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Kevin De Bruyne and the half space: Manchester City’s key weapon
Last Updated: 15/09/19 12:15pm
Kevin De Bruyne's return to fitness is already giving Manchester City a new dimension thanks to his trademark ability to exploit the 'half spaces', writes Adam Bate. The Belgium midfielder is making the best better...
Kevin De Bruyne became the first player to register a hat-trick of assists in a single Euro 2020 qualifier during Belgium's 4-0 win away to Scotland. It took him only 32 minutes. That is eight assists already this season for club and country. He has only played six games. After a relatively quiet campaign last time out, De Bruyne is back and nobody seems to be able to cope.
That the midfielder started only 11 Premier League games for Manchester City last season did not prove a problem for Pep Guardiola's side. The coach found alternative solutions with City winning their last nine without him. Bernardo Silva moved inside for six of them, while Ilkay Gundogan played in a more advanced role away to Everton and Manchester United.
And yet, remarkable as it might seem given their absurdly-high standards, De Bruyne still offers something more. That has been apparent already. With him back doing his thing in that right-inside channel - an area that might reasonably now be known as the De Bruyne zone - City have once again added to their formidable range of ways they can hurt teams.
Against Tottenham, De Bruyne delivered the cross from this zone for Raheem Sterling's opening goal. Spurs might have been able to get away with standing off any other player in that position but he punished them, whipping in a ball that cut the defenders out of the game and sparking a debate about where he ranks among the game's greatest crossers.
"He was unplayable," Gary Neville told Sky Sports. "It took me back to playing with the best crosser of the ball I played with, David Beckham. De Bruyne is repeating the level of quality and precision from that inside-right channel that Beckham produced for United and that is not something I thought I would see again in the Premier League for a long time."
De Bruyne is not an obvious candidate given that he is not a natural winger. As can be seen from his shot-assist map so far this season, not one of his deliveries into the box have come from the touch-line or even close to it. Instead, De Bruyne crosses - or, to be more accurate, passes - the ball in from a much more dangerous area. He is the master of the half space.
The half space has long been a staple of coaching courses with Guardiola regarded as one of its greatest exponents. The City coach is even known to divide the pitch into zones on the training ground and place huge emphasis on this area of the field. The half spaces offer greater possibilities than the flanks but more freedom than the congested central zones.
Getting his team on the ball in this area is one of Guardiola's key ideas. "Firstly, we look wide," he has explained. "It is impossible when teams are defending deep to be narrow." But this width often comes from the wide forwards, opening up space between the full-back and the centre-back to be exploited by underlapping full-backs or advanced midfielders.
Nobody does this as well as De Bruyne. Crucially, he does it in more ways than one. The second goal against Tottenham saw him dart in behind to set up Sergio Aguero. Against Brighton, he made a run off his team-mate to break free of the back line before picking out Aguero with a square pass - the striker doing the rest inside the box to score.
De Bruyne has the running ability of a full-back but greater quality when he gets in these positions. He has the playmaking ability of David Silva but greater pace with which to get there. Guardiola has even cited this as one of the reasons for a slight change of approach since his Barcelona days. "When we have players like … Kevin De Bruyne we attack more the spaces."
Sometimes, of course, there is not that space in behind in which to operate. "When teams are defending deep there are not so many metres to attack them," Guardiola has explained. It is a problem that has stifled some of City's rivals with Manchester United, in particular, lacking the quality to pick out that killer pass when faced with a packed defence.
City still find a way and De Bruyne's opening assist from the half space against Spurs was an example of that extra dimension that he brings. The ability to hurt teams in two different ways from the half space gives him - and City - the edge. Give him space to run into and he will take advantage. Back off and give him time to pick his spot and he is just as devastating.
De Bruyne has created 16 chances so far this season, the most by any player in the Premier League. He has five assists in the competition so far. Silva has four. Nobody else in the Premier League has more than two. It owes much to the quality of the team in which they are playing in, of course, and also to the finishing ability of Manchester City's forwards.
But it also reflects how they have mastered what would once have been seen as a peculiar position - that role as 'free eights' within Guardiola's system. Not quite forwards but able to find space behind the opposition midfield nevertheless. "The intention is to play from the back and then scroll it to me and David, so we can be five against four," says De Bruyne.
Norwich are the team that will be facing that challenge on Saturday. It is not obvious how they will be able to cope with it any better than Scotland did in Glasgow. Attempt to defend with a higher line or with the full-backs pushed on and De Bruyne will expect to break through. Defend too deep and Norwich risk giving him too much freedom there instead.
"I think it's getting to a point now where you cannot allow De Bruyne into this space on the right," said Neville. "You have to deal with the threat, which is De Bruyne. He is that good from that position. Teams have to stop him by defending a bit unconventionally." The problem of De Bruyne and the half space is now well known. The search for a solution continues.