With one goal and six assists in the Premier League this season, Manchester City's top scorer from last season's title win has a new role. A look at how Kevin De Bruyne is continuing to solve problems for Pep Guardiola ahead of the Manchester derby...
Sunday 2 October 2022 14:55, UK
Manchester City look and feel different this season because of Erling Haaland but what is also fascinating is how the roles and responsibilities of those around him have changed. The shapeshifting qualities Kevin De Bruyne have become apparent.
De Bruyne was Manchester City's top scorer in their Premier League title win last season with 15 goals in his 30 appearances. From his winning goal against Chelsea in January to the end of the season, only Heung-Min Son scored more non-penalty goals.
The Belgium international can still score. He showed that with a sweetly-struck shot from the edge of the box for his country during this international break. But the midfield playmaker has embraced a new role within the team since Haaland's arrival.
"Kevin scored a lot of goals last season," said Guardiola after the 3-0 win over Wolves in which Haaland was among the scorers for the seventh consecutive match. "But this year he is more about assists than goals." There were two of them for De Bruyne at Molineux.
It was the perfect fixture in which to illustrate the shift. The stadium had been the scene of a four-goal masterclass from De Bruyne in May. Remarkably, he has been involved in more goals at Molineux in 2022 than any other player - including those in a Wolves shirt.
Now, however, he finds himself back in the role of provider. De Bruyne has six assists so far this Premier League season. That is two more than Bukayo Saka and double that of any other player. He is on course for another tilt at his own record of 20 assists.
The figure of his six assists is a little inflated by the quality of the finishing of his team-mates, Haaland included. But the creativity of De Bruyne is unmatched. He has an expected assists total that is double that of almost every other player in the Premier League.
In a recent interview, De Bruyne was typically matter-of-fact in his appraisal of his own contribution. "I try to create as many chances as possible for my team and if they score I will get an assist," he explained. "I have been doing the same thing since I came here."
In one sense, that is true. He has 92 Premier League assists now. Level with Steven Gerrard. One behind David Silva. Two behind Dennis Bergkamp. All three will surely trail him soon. But what is interesting is that he is doing it in a slightly different way now.
Both of his assists against Wolves came from right-wing crosses as a result of overlapping runs. He was fed by Phil Foden for the first and Haaland for the second. Three of his six assists this season have been crosses from that right-wing position.
Is there a new plan this season? "It is game by game, everything changes every time," he says. "There have been years of games where I have played more defensively and then more attacking and a No 9. It depends on whatever he has got in his mind."
Look at De Bruyne's positional heatmaps from the last three seasons and the similarities are obvious. He plays in those half spaces, albeit increasingly focused on the right, in that zone where he can cross, shoot or thread a pass through the defence with either foot.
But there is a noticeable blue patch this season that is a little closer to the touchline, higher up the pitch than before. Perhaps that is an indication of those overlapping runs where De Bruyne is now opting to go outside rather than crowd Haaland in the penalty box.
He is looking to serve others rather than be served himself.
Already there have been 61 touches in that small part of the pitch on the ring wing. The percentage of his touches in that zone this season is 16.1 per cent - that is a higher percentage than his previous six Premier League seasons at Manchester City.
Maybe this is De Bruyne's next trick. Even Guardiola struggled to come up with a new superlative for the player, settling for incredible when asked on the seventh anniversary of him signing for City. He praised his work rate, another feature of his season so far.
De Bruyne played 72 minutes at Wolves, having played the whole game against Dortmund in midweek. At 31, he gave himself a four-week break from football this summer for the first time in his life in the knowledge that it could take him longer to get up to speed.
Instead, as with so much else, De Bruyne seems to have got it spot on. Forever the shapeshifter, his game has always been about the search for space. If he has had to adapt, it is natural that it should involve trying to find that space elsewhere on the pitch.
In 2019, Gary Neville talked of that place being the so-called half-space: about 30 yards from goal and in from touchline. It became the De Bruyne zone. "I think it's getting to a point now where you cannot allow De Bruyne into this space on the right," said Neville.
"De Bruyne is repeating the level of quality and precision from that inside-right channel that David Beckham produced for Manchester United and that is not something that I thought I would see again in the Premier League for a long time."
Three years on and De Bruyne has found another zone. City have changed because of Haaland. But do not underestimate the ever brilliant De Bruyne, tweaking his own game to ensure that his team always have exactly what they need from him.