Bayern Munich head coach Jupp Heynckes recently said that Kevin De Bruyne is the best player in Europe, in his experienced eyes. To illustrate the importance of the former Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg winger, Manchester City's seemingly relentless march towards the 2017/18 Premier League title would be more of a gruelling battle without him. Don't believe us? Read on…
The Citizens, coached by former Bayern Munich boss Pep Guardiola, are blazing a trail at the top of England's highest division and a first league title for the Catalan since leading Bayern to three straight Bundesliga crowns is theirs for the taking. However, the task would have been far tougher had it not been for the contribution De Bruyne has made, which the statistics around his and City's season shows.
Watch: Kevin De Bruyne - Made In 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.
Of the 21 goals or assists he had up until mid-February 2018, ten of them had earned City a victory – equating to a gain of 20 points. Without those, City would have been trailing Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea, and ahead of Tottenham Hotspur only on goal difference heading into the final quarter of the season.
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.
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 Munich, 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: Kevin De Bruyne's masterclass against Bayern Munich!
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.