It's safe to say Manchester City's march towards back-to-back English Premier League titles would have been far more gruelling if the Citizens didn't have former Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg midfielder Kevin De Bruyne pulling the strings. Don't believe us? Read on…
His great success in England was possible thanks to him discovering himself as a player in the Bundesliga. Just over three seasons in Germany’s top flight paved the way for him to go from a supposed flop at English Premier League side Chelsea, to an unstoppable playmaker supreme with City.
bundesliga.com tells the story of De Bruyne, who was made in the Bundesliga…
Watch: Kevin De Bruyne - Made in the Bundesliga!
The assist king
De Bruyne set a new Bundesliga record with 21 assists in a single season as a Wolfsburg player in the 2014/15 campaign, bettering a mark set by another Wolf – Zvjezdan Misimovic – when Wolfsburg won the title back in 2009, and his crosses and corners are delivering similar success to City.
Indeed, over a two-year period up to December 2017, no player in any of Europe's top leagues had supplied as many as De Bruyne's 35 assists, yet he was not always such a hit in England. Not before he joined Bremen from Chelsea, and honed his trade to perfection in Germany.
De Bruyne’s 2018/2019 season was marred by injuries that kept him out of the City side for much of the first half of the campaign. However, his return to fitness (and a goal and two assists) saw him help Pep Guardiola’s side take three points from each of their last 14 matches and retain the Premier League title by a margin of a single point over Liverpool.
The previous season can widely be considered to be an annus mirabilis for both player and club: De Bruyne contributed eight goals and a whopping 16 assists as Manchester City won the league with an astonishing 100 points. If one removed De Bruyne’s goals and assists, Manchester City would have a final goal difference of +47 (instead of +79) and a final points tally of just 89, making the 2017/2018 Premier League look a much closer run affair than City’s romp to the title truly was.
He was at the heart of everything that went right for City, stepping up on the big occasions with goals against heavyweights Chelsea, Arsenal, Leicester, Tottenham, among others. Some of his club’s biggest victories can be chalked up to De Bruyne being particularly in the groove: He directly created two of the goals as City dismantled Liverpool 5-0, set up another two in a 7-2 rout of Stoke City, and grabbed three assists when City pummelled former champions Leicester 5-1.
At home in the Bundesliga
Jürgen Klopp, who was in charge of Borussia Dortmund at the time, was desperate to sign De Bruyne at the end of his one-year loan at Bremen, during which he almost single-handedly saved the northern Germany club from relegation, as a replacement for Mario Götze, who was moving to Bayern Munich. Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho refused to let him go, though, insisting he rated the Belgian highly, but then denying him a regular starting berth.
A transfer request landed on his desk in the winter.
"To be named the best player in a foreign country – that's some going," said De Bruyne. "This is great recognition of my season." More was to follow. His cross set up Nicklas Bendtner to equalise in the DFL Supercup against Bayern, before De Bruyne's penalty in the shootout proved to be a parting gift to the Wolves as they lifted another trophy, then recouped three times as much as what they had spent on him by selling him to City.
Legend has it De Bruyne strengthened his left foot to be as powerful and effective as his right when forced to play in a back yard with his weaker foot, with the expectation he could do less damage that way. It would seem the move did more good than harm, though, with the Belgian becoming an ambidextrous threat – just ask any Bundesliga defender who was tasked with dealing him.
Watch: Relive De Bruyne's starring role in Wolfsburg 5-1 Bayern!
Messi, Pele and De Bruyne
His quick changes of direction, excellent close control combined with an outstanding reading of the game and positional awareness mean De Bruyne has everything in his locker to be named in the same breath as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – and that is now happening increasingly often.
Guardiola knew what De Bruyne possessed, making a lethal weapon out of his quick thinking, accurate passing, bursts of pace and deadly finishing. So much so, the 26-year-old is being tipped to challenge the perennial contenders for the next Ballon D'Or. "After Messi comes Kevin," said Guardiola, who also got to know De Bruyne in their Bundesliga days, having also had the pleasure of working with the Argentinian magician at Barcelona.
Big words from one big former Bundesliga star to another, who is no stranger to such compliments. He is known as the white Pele in his native Belgium, after all.