Premier League Reload - Matchday 6Sep 26
“He’s going to stay here, he’s going to stay here and that’s an exclusive,” joked Steve Bruce as he interrupted Kevin De Bruyne during a club media interview by the side of the pitch at St James’ Park.
The Newcastle boss had just seen his side exit the FA Cup quarter-final with a 2-0 defeat to City, with De Bruyne’s penalty sending Pep Guardiola’s men on their way to victory.
One of football’s nice guys, Bruce, had accepted defeat squarely on the chin and was even prepared to make a joke about it.
When you come up against the very best, sometimes there’s just not much you can do.
That is largely football’s response to De Bruyne.
Across the last three seasons the Belgian has been the best player in the division - bar none. Even if he did endure an injury-ravaged 2018/19 campaign.
Somehow he is still to land individual honours – with the Premier League Player of the Season awards going to Mohamed Salah and Virgil van Dijk instead in 2017/18 and 2018/19 respectively.
This season he’s been City’s best performer by far, in a year that many of his team-mates have failed to hit their own previous high standards, the 29-year-old has often stepped up and dragged his misfiring side to victory with his sheer brilliance.
A goal and an assist in the Champions League victory at Real Madrid, three goals and two man-of-the-match performances in two games against Arsenal, a goal and assist in the guard of honour match with Liverpool last week, De Bruyne has been scintillating.
The reverse fixture against Newcastle was another such occasion where De Bruyne’s class looked set to bail City out.
The midfielder belted in a screamer out of nothing to put City 2-1 when they looked devoid of ideas, before Jonjo Shelvey’s even-later leveller almost made the goal-of-the-season contender a forgotten goal.
The stunning free-kick in the 2-1 defeat at Chelsea, nominated for Jun's goal of the month, was a similar instance. While other star names have looked rusty, De Bruyne has remained at his unbelievable peak since returning from the postponement.
In the first match back against Arsenal he was head-and-shoulders above every other player on the pitch, as he ran the ran game in 70 sensational minutes of action.
In four starts since returning, De Bruyne has four goals and an assist.
In addition to 11 goals, the former Chelsea man has 17 assists in 31 appearances. He needs only three more from City’s final seven matches to equal Thierry Henry’s all-time Premier League record of 20 in the 2002/03 season with Arsenal.
“I always joked with Henry in the national team, even at Vincent Kompany’s testimonial this year,” De Bruyne said last month. “I said [to him] ‘I’m coming for you this year’.”
Danny Murphy, a former Liverpool player, went a step further when he called De Bruyne the “best midfielder in the world” and insisted it was ridiculous for the 29-year-old to have to clap Liverpool players who “couldn’t even lace his boots” as part of the guard of honour at the Etihad Stadium last week.
Outrageous, perhaps, about a team who are set to break the record points total having claimed the Premier League title with seven games to spare.
But in a team packed with sensational performers – Van Dijk, Salah, Sadio Mane, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Jordan Henderson… - not one player, even Van Dijk, has stood out as much as De Bruyne has for City.
It’s why at the time of writing De Bruyne is the bookmakers’ favourite to finally win Player of the Year honours.
Wednesday’s match at home to Newcastle will no doubt be another test of De Bruyne’s ability to pick apart stubborn defences.
Bruce’s men redefined parking the bus during the first half of the FA Cup tie last month, when they set up to frustrate the holders by packing 10 men behind the ball.
It resulted in one of the most negative halves of football from a team in recent memory, as the visitors set about probing the opposition for spaces in what more closely resembled a training ground match than a quarter-final tie.
Player of the Year - Odds
Kevin De Bruyne - 11/10
Jordan Henderson - 11/4
Sadio Mane - 4/1
Virgil Van Dijk - 10/1
Trent Alexander-Arnold - 12/1
Mo Salah - 18/1
Odds correct at the time of writing
At the half-hour mark, City had completed 188 passes to Newcastle’s 15 and enjoyed 81 percent of the possession at the interval.
It’s a tactic that worked against eventual champions City last February, when Bruce predecessor Rafael Benitez masterminded a plan that frustrated and eventually defeated Guardiola’s treble winners.
So when De Bruyne collects possession in the final third and is greeted by a sea of black-and-white shirts manning the edge of the penalty area, it’ll be a familiar sight. He’s used to it by now.
After all, what else can you do against the very best in the league?