Manchester City beat Barcelona 3-1 in the highly-anticipated Champions League rematch, and it was absolutely the Epic That Was Promised. Lionel Messi opened the scoring after 20 minutes for Barcelona, and it looked like this one might just go the way the last match did — with City getting smashed. Then Kevin De Bruyne took over and showed exactly why he’s Manchester City’s most important player.
De Bruyne leads the Premier League in assists, despite having missed three games in the league already. It’s not just his direct contribution to the stat sheet that’s important to City though. His positional versatility, intelligence, and incredibly well-rounded skill set makes him invaluable to this team, and it showed in that three-game absence.
De Bruyne can — and has — played across the front three for Manchester City, and even as a false 9 in Pep’s system. He’s mobile enough to play effectively as a winger, a good enough finisher to play up top, and intelligent enough to be moved around the pitch in different roles without his play suffering. In short, he’s the perfect Guardiola player.
It’s no coincidence that without Kevin De Bruyne, City went on the worst run they had yet under Pep Guardiola’s young tenure. After he suffered an injury during the 3-1 defeat of Swansea on September 24th, City played a wild 3-3 draw against Celtic in Champions League, lost to Tottenham, drew against Everton in the Premier League, and then were routed comprehensively by Barcelona. City didn’t win again until October 29th. Who made his return (albeit, from the substitute’s bench) on that day? None other than the De Bruyne.
Against Barcelona, De Bruyne took some time to work into the game, but truly came into his own in the second half. First, it was his sublime free kick that put City ahead in the 51st minute.
After that, it was De Bruyne’s game. He bossed City’s midfield, spraying the ball around the pitch with aplomb, and picking Barcelona’s midfield and defense apart at will. He strolled around the middle of the park as if his name was on the stadium lease, and it was his fantastic threaded through ball to Jesus Navas that lead to Ilkay Gundogan’s second on the day, effectively burying the visitors.
Sergio Aguero has come back into City’s team to great effect, and Ilkay Gundogan will deservedly receive the plaudits for his all-important brace on the day. But it’s De Bruyne’s return to the lineup that truly has inspired City, and his importance to this team can’t be understated.
Manchester City may have torn out of the gates under Guardiola, but they have undergone some serious growing pains as they settle into his new managerial and tactical style. In Guardiola’s fluid, constantly changing and sometimes confusing system, versatility and tactical intelligence is paramount, and De Bruyne is one of the world’s top players in that regard. Not a single person on this team has been more key to Pep’s relatively smooth transition than De Bruyne, and his incredible skill set’s been utilized heavily by the Spaniard.
De Bruyne is City’s most important player. And if he can stay healthy, City might just be lifting one or two trophies when the end of the season rolls around.