Kevin De Bruyne didn’t have the most prominent game during Manchester City’s 2-1 loss to Everton and, to continue a theme which has run since his return to England, that seems to have provoked some fresh dissent.
Because of how much De Bruyne cost, it was always likely that he’d encounter some initial resistance, but it would be interesting to gage how many of those who still dispute his quality are actually watching him properly. That’s not an attempt to belittle those who don’t appreciate the player - this is a subjective sport, after all - but it does increasingly seem as if those who contest his value are now only doing so out of habit.
De Bruyne is an amazingly rounded footballer. He’s positionally diverse, of course, but he’s also capable of so many different things. His left foot is almost as reliable as his right, he can beat a defender on either side, and he’s equipped with both the creative mind and delicate technique of an elite playmaker and the predatory instincts of a top-level finisher.
Is he worth upwards of £50m? At twenty-four years-old and within the context of the current market, how is that even a question?
Anybody can look good in space. Give a moderately talented player the right amount of time and he too will produce a glowing YouTube compilation, but what separates the good from the excellent is typically the restriction of time and a more congested pitch. That, probably, is the right way to assess De Bruyne. Just as we have all marvelled at how well David Silva manages to plot his way through densely populated defences, the Belgian is shown for who he is when operating with a narrow margin of error. He sees the quick passes which most don’t and his processes the game around him at a much faster rate than the average player.
Last night may have not been successful, but it still provided an clear example of this.
The move above will end with Joel Robles making an excellent save. De Bruyne is about to push the ball into Sergio Aguero’s feet and then, by chasing his own pass, be in a position to side-foot the return ball towards the bottom-right corner. It’s interesting because it’s unusual - and because it’s something he has a habit of doing. Most players in this position would attempt the pass marked by the thicker arrow and try to slide Aguero in on-goal behind John Stones; that De Bruyne doesn’t is a measure of his ability.
If we assume that each bit of vision amounts to a single mental calculation, the thin arrow portrays the simplest option. It’s a difficult pass because of the margins involved, but seeing it doesn’t require any particular foresight. In contrast, the option he took required three or four different calculations to be made simultaneously and that, pretentious phrase though it is, is what’s implied by “processing speed”.
He and Aguero were the only City players involved in this move, so - for all intents and purposes - with the ball at his feet, De Bruyne is responsible for creating an opportunity from a two-on-five situation. But rather than play that slide-rule ball, he had the foresight and the execution to carve a better shooting angle out of almost nothing. His pass has to be accurate enough for it to reach Aguero and weighted in a way that will allow the Argentine the chance to lay it off with a single touch, but his follow-up run also had to be timed well-enough for him to be able to shoot without checking his stride or giving Gareth Barry the chance to either make an interception.
The difficulty level is extraordinary and there are very, very few players who would joined the dots of this move quite as effortlessly. It owed a lot to Sergio Aguero, of course, but the architect was De Bruyne and, you suspect, had Tim Howard been in goal it would have resulted in a beautiful equaliser.
There seems to be a minority assumption that where there is a £50m player, there should follow a steady stream of thirty-yard goals and match-winning heroics. It’s unrealistic and that can’t be the truest measure of how valuable a player really is. Instead, specifically in relation to playmakers, isn’t it more appropriate to determine their worth by assessing the range of opportunities they’re able to create and the general eclecticism within their game?
Within reason, anyone can make that thick arrow pass, but only the elite would see or attempt the other one. Kevin De Bruyne can do both and that’s one of the reasons why he’s worth as much as he is.