Kevin De Bruyne and the journey to perfecting midfield simplicity

Kevin De Bruyne and the journey to perfecting midfield simplicity

Leonardo Da Vinci once said: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Life is full of complexities, yet success often derives from the simplest of acts. For Kevin De Bruyne, that simple act was scoring a goal. One that meant more than just success to him, it was an ebullient moment of vindication.

Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City had all but battered Chelsea into submission, yet the game remained scoreless. In 2016/17, it would have been typical of the side to fall short in their search for supremacy, failing to break the deadlock or worse still, gifting the opposition an undeserved winner through a momentary lapse in defensive concentration. This season, however, was different.

Receiving the ball on the half-turn, De Bruyne adjusted his body shape to play a vertical pass into the feet of Gabriel Jesus. The Brazilian striker immediately returned the favour, laying it back to him before the Belgian drove forwards, taking the game by the scruff of the neck, and rifled his left-footed shot across goal to score the eventual winner.

The strike bore individual significance to De Bruyne for two reasons, starting with the man his shot flew past, Thibaut Courtois. The pair had been great friends growing up together, playing for both Genk and the Belgium national side. But their relationship soured rapidly when De Bruyne discovered his girlfriend at the time had been unfaithful to him, with none other than Courtois.

The second reason was the club, Chelsea. The Blues had given De Bruyne his first taste of English football back in 2012, signing him alongside compatriot Courtois in a deal worth around £7m. It was no surprise, really – his mother had family in England and a young Kevin spent a lot of his youth visiting their home in the London borough of Ealing, just a short drive from Stamford Bridge. The transfer should have been the midfielder’s big break.

Alas, the agony of infidelity weighed heavy on De Bruyne’s heart. It had affected his focus, work-rate, and drive. What he needed was an arm around the shoulder, a father figure of a coach to help him through this emotional rut. Unfortunately, no such olive branch was extended.

Manager José Mourinho was confident in De Bruyne’s abilities but reserved doubts over his mental strength. The Portuguese tactician is a born winner and has never suffered fools gladly. What ensued was an ugly tit-for-tat that resulted in De Bruyne leaving London after only three league appearances. Mourinho’s parting shot was to label him a “cry baby”, while the Belgian stated things would have been different if he was “a £45m player”.

De Bruyne has always been strong in his convictions. This is a player who left boyhood club Drongen aged eight after telling his coach “the training sessions are better at Gent.” Having been born in the Ghent sub-municipality, he spent his formative years carrying a football with him wherever he went. The youngster honed his weaker foot in his back garden at the request of his parents, who were worried about the damage Kevin was inflicting on their plant pots.

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After representing Drongen for two years, the plucky playmaker moved to regional giants Gent and fast made a name for himself. His youth coaches were unsure – this was a boy with undoubted talent, yet something was unsettling about his forthright nature. Kevin wasn’t so much a rebel, more strong-willed, but either way, they thought it best to iron this trait out of his persona. It did not end well.

“He just held on to one of the posts and refused to let go. He was in a rage. Three of us tried to pull him away from it but we didn’t manage,” recalled Frank De Leyn, De Bruyne’s old coach. He was reminiscing about a training camp in Barcelona where the adolescent midfielder was reprimanded for failing to help clear away equipment after training. “He was stubborn as hell, like a mule, but I also think that it is that stubbornness, that character trait, that has made him the player he is now.” 

Inevitably, their personalities clashed. De Bruyne’s self-assurance proving the antithesis to De Leyn’s autocratic discipline. He was one of the brightest talents in Gent’s academy and couldn’t conceive why his coach was so hard on him. News of the player’s discontent travelled the length and breadth of the nation and it wasn’t long before Genk made contact, coaxing their adversary’s starlet.

Moving across the country aged 14 wasn’t an easy decision, but one that De Bruyne made with uncompromised tunnel-vision. He wanted to become a professional footballer more than anything; his drive and obstinacy only further accentuated by others attempts to strip him of them. He swiftly established himself at the fulcrum of Genk’s under-21 side. Often playing out wide, he demonstrated versatility by wreaking havoc from the channels and providing sublime service for the side’s target man, Christian Benteke.

Naturally, he progressed into the first team and made his debut at 17. His first full season of action was a challenging one and Genk even flirted with the idea of relegation. The curve was steep but De Bruyne was a fast learner. In 2010/11 he took the Pro League by storm, scoring five and assisting a further 16, as De Smurfen won their third championship and cemented himself as a vital cog in midfield.

His dexterous aptitude attracted admiring glances from across Europe and, in January 2012, he signed for Chelsea before seeing out the rest of the season at Genk on loan. Another loan spell followed and this time as De Bruyne packed up his box of tricks and headed for Germany.

In many ways, his spell at Werder Bremen was the making of the Belgian. Thomas Schaaf, Die Werderaner’s manager, appreciated the talent he had at his disposal and immediately afforded his new signing creative license. His faith was rewarded as De Bruyne shone, helping his new club maintain their Bundesliga status despite their failings to win any of the last 12 league fixtures.

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What was so impressive about De Bruyne’s game, alongside the spectacular, was its blissful simplicity. While other advanced players made their name with exuberant skills or astounding goals, the playmaker combined this with the ability to bring out the best in others. Great moves are often initiated by stunning foresight; a line-breaking pass, a perfectly weighted ball, and in De Bruyne, Bremen had their architect.

He was named Bundesliga Young Player of the Year and racked up an impressive 10 goals and nine assists. Naturally, he headed back to his parent club brimming with confidence only to be let down by external factors, impatience and obduracy. The aforementioned conflict with Mourinho resulted in an £18m transfer back to German shores, this time with Wolfsburg.

De Bruyne was left angry and frustrated at Chelsea – he was clearly a talented individual, but needed to feel loved and wanted. Thankfully, that indignation was ephemeral, as new coach Dieter Hecking made him feel special from day one. He repaid his faith in the only way he knew how – with a myriad of goals and assists.

The 2014/15 season marked his best season to date. Die Wölfe finished runners-up to Pep Guardiola’s Bayern machine and won the DFB-Pokal. De Bruyne struck 16 times and racked up a sensational 27 assists – 21 in the league alone, a Bundesliga record. He also shone on the European stage. His exquisite volley against Lille helped secure their Europa League group qualification before he netted two goals in the last-16 against Inter Milan.

“He is a phenomenon, you can find him everywhere on the pitch, but then he also manages to disappear and emerge at the right time,” Hecking eulogised as he was named Footballer of the Year in Germany. “He is a perfect player when you look at transitions from defence to offence. He has a fantastic anticipation level for empty space and opponents find it incredibly difficult to defend against him.”

Indeed, the Belgian was now operating on a level far beyond his peers and keeping him at the club became unfeasible. As a £55m move to Manchester City materialised, his converted penalty that helped Wolfsburg lift the 2015 DFL-Supercup proved to be De Bruyne’s leaving present to a club that had given him so much.

Upon his return to England, he stated: “I want to reach the highest level possible as a player and I think the most important thing is that at the end of the season we can be happy and maybe have some titles.” As always, De Bruyne was determined in his approach and not perturbed by becoming the Premier League’s second most expensive signing ever.

He enjoyed a solid start to life in Manchester, although his price tag and history still led some quarters of the media to label him merely a Chelsea flop. However, the longer the season went on, the quieter his critics became, and his season reached its apex in April. Having already helped City secure the League Cup, he scored the winner at the Etihad in the Champions League quarter-final against Paris Saint-Germain, curling a lovely shot past Kevin Trapp and sending the club through to their first ever semi-final. 

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That summer, De Bruyne teamed up with the man who would transform him from a world-class midfielder, into arguably the world’s best. Pep Guardiola was announced as the new manager and was effusive in his praise of the Belgian. “I think he is a special, outstanding player. He makes everything. Without the ball he is the first fighter, and with the ball he is clear – he sees absolutely everything.”

The 2016/17 season was a testing one for the Citizens. Guardiola’s lack of pace at full-back meant De Bruyne was shoehorned into a variety of positions, playing everywhere from centre-forward to wing-back. Despite being used in so many varied roles and systems, though, he still produced a mightily impressive 23 assists. He later admitted that playing all over the pitch gave him a greater appreciation of his teammates’ thinking and movement, strengthening his wavelength with them.

With Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and Danilo acquired in the summer, the midfielder looked set to assume his customary role. There was just one more event that would put the cherry on the icing on the cake.

Belgium had just thrashed Estonia 8-1 to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia but, significantly, it was a game that saw the attacking midfielder play a more withdrawn role. Such was De Bruyne’s impact in this position, Guardiola has decided to utilise him to similar effect this season; a tactical switch that has produced staggering results and prompted Pep to say: “Messi is on a table on his own. No-one else is allowed. But the table beside, Kevin can sit there.”

Now 27 years of age and an ineliminable fixture in Guardiola’s ostensibly unconquerable behemoth, De Bruyne is at the peak of his powers. His goal against Chelsea spoke of his nonpareil influence and further performances against Stoke and Arsenal helped cement Manchester City’s position on the way to the title.

His sublime goals, flashy step-overs and 40-yard passes may make the headlines, but it is his consistent ability to make the football look so simple that makes him special. The bullish, stubborn characteristics remain but they are blended with lovely, almost poetic technique.

De Bruyne was once dubbed “the modern Cruyff”’ by his under-21 manager at Genk and, in the words of the great man, himself: “Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.” When it comes to breaking down football’s complexities, there’s simply no one better.

By Charlie Carmichael @CharlieJC93

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