Talking Tactics

How De Bruyne's return inspired Man City to another title

By Adrian Clarke 20 May 2024
De Bruyne, Man City

Adrian Clarke analyses the Belgian's incredible impact on his team-mates following his return from injury

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Adrian Clarke looks at the impact Kevin De Bruyne had after his return from injury and how his playmaking inspired Manchester City to a historic fourth consecutive Premier League title.

Player analysis - Kevin De Bruyne (Man City)

De Bruyne’s outstanding body of work during the second half of the season was the inspiration behind Man City’s push for a record fourth successive Premier League title.

The Belgian has delivered a string of decisive, high-quality contributions as he pulled the strings from a central attacking midfield berth after returning from injury in mid-January.

The 32-year-old missed a huge chunk of the campaign after coming off at Burnley just 23 minutes into the opening match of the season.

So the way he hit the ground running so quickly, and then maintained his form during the run-in, was remarkable.

A sensational 2024

Man City are a quality side with or without De Bruyne, but at key moments he habitually stepped up to make the difference in 2023/24.

His four goals this year were all works of art.

When trailing 2-1 at Newcastle United De Bruyne came off the bench to produce a sublime equaliser, just when his team needed a lift.

De Bruyne's movement to show for a pass between the lines was clever, as was his sidefoot finish on the back of a driving run.

De Bruyne goal v Newcastle #1
De Bruyne goal v Newcastle #2

A brilliant brace at Crystal Palace, and a sumptuous diving header at Brighton & Hove Albion meant that all four goals were scored away from the Etihad Stadium.

The quality of De Bruyne’s 10 assists were also extraordinarily high.

He made telling perfectly timed runs between defenders before squaring to assist Erling Haaland against Palace and Tottenham Hotspur.

De Bruyne also produced a pair of exquisitely weighted set-piece passes; a lovely ball down the side for Julian Alvarez to score at home to Burnley, as well as for John Stones’ crafty goal from a corner routine at Liverpool.

De Bruyne assist v Burnley
De Bruyne assist v Liverpool

The way he supplied Oscar Bobb for the crucial winner at St James’ Park, dropping a lofted pass over the defence for the 20-year-old to run onto, was terrific, as was his superb inswinging cross for Phil Foden to nod home in their comeback win at Brentford.

De Bruyne assist v Newcastle

Without his catalogue of stellar assists, City may not have been able to overcome Arsenal's challenge to win the title.

Simply the best

Since his Premier League return on 13 January, De Bruyne has been the division’s most creative player and by some distance.

That is no mean feat considering the form of team-mate Foden, Arsenal’s Martin Odegaard and Palace’s Michael Olise.

De Bruyne was determined to make up for lost time. His numbers are off the scale and serve as a reminder of the value he still has for Man City.

This has undoubtedly been a golden period in De Bruyne’s Man City career. No one else has created chances or assists at a rate comparable to the City star since his return.

Premier League midfielders since 13 Jan
Player Chances created in open play/90 Player Big chances created/90
Kevin De Bruyne 3.36 Kevin De Bruyne 1.57
Martin Odegaard 3 Harvey Barnes 0.89
Alex Iwobi 2.64 Bruno Fernandes 0.77
Player Mins/assist Player Expected Assists/90
Kevin De Bruyne 120 Kevin De Bruyne 0.52
Michael Olise 120 Michael Olise 0.39
Harvey Elliott 187 Martin Odegaard 0.38
De Bruyne is City’s fine-margin gain

Man City have made a habit of producing long unbeaten runs to land silverware, and 2023/24 was certainly no exception.

It is what Pep Guardiola’s side do as they ended the campaign with a 23-match unbeaten run.

Yet would they have been able to fend off the challenge from Mikel Arteta’s Gunners this time around, without De Bruyne’s influence?

In this campaign it feels as if his return to City's starting XI was the fine-margin difference they needed.

Right across the board, from field tilt (a metric that measures the share of possession a team has in a match, considering only touches or passes in the attacking third) to goals and points, to touches, passes and shots inside the opposition box, they went up a gear whenever the De Bruyne was involved.

In all those categories his presence had a positive impact on the side.

Even though it’s a collective effort to finish top of the pile after 38 matches, De Bruyne was the difference maker that brought the best out of everybody else.

Man City with and without De Bruyne 23/24
Statistic With De Bruyne starting Without De Bruyne starting
Matches 15 23
Expected Goals/90 2.3 2.1
Goals/90 2.9 2.3
Touches in opp. box/90 44 39.7
Total shots in box/90 13.1 11.3
Passes played into box (inc. crosses)/90 34.3 32
Points/90 2.6 2.3
Field tilt 81.2% 78.6%
Hurting opponents from all sides

When you analyse the areas De Bruyne does most damage in, you realise why he is such a difficult player to stop.

This shot and assist map displays accurate corners, a stream of through-balls from deep, balls flashed across the face of goal, slip passes into the danger zone and several inswinging crosses from the left.

De Bruyne, Twenty3
The chief beneficiaries

It is amazing how many of De Bruyne’s passes to Haaland end up creating a goalscoring opportunity.

Eighteen of his 39 passes or crosses for the centre-forward set up chances, with four ending as assists.

Haaland seems to run beyond the last defender more frequently when De Bruyne is in the team serving up through-balls, such as against Everton and Nottingham Forest during the run-in.

De Bruyne assist v Everton

The other beneficiary of De Bruyne's inclusion is EA SPORTS Player of the Season Foden, who received 12 key passes from his team-mate from 13 January onwards.

Key passes received from De Bruyne 23/24
Player Key passes from De Bruyne
Erling Haaland 18
Phil Foden 12
Julian Alvarez, Jeremy Doku, Josko Gvardiol 5

The history books will say that De Bruyne only started 15 Premier League matches in 2023/24, but his influence was absolutely massive.

During the second half of the season, he was unplayable.

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