A player who has endured bad luck with injuries throughout his career, the sight of a dejected Kevin De Bruyne clutching at his hamstring just 23 minutes into the opening day of the Premier League season at Burnley was a miserable sight for not only supporters of Man City but the bulk of neutral football fans.
An issue which had troubled him at the back end of City’s sensational treble-winning campaign last term, withdrawn 36 minutes into the Champions League final against Inter in Istanbul, De Bruyne has since compared his hamstring to a “wet paper towel” which ultimately required a serious operation.
Sidelined for five months in total, De Bruyne was greeted with a hero’s welcome when making his comeback from the bench in City’s 5-0 drubbing of Huddersfield in the FA Cup third round, requiring just 17 minutes to lay on a trademark assist for compatriot Jeremy Doku.
His Premier League return was even more memorable, with De Bruyne introduced to the fray with City 2-1 down against Newcastle at St James' Park in the 69th minute, and proceeding to turn the match in his side's favour with a sensational goal and an assist to seal a 3-2 victory.
Having underperformed in the first half of the Premier League campaign by their own staggering standards in the absence of De Bruyne, with the Citizens dropping a total of 17 points in their opening 19 matches, there has been a mounting sense of anticipation surrounding the talismanic Belgian’s return and the ramifications it could have for the rest of the season...
Kevin De Bruyne is warming up, the whole country is starting to shake.
- Jurgen Klopp, January 2024
In the life of an elite modern day footballer, an opportunity to put your feet up and recalibrate your thoughts is not something that comes around too often.
Especially in the case of Kevin De Bruyne, with the 32-year-old having played a total of 215 games for club in country over the past five seasons.
The Belgium captain, who has previously spoken out on the gruelling schedules top level footballers are forced to abide by and the lack of regard for player welfare, has sought to take the positives from his extended injury lay-off this season.
De Bruyne, who is sporting a new rockstar image upon his return to football having grown out his hair, told the press in January 2024: “It’s not like I needed a break, but I took it and turned a disadvantage into an advantage.
“Maybe it was good for me to reset a little bit in a way and take care of myself when it is not really possible to during the year.”
With City having been sub-par over the course of the first 19 matches of the Premier League season, there has been suggestions Pep Guardiola’s squad are lacking the requisite motivation to keep on winning after last term’s treble exploits.
Perhaps De Bruyne’s return at the halfway stage of the season will provide a timely stimulus to kickstart City’s annual bid for trophies, with the influential midfielder experiencing a fresh gratitude to be back doing what he loves with a new lease of life.
You’d only have to acknowledge the reception he received from City supporters and the look on his teammates’ faces following De Bruyne’s return against Huddersfield to recognise how big a boost the Belgian’s comeback truly is at the Etihad.
Although not your quintessential leader, with an often understated persona and Kyle Walker assuming the captaincy this season, De Bruyne is undoubtedly the go-to figure on the field for City who his teammates so often turn to for inspiration.
Everyone was buzzing to see him back. If we're going to win anything, we need him at it.
- Phil Foden, January 2024
Kevin De Bruyne is the only player in Europe's top five leagues to have registered 25+ assists since the start of the 2022/23 season.
De Bruyne’s return to fitness has contributed to a shared feeling that Guardiola’s juggernaut of a City side are primed to finally kick into gear this term and enjoy an unstoppable second half of the season.
Just as their Premier League rivals had thought they had got to grips with Guardiola’s men, with the Citizens enduring a difficult start to the campaign, out comes the ace card in the form of the imperious De Bruyne.
It has become a theme of Catalan genius Guardiola’s eight-year reign at the Etihad for his City sides to grow into the season and find their top level following the turn of the year.
Indeed, in the five title-winning seasons under the ex-Barcelona boss, City have only topped the table twice on New Years’ Eve.
Last term was an example of this trend, with City trailing Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal by five points at the end of 2022 before going on to clinch the Premier League title with three games of the season to spare.
Long winning streaks have underpinned City’s marches to league titles in yesteryear, winning 12 Premier League games on the bounce between February and May last term having won an incredible 15 on the trot between December and March in the 2020/21 campaign.
De Bruyne’s comeback could be just the catalyst City need to embark on their latest win streak and turn the title race back in their favour, especially with goalscoring extraordinaire Erling Haaland seemingly on the cusp of his own return from injury having spent the last month on the sidelines with a foot problem.
Just as rivals Liverpool and Tottenham have lost star players Mo Salah and Heung-min Son for around a month each to the Africa Cup of Nations and Asian Cup respectively, City are seeing their own key men return to the fray.
In De Bruyne and Haaland, City possess one of the most frightening duos not only in world football at the moment but throughout the history of the Premier League.
Last season saw De Bruyne assist 13 of Haaland’s breathtaking tally of 52 goals in all competitions, with his total of eight assists for the Norwegian in the Premier League making it the most productive partnership in England’s top flight.
With a revitalised De Bruyne back leading the supply line and the returning Haaland the most common benefactor of the Belgian’s peerless vision and passing range, City could take some stopping from now until the end of this season.
|Premier League Season
|Points (First 19 Matches)
|Points (Last 19 Matches)
|Final League Position
Ever since Phil Foden burst onto the scene as a precocious teenager at Man City, it seems there has been a widely-held opinion amongst football supporters that the Stockport-born midfielder was destined for a future in a central playmaking position which would allow him to maximise his influence on matches.
Although this has yet to fully materialise under Guardiola at City, with Foden continuing to be utilised out wide more often than not, De Bruyne’s extended unavailability has seen the 23-year-old provided with more opportunities to play infield, most notably in recent weeks with the Englishman registering seven goal contributions in his last seven matches in all competitions.
Throwing De Bruyne back into the mix casts doubt over the position the in-form Foden will occupy for the rest of the campaign.
In City’s historic treble season last term, there was no doubting who the main man was in the middle of the park – with De Bruyne awarded the Premier League’s Playmaker of the Season awarded with the most assists in the top flight with 16.
|Big Chances Created
|Kevin De Bruyne
* - Stats drawn from all competitions, Man City's top five creative players
The City team that delivered the treble at the business end of last season was assembled in an innovative 3-2-4-1 formation constructed by Guardiola, with John Stones taking up a defensive midfield position alongside Rodri in front of a three-man backline.
This system enabled City to obtain clear numerical superiority in the middle of the park, with De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan typically pulling the strings in front of Stones and Rodri with Foden forced to battle the likes of Bernardo Silva, Jack Grealish and Riyad Mahrez for a place on one of the flanks.
The picture is markedly different this season as a result of both transfers out and injuries, with Gundogan and Mahrez departing for Barcelona and Al-Ahli respectively and De Bruyne having ruptured his hamstring.
As a result, Guardiola has been forced to adapt the team’s shape this season, with a return to a more typical back four and Argentine World Cup winner Julian Alvarez becoming a regular in the side as the primary link between the midfield and Haaland in attack.
Could De Bruyne’s return see Guardiola revert to the formation which helped City end their Champions League hoodoo and clinch the treble last season?
This is certainly one way to fit both De Bruyne and Foden into central berths, with the Belgian enjoying a fruitful partnership with Gundogan in this system last season, with the German scoring a number of pivotal goals at the back end of the campaign to help steer the treble to the blue side of Manchester.
Guardiola has intimated he is ready to pair up De Bruyne and Foden, comparing this selection dilemma to the one faced when fusing together arguably one of the finest midfields of all time at Barcelona, telling the media in January 2024:
"When I arrived in Barcelona people said Xavi and Iniesta and [Sergio] Busquets could not play together, why not? It is really important to put a lot of talent there in the central positions."
Stones and Rodri shielding the defence and building the play with De Bruyne and Foden given free rein to create ahead of them, what’s not to like?
Pep Guardiola's Man City will bid to become the first English team ever to win four successive league titles this season.