights like this, when his intelligence and quality pierces an opponent over and over again.

Despite his age, De Bruyne continues to evolve as a player. He is still providing surprises, too: his astonishing header here, converted as he soared across the turf with his long hair flowing artfully behind him, was his first ever headed goal in the Premier League.

Kevin De Bruyne scores their first goal
De Bruyne's headed goal was one even the most seasoned striker would have been proud of - Peter Cziborra/Reuters

For most of his City career, De Bruyne has operated in a defined position within Guardiola’s midfield three. In the 2019/20 season, for example, 48 per cent of his touches were on the right side of the pitch, compared to just 30 per cent on the left.

This season, by contrast, he has far more freedom. Of his touches, 40 per cent have been taken on the left, and 44 on the right. He can float in any direction he likes, and the result is that he has been more creative than ever. Per 90 minutes, De Bruyne is creating 4.6 chances per match – up from an average of 3.6 per match in each of the last three years.

It is a strange reality of City’s season that Phil Foden and Rodri are now City’s most consistently effective midfielders, rather than De Bruyne. But De Bruyne remains the ultimate match-winner, the one player who can turn nothing into something and transform the entire feel of the game in an instant.

Against Brighton, there was a threat every time he got the ball. You could feel the fear in the crowd, and see it on the faces of Brighton’s young players. They tried to go man-to-man, tracking De Bruyne all over the pitch, but could never get a proper grip on him.

Even when he was not directly involved, De Bruyne still played his part. In the build-up to City’s fourth goal, converted by Julian Alvarez, it was De Bruyne who pointed to the right wing, signalling for the ball to be played long towards Kyle Walker. The Belgian, as is so often the case, saw the move before anyone else.

In this floating position, De Bruyne’s neck does as much work as his legs. He is constantly checking over his shoulders, swivelling his eyes and looking for space to drift towards. Rather than going where Guardiola has instructed him to go, as is seemingly the case for almost every other City player, this version of De Bruyne goes where the match takes him.

Within the space of a few first-half minutes, De Bruyne took up the positions of a left-winger, central midfielder, centre-back and then centre-forward. No wonder Brighton struggled to contain him, with Jakub Moder enduring an especially unenjoyable evening as De Bruyne’s marker-in-chief.

For much of the season, it has felt like the responsibility of leading this City team is being passed from De Bruyne to Foden. There are still occasions, though, when De Bruyne reaffirms his status as the grand master, and the rest of Guardiola’s players can only sit back and learn. This is how it is done. This is how you become one of the best midfielders this league has ever seen.