IT’S hard to like Manchester City these days. Their decade-long dominance of English football’s top-tier, along with their sports-washing owners flushing money through the system makes them the perfect model to be the league’s bad-guys. But even with all that, there are some things in the club that a neutral can still find admirable, and for me, one player in particular.
Wednesday night’s dismantling of Arsenal’s title challenge was but another awesome example of City’s control over the league.
While Arsenal’s procession to the top of the table and an eventual title win may have been a bit premature, great credit must go to such a young squad and Mikel Arteta for what they’ve achieved this season. But when they came up against the relentless juggernaut that is Man City, at this time of the year, it was kind of clear to see the men against boys scenario being played out at the Ethiad. Once March comes around, if you are not 10 points ahead with a game in hand, you are looking over your shoulder with the fear of ‘what are City going to do now?’ Just ask Liverpool, who may feel a bit vindicated by Arsenal’s struggle as proof of just how hard it is to get the better of Man City’s relentless push for the title.
And the player that has epitomised that drive at City more than any other in his near on decade at the club is Kevin De Bruyne. As much as we might wish for City to meet their comeuppance against a young exciting side like Arsenal, there is no denying the excellence of De Bruyne’s talent and admire the way he conducts himself on and off the pitch.
Wednesday night’s clash was maybe the best example of his prowess in a long time. The Belgian midfielder dominated all aspects of the game. Creating the passes from his ‘quarterback’ position just behind Erling Haaland, he controlled the entire City attack moving it from side to side, putting Arsenal on the backfoot with quick turns and ability to turn defence into counterattack with a single incisive pass.
And if that wasn’t enough he personally contributed to City’s goal tally twice as well. Right from the off you could see he was up for it and that it was going to be a tough night for the Gunners, when just seven minutes in, he latched onto a sweet Haaland flick, drove on with a determination belying his veteran role and then bended in the most exquisitely struck 25 yard daisy-cutter past Aaron Ramsdale.
Just before the break, De Bruyne turned provider from a lovely arced free-kick for John Stones’ headed goal. And then he effectively finished the game as a contest eight minutes into the second half when he beautifully side-footed the ball through Rob Holding’s legs, wide of Ramsdale, and into the net.
The nutmeg was not a cheeky or disrespectful display of bravado, it was simply the only route to goal for De Bruyne to score from that position and he took it. And the strike visibly broke Arsenal’s hearts and will at that point.
It may not be surprising that Arsenal’s only goal came after De Bruyne was substituted after 80 minutes in the game. The cameras picked out De Bruyne later on the bench and despite him doing more than his share of the work, you could see he was still living every minute with his team-mates still on the field and he celebrated Haaland’s late winner, on the side-line, as much as his own goals.
This is not saying City are a one-man team, far from it. Ilkay Gundogan, Bernardo Silava, Jack Grealish and of course Haaland all put in great shifts for the win. And City have been defined by the fact that they have two to three players in each position that can do a job as good if not better than the player they replace. But if there is an exception to that rule in this team it is De Bruyne.
With him on the field and in form there are few players in the world more enjoyable to watch. The simplicity with which he sees and plays the game hides his extraordinary vision, use of the ball, and match-winning decision making. And it is all done with a humble shrug of the shoulders that avoids some of the more ridiculous god-like worship that many players buy-into themselves.
The cameras were all on Haaland when he let his golden Viking locks flow free ahead of his goal to close out the scoring for City. But there was no doubt about it, that in his brilliant and unobtrusive way, the game had already been well and truly won by De Bruyne at that stage.