Manchester City look and feel different this season because of Erling Haaland, but what’s also fascinating is how the roles and responsibilities of those around him have changed. The shape-shifting qualities of Kevin De Bruyne became evident.
De Bruyne was Manchester City’s top scorer in their Premier League title win last season with 15 goals in 30 appearances. From his winning goal against Chelsea in January to the end of the season, only Heung-Min Son has scored more goals without a penalty.
The Belgian international can still score. He showed it with a nice shot from the edge of the box for his country during this international break. But the midfield playmaker has taken on a new role with the team since Haaland’s arrival.
“Kevin scored a lot of goals last season,” Guardiola said after the 3-0 win over Wolves in which Haaland was among the goalscorers for the seventh game in a row. “But this year it’s more about assists than goals.” There were two for De Bruyne at Molineux.
It was the perfect montage to illustrate the change. 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 wearing a Wolves shirt.
Now, however, he finds himself in the role of provider. De Bruyne has bagged six assists so far this Premier League season. That’s two more than Bukayo Saka and double any other player. He’s on course for another tilt to his own record 20 assists.
The figure for his six assists is a little inflated by the quality of finishing of his teammates, Haaland included. But De Bruyne’s creativity is unmatched. He has an expected assist tally that is double that of almost every other player in the Premier League.
In a recent interview, De Bruyne was generally pragmatic in his assessment 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’ve been doing the same since I’ve been here.”
In a sense, it’s true. He now has 92 assists in the Premier League. Level with Steven Gerrard. One behind David Silva. Two behind Dennis Bergkamp. All three will surely follow him soon. But what’s interesting is that he does it in a slightly different way now.
Both of his assists against Wolves came from crosses from the right following overlapping runs. He was nurtured 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’s game after game, everything changes every time,” he said. “There were years of games where I played more defensively, then more attacking and a No.9. It depends on what he has in mind.”
Look at De Bruyne’s positional heatmaps from the last three seasons and the similarities are obvious. He plays in those half-spaces, although increasingly focused on the right, in that area where he can drive through, shoot or pass through the defense with either foot.
But there’s a noticeable blue patch this season that’s a bit closer to the touchline, higher up the pitch than before. Perhaps it’s an indication of those overlapping runs where De Bruyne is now opting to go out rather than cram Haaland into the penalty area.
He seeks to serve others rather than to be served himself.
There have already been 61 touches in this small part of the field on the wing of the ring. The percentage of his touches in this area this season is 16.1%, a percentage higher than his previous six seasons in the Premier League at Manchester City.
This may be De Bruyne’s next trick. Even Guardiola struggled to come up with a new superlative for the player, settling for incredible when asked about the seventh anniversary of his signing for City. He praised his work rate, another hallmark of his season so far.
De Bruyne played 72 minutes at Wolves, having played the full game against Dortmund in midweek. The 31-year-old took a four-week break from football this summer for the first time in his life, knowing it might take him longer to catch up.
Instead, as with so much else, De Bruyne seems to have it all figured out. Always metamorphic, his game has always been the search for space. If he’s had to adapt, it’s only natural to try to find that space elsewhere on the pitch.
In 2019, Gary Neville referred to this spot as the so-called half-space: about 30 yards from goal and the touchline. It became the De Bruyne area. “I think we’re getting to a point now where you can’t allow De Bruyne to get into that space on the right,” Neville said.
“De Bruyne repeats the level of quality and precision of that inside right channel that David Beckham produced for Manchester United and it’s not something I thought I’d see again in the Premier League for a long time.”
Three years later and De Bruyne has found another area. The city has changed because of Haaland. But don’t underestimate the ever-brilliant De Bruyne, polishing his own game to ensure his side always have exactly what they need from him.