Pep Guardiola lacked defining figures in his first season at Manchester City. For all that the Catalan’s philosophy is based on the collective of the team, he requires spiritual leaders who embody his ways and methods on the pitch. Think Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta, Philipp Lahm and of course, Lionel Messi.
It wasn’t clear who was going to step forward as such a figure at the Etihad Stadium last season. Ilkay Gundogan was close to doing so, but then suffered a season-ending injury. Gabriel Jesus made an instant impact upon arriving in January, but being so young, it seemed unfair to place such lofty expectations on him. Then there was Kevin De Bruyne.
The Belgian was considered a central figure of Guardiola’s from the moment the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss arrived at Man City, but as was applicable to almost everything at the club last season, he remained something of a work-in-progress. Now, however, de Bruyne has become the man who defines Guardiola’s team. He can add his name to the aforementioned list of spiritual leaders.
De Bruyne is a different sort of Guardiola midfielder, though. If we are to take the legendary Barcelona midfield unit as a model of what the Catalan coach expects from his central operators, the Belgian doesn’t fit the mould of a Sergio Busquets, a Xavi Hernandez or an Iniesta.
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This City side doesn’t play ‘Tiki-Taka’ and neither does de Bruyne, with the 26-year-old a much more direct midfielder than anyone Guardiola coached at Barcelona. Of course, Thiago – a similar sort of player – thrived when fit under the Catalan at Bayern Munich, but not even the Spanish international is as dynamic as de Bruyne.
Luka Modric is perhaps the closest to de Bruyne in terms of playing style, making an art form of picking the ball up from deep, driving over the halfway line and picking a pass in the final third. He’s a box to box midfielder, but not in the way the likes of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard were box to box midfielders.This is a different interpretation of the role.
The development of de Bruyne says a lot about Guardiola, too. Questions were asked of the former Barca and Bayern coach upon his arrival at the Etihad Stadium, but one persisted more than the others – is he capable of imposing a different style of play on a team? Guardiola had set the zeitgeist for an entire era with ‘Tiki-Taka,’ but could he alter that philosophy depending on the task at hand?
The form of De Bruyne shows that he can, with the Belgian now the centrepiece of a team that is completely different to the side Guardiola forged at both Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Those accusations can no longer be angled at the Catalan, particularly with City blowing away all before them over the early stages of the season.
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Now, talk has turned to De Bruyne’s contract situation, with the player himself insisting there is no rush to press ahead with discussions. But with the Belgian’s agent recently referencing Paris Saint-Germain, City mustn’t stall in tying their most important player down to a new deal. “My agent went already one time to Txiki [Begiristain, City director of football],” de Bruyne explained after the Champions League win over Napoli on Tuesday night. “Talks are coming. I’m patient anyway, I don’t stress. I think I read something in the press but I have time.”
Guardiola, for one, will appreciate the significance of de Bruyne. It’s taken him longer than expected to instil an ideology at Man City, but finally, fundamental change is taking force. Much of that is down to de Bruyne. He has come to embody both his team and his manager this season.