Opinions

We Need to Talk About Kevin

There are many defining moments in a season, and 2015/16 is no exception. For some, this year will be remembered for Jamie Vardy’s ridiculous form, the time when Leicester embarrassed us at the Etihad (yeah, I know, I’ll shut up), or Aston Villa’s impending ignominy. You can’t quite the put the finger on the exact moment where City’s season ebbed away, though maybe the wheels properly started to fall off when an ingénue Blues side conceded four second half goals against Chelsea in the FA Cup. Suddenly, City weren’t fighting on four fronts anymore, and the possibility of another trophyless season became more real.

Yet perhaps we should think of our defining moment occurring in another cup competition. I often bemoan City’s bad luck; stray balls never fall for us, back-passes never come our way, 50-50s end up going to the opposition. But when Raheem Sterling judiciously ignored the by-line back in January, dragging back for Kevin De Bruyne to belt his fifth League Cup goal of the season home, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was it. Our defining moment; the slice of luck that got us to Wembley, and let us enjoy/endure 120 minutes of biting our nails, before our boys finally brought the Cup home.

I think that assessment’s wrong, though. De Bruyne’s goal standing isn’t the stand-out moment of this season; it’s not even the stand out moment of that match. Personally, I think the perfectly-weighted De Bruyne cross which assisted Agüero’s tie-winner is of more quality than the Belgian’s own somewhat thudded goal, but that’s by the by. You know what I’m getting at; De Bruyne’s injury in the dying embers of the match left the Blues without this season’s superstar for two months; two months in which we only picked up 7 Premier League points out of a possible 21; two months in which we conceded 9 league goals, while only scoring an average of 1 goal per game. Of course, the De Bruyne interlude saw City secure the League Cup (eventually), and play some decent Champions League football in Kiev, but you can’t help but think – would we still be in the title race if the Belgian midfielder hadn’t got injured?

The fact that City have missed De Bruyne so much, and the fact that his return to the starting XI has been so impactful (he charmed all and sundry down in Bournemouth last Saturday, so much so that the Cherries faithful clapped him off the pitch), is rather revealing. The quality De Bruyne has shown this week proves that City have a player ripe and ready to build their team around in the next few seasons, yet it also illustrates just how much the old guard at the club have dropped off. David Silva, amongst others, has struggled severely with recurrent injury this year, and his usually superlative performances have suffered as a result. At times since January, City have seemingly found themselves in a dearth of creativity, unthinkable for a team with the likes of Yaya Touré and Sergio Agüero amongst its ranks. No ifs, no buts; the Blues have missed De Bruyne’s invention.

In 2,458 minutes of football for City this season, the mercurial forward has netted 14 times in all competitions, plus made a further 14 assists (all stats courtesy of transfermarkt.co.uk). That’s an average of a goal or an assist every 87.79 minutes; in other words, every game. By contrast, Agüero is averaging a goal/assist every 1.13 games this season; David Silva has averaged an assist or goal every 1.81 matches. The figures are impressive for all three, especially when you factor in dips in form and the fact that in total, Silva, Agüero and De Bruyne have missed 131 days of injury between them. Yet the latter’s superior stats, in only his first season for the Blues (and practically his first in England) are impressive. They show a player beginning to justify his humongous price tag, and a player a good three to six years younger than the core of City’s squad. As the Blues have one of the oldest average squad ages in the league, this is important; we need more players about to hit the peak of their careers, rather than having already passed this stage.

Agüero might still be in the peak years of his career, (thank all potentially non-existent deities), but it’s obvious that Silva hasn’t performed the way we’ve been accustomed to this season, and as he enters his fourth decade, we may have to accept that the Spaniard’s audacious creativeness will be utilised in a different way in future years. Yet against Bournemouth last week, the playmaker looked like a man with a new lease of life. The difference, of course, was De Bruyne’s return to the team. The mark of a truly great football player is their intuitiveness; their ability to read situations and know where teammates or opponents are likely to be. This sort of anticipation helps make goals and passing look effortless. De Bruyne certainly did just that against the Cherries, bringing out the best in Silva and Agüero as he did so. With the Belgian back in the team, the creative onus weighs less heavy on Silva’s shoulders; the pressure to score also rests less heavy on Agüero. Whereas Silva has always struggled to find the back of the net as much as he possibly should do, De Bruyne has an eye for goal that is already proving invaluable.

His two goals this week – both wonderfully taken, his volley against Bournemouth being as breath-taking as his rifled shot against PSG was ruthless – epitomise the added threat De Bruyne brings to the Blues, when he’s on song. What has pleased me most about his return is how he’s done it when it mattered most. De Bruyne was our man of the match by miles in Paris on Wednesday (with an honourable nod towards Fernandinho, who has been excellent this season). Before his injury, the one concern I had about De Bruyne was his propensity to fade a little in certain matches, particularly big games, or when City were playing away. Eighteen of his goals and assists in the league, FA Cup and Capital One Cup have come against either bottom half or lower league opposition. That’s 72%. City’s overall performance against the top Premier League teams has been nothing short of diabolical this year, but even so, this sort of flat-track bullying from one of your star players is worrying.

De Bruyne has the perfect chance to quash all these fears by carrying on from where he left off at the Parc des Princes; his efforts against French Champions PSG were fantastic, his confidence and endeavour apparent from the off, when he shot just over the bar in the opening minutes. It was no surprise that City’s first goal against PSG came about thanks to the vision of Fernandinho and the quality of De Bruyne. On a topsy-turvy night when the Blues showcased themselves at both their best and their worst, and Agüero and Silva were worryingly quiet, De Bruyne took centre stage and commanded proceedings. If he can do so again this weekend against West Brom – in Silva’s absence, no less, as the Spaniard’s ankle injury has once again returned – and crucially next week in the return leg against Paris Saint German, City’s season may actually start to liven up again.

For the first time ever, the Blues have an amazingly decent chance of reaching the last four of the Champions League. PSG won’t roll over in Manchester next Tuesday, but you have to fancy our chances at home. If we score, PSG have to score twice; if we bag two goals, PSG doing the same would only result in extra time. More pertinently in a way, perhaps, is City’s league run-in; the Blues have seven matches as I type in which to secure a top four finish, and avoid the relative embarrassment of welcoming Pep Guardiola to Manchester with Thursday night football. If City win all six games, they will finish on 75 points, just two wins ahead of Leicester’s current total. Realistically, pipping Arsenal to third is the most we can hope for (we won’t catch Spurs, and the Foxes have long outrun us). It’s not hard to envisage De Bruyne being part of this resurgence.

Ironically, his arrival at the start of the season somewhat disrupted the Blues’ promising rhythm; City had blown away West Brom, Chelsea and Everton, and eventually got past a stubborn Watford side, before their fifth match of the season, against a then-engaging Crystal Palace, resulted in a scraped win thanks to Kelechi Iheanacho’s injury time goal. City then suffered two terrible defeats, to West Ham at home and Spurs away (the latter being a particularly torrid drubbing), and quite frankly never regained the swagger of those first few matches, despite notching up flattering victories against dreadful or naive sides (here’s looking at you, Newcastle and Bournemouth).

But De Bruyne’s arrival wasn’t the catalyst for City’s season to fall apart. This has had more to do with injuries to key players, our failure to invest in proficient enough back-up for said players, and perhaps a touch of naiveté from Pellegrini and co, in terms of team and (what) tactics selection. Still, Our Kev has justified his £55m price tag, and it hardly came as a surprise when my colleagues at City Watch reported that Pep potentially had some influence in De Bruyne’s arrival last summer. It may be a tad unfair to compare De Bruyne’s season with that of Raheem Sterling’s; the latter is primarily a winger, not a playmaker, after all, and his price tag of £49m was pretty overinflated, even for City. Yet the England international has averaged a goal or assist in all comps only every 1.49 games, a rate that is 50% worse off that De Bruyne’s. With Sterling more than likely out for the rest of the season, De Bruyne has a chance to cement his position as City’s star 15/16 buy even further.

However the Blues finish this season, seeing De Bruyne grow into English football has been a joy, and it’s a joy that’s only just beginning. After all, in a few months time, a new dawn will rise at the Etihad. Who will De Bruyne be linking up with – Aubameyang? Lewandowski? Suárez? Isco? The thought of the Belgian honing his skills even further under Pep is mouth-watering. A fair few City fans would argue that De Bruyne helping the team to just reach levels of consistency from now on in would be something. Either way, with De Bruyne in the team – poised to be our next Touré, perhaps – we’ve got a lot to look forward to. Let’s hope the talking about Kevin doesn’t cease for a good while yet.

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