Perhaps the only weakness to Kevin De Bruyne’s game is his proneness to injury.

In what was an all too familiar sight, the Manchester City midfielder limped off 23 minutes into the new Premier League season with a hamstring injury sustained early on against Burnley. Manager Pep Guardiola confirmed this week that De Bruyne is now set for a long spell on the sidelines.

“It’s a serious injury,” Guardiola said. “We have to decide if he needs surgery or no surgery, but he will be out for a few months. The decision on surgery will be taken in the coming days and could see him miss three or four months.”

Now, fans of rival clubs would struggle to have any sympathy for Guardiola or City. A club of their riches should be able to contend with an injury to any of their players, right? Even if Guardiola, possibly accurately, says the qualities De Bruyne possesses “are irreplaceable.”

But City have been without De Bruyne fairly often during his time in Manchester. Only a few months ago, he was forced off after just 36 minutes of the Champions League final against Inter Milan at 0-0 with the hamstring injury that has now derailed his 2023-24 campaign. Of course, City went on to win that game without their most creative player, and victory wrapped up the treble.

And throughout his City career there have been notable and fairly frequent absences. They have been able to contend without him just about every time, although this injury could keep him out for longer than any of his other injuries in the last few years.

Managing his workload has been a crucial aspect of managing him in recent campaigns, with De Bruyne having played no more than 2,425 of a possible 3,420 minutes (70.9%) in any of City’s last three Premier League campaigns – in which they have won the title every time. That careful management has ensured De Bruyne avoided injuries as serious as the knee ligament problem that meant he missed the majority of the 2018-19 season.

Kevin De Bruyne fact

However, since that long-term absence, he has had 15 separate spells on the sidelines according to Transfermarkt, missing a total of 213 days not including whatever his current hamstring injury causes him to miss. It’s not exactly a stick to beat him with given the number of games elite footballers have to play and the pressure on someone like De Bruyne to perform on a weekly basis, but availability is certainly a valuable trait these days and a consideration for clubs when deciding whether to sign someone. The fact Declan Rice started all but 15 of West Ham’s 190 Premier League games in the five seasons since the start of 2018-19 will have both driven his price up and helped convince Mikel Arteta to sign him.

But City have managed without their star man just about whenever he has been out. They have so much quality in their squad – and have done for years now – that their win percentage barely changes when De Bruyne is missing. Looking at a variety of periods, results have barely been affected by his absence.

Over De Bruyne’s entire time at the club – since August 2015 – City have won 72.6% of the 277 games he has started in all competitions, compared to 71.9% of the 139 without him. Since the start of their run of three title wins at the beginning of 2020-21, City have won 72.3% of the 119 games De Bruyne has started in all competitions, compared to 73.4% when he doesn’t start. When just looking at Premier League games in this time, City have actually won more games without De Bruyne starting (78.9%) than when he did start (71.4%). That was also the case as they won the Premier League title in 2022-23 (80% vs 71.4%).

This isn’t to say City were or are a better team without De Bruyne playing – of course they aren’t. But it does show that they have long had a depth of quality in their squad that has meant they can cope with the absence of one of the best players on the planet.

So, they’ve done it before. But can they do it again?

On Wednesday night, City made it four trophies for 2023 by beating Sevilla on penalties to win the European Super Cup. De Bruyne was of course missing, and so was Bernardo Silva, through illness.

City’s starting XI was obviously still full of unbelievable talent that would be the envy of every other normal team, but a glance at their bench suggested their squad was looking a little thin.

Of the 12 substitutes named, only Julián Álvarez could have been classed as a senior attacking option. Kalvin Phillips and Rico Lewis were the only senior midfielders (though Lewis may say his best position is as an orthodox full-back), while goalkeepers Scott Carson and Stefan Ortega and centre-backs Rúben Dias, Aymeric Laporte and (a half-fit) John Stones were the other senior players named. Sergio Gómez, Máximo Perrone, James McAtee and Oscar Bobb were also on the bench, and although they’re undoubtedly exciting prospects who can play in more attacking positions, it speaks volumes that with his team needing a goal, Guardiola made only one change: Álvarez replaced 21-year-old Cole Palmer, who had started on the right side of midfield.

Man City Lineup UEFA Super Cup 2023

In the summer, City lost Ilkay Gündogan and Riyad Mahrez and only brought in Mateo Kovacic as the former’s direct replacement. Take De Bruyne out of the equation for the foreseeable future and City are suddenly one injury to an attacker away from something approaching a crisis.

It should be noted that this is only the case because of the incredible standards City have set over recent years. They are expected to win every single game and the strength of their opponents this season – not least Arsenal, who pushed them close last season – mean that City can’t afford any extended run of poor form. A crisis to City might only mean dropping points a handful of times.

With Erling Haaland available, there isn’t much reason to worry, though his output might be hit a little by De Bruyne’s absence. De Bruyne led the Premier League last season for assists (16 – five more than anyone else) and expected assists (14.1), and he set Haaland up for eight Premier League goals, which was at least two more than any other combination in the top flight. Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes actually set up more chances in open play for Marcus Rashford (34) than De Bruyne did for Haaland (24), but Haaland’s seven open-play goals from these chances to Rashford’s six shows how clinical a partnership the City duo are.

Kevin De Bruyne chances created in 2022-23

Any team would suffer from losing De Bruyne, and Guardiola is right to call the injury “a big blow” – even to his Manchester City side. It’s not time to panic just yet, but the City manager might be considering another move in the transfer market to try and finally replace Mahrez by adding a little more creativity to his squad. Doing so could help cover for the loss of De Bruyne.

So, can Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool or any other of City’s rivals for the Premier League title take advantage? City are set up to deal with this kind of absence, but the chances of them going on a crazy run of wins on their way to 100 points have certainly taken a hit. One thing’s for sure, De Bruyne’s injury does make the title race that bit more interesting.

But if any team is to topple City and prevent them becoming the first team ever to win four consecutive English top-flight titles, they’ll need to play exceptionally well for the whole season, whether or not De Bruyne is playing.

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