Manchester City have been without Kevin De Bruyne since the first game of the Premier League season. Now that he’s back, how much of a difference can the Belgium international make?
You’ve all played those computer games where you’re up against the final boss, who looks vulnerable and on the cusp of being vanquished, before they find another weapon from somewhere and knock you back down again.
That must be how Manchester City’s rivals feel having worked so hard to edge ahead of the defending Premier League champions, only to see the ominous figure (and fantastic hair) of Kevin De Bruyne return from injury.
Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering side have wobbled in recent times, allowing for Liverpool, Arsenal and even Aston Villa to threaten the status quo, which for five of the last six seasons has been City at the top of the tree.
When De Bruyne came off with a hamstring injury against Burnley in the opening game of the Premier League season, it provided an intriguing possibility. How would Man City manage without their creator-in-chief for half the season?
Initially, they were fine, winning their first six Premier League games as well as the UEFA Super Cup. Defeat at Newcastle United in the EFL Cup was followed by back-to-back Premier League losses at Wolves and Arsenal, though, before an even longer run of dropped points in November and December. City won just one out of six league games prior to the FIFA Club World Cup (D4 L1), seeing them lose their grip on the top spot.
Victories against Everton and Sheffield United post-Christmas have taken them back up into third place in the Premier League, though, ahead of Arsenal on goal difference and five points behind leaders Liverpool with a game in hand.
Now, following De Bruyne’s return from the bench in the FA Cup third round thrashing of Huddersfield Town – including an obligatory assist – City look ready to do as they so often do and put their foot down in the second half of the season; starting with a repeat of the first fixture they failed to win following De Bruyne’s injury.
A trip to Newcastle on Saturday could be a tricky prospect for the defending champions, having lost 1-0 there in the EFL Cup earlier this season, and with Eddie Howe’s side boasting the third-best home record in the division in 2023-24. But with their brilliant Belgian available again it could be a different story this time for Manchester City.
So, how much have they missed De Bruyne?
It’s no secret that he’s a creative fellow. On Man City’s way to the Premier League, FA Cup and UEFA Champions League treble last season, De Bruyne played 49 games, created 137 chances, 99 from open play, and created 44 big chances (a chance from which the attacking team would usually be expected to score). His 28 assists was eight more than the player with the next most from Europe’s top five leagues (Lionel Messi – 20), 12 more than any other Premier League player (Mohamed Salah – 16) and 15 more than any other City player, which was Riyad Mahrez (13) who left for the Saudi Pro League at the end of last season.
Of the remaining City players, Jack Grealish recorded the next most assists in all competitions last season (11) but the most significant discrepancy was in big chances created. As mentioned, De Bruyne was directly responsible for 44 in all competitions in 2022-23, almost three times more than the next most for City, which was Grealish (16).
That shows how much creativity was being lost when De Bruyne trudged off injured at Turf Moor. But did it really impact City’s ability to make chances and score goals, or did others step up in his absence?
On average last season, De Bruyne created 3.4 chances per 90 minutes, with 2.4 from open play, 1.1 big chances and 0.7 assists. City have spread the wealth more this season, though, with their top performer for chances created per 90 (not including De Bruyne’s three appearances) being Julián Álvarez (2.8), while Grealish leads for chances created from open play per 90 (2.4 – matching De Bruyne from last season) and Jérémy Doku is top for assists per 90 (0.6).
Nevertheless, City eased through their Champions League group and were untroubled on their way to winning the FIFA Club World Cup last month, so let’s look specifically at the Premier League.
At the halfway point of this season, Man City have scored 45 goals (2.4 per game), had 311 shots (16.4 per game) and created 49 big chances (2.6 per game). Compare that to last season, when they scored 94 goals (2.5 per game), had 600 shots (15.8 per game) and created 103 big chances (2.7 per game). So, City are more or less scoring as many and have actually had slightly more chances per game, although it should be noted that De Bruyne did also miss six of their 38 league games last season.
(The graphics below exclude own goals)
Their ability at working shots inside the box is also pretty much identical, suggesting they aren’t having many problems working their way through low blocks. City had 410 shots in the penalty area last season in the Premier League (10.8 per game) and have had 202 so far this term (10.6 per game), but their expected goals (xG) have gone down slightly from 2.12 per game in 2022-23 to 1.97 in 2023-24, perhaps indicating the quality of chances being created hasn’t been quite as good on average.
There is little question that Man City are a better team with De Bruyne in the team, but his return should not necessarily be seen as a significant needle mover. Since the start of last season, City have played 33 league games with De Bruyne and 24 without. On average, they have scored 2.5 goals with him and 2.4 without, conceded 0.8 goals with and 1.1 without, and have won 2.3 points per game with and 2.2 without.
One person who should be very pleased to see De Bruyne back is Erling Haaland. Last season saw eight of Haaland’s Premier League goals assisted by De Bruyne – only three players have created more goals for a single teammate within a Premier League season.
The Norwegian has still fired in the goals this season but is averaging 0.92 goals per game in all competitions, down from 1.13 last season. Having said that, even without the Belgian’s presence, Haaland has been averaging more shots per 90 this season (4.2, up from 3.9) has had slightly more big chances per 90 (2.0, up from 1.9) and has a marginally higher xG per 90 (0.98, up from 0.94).
It may not be a shock to learn that De Bruyne led the way for City in terms of attacking sequence involvements per 90 in the Premier League last season (7.2), ahead of second-place Rodri (6.5) (minimum 360 minutes). Of those to have played at least 180 minutes this season, Rodri is out in front with an impressive 8.2 per 90, while Grealish is just behind with 8.0. Doku has almost matched De Bruyne’s total from last year at 7.1 per 90, while Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva and Álvarez are each on 6.7, all more than they managed last season. This shows how much several of City’s players have stepped up while De Bruyne has been out.
The former Chelsea and Wolfsburg man could potentially make his most significant contribution in the second half of the season in the big games, though. Among City’s slips in the first half of the campaign were 1-0 defeats away to Arsenal and Aston Villa and a 1-1 home draw with Liverpool. In the corresponding fixtures last season, De Bruyne recorded a goal and an assist in both comfortable wins against Arsenal (3-1) and Liverpool (4-1), while he assisted Haaland in a 1-1 draw at Villa.
His numbers speak for themselves, and who knows? Perhaps City having to manage without him means others will continue to step up even when De Bruyne is regularly back in the team, taking some of the burden off his shoulders and even allowing him to be eased back in rather than rushed.
There is no question Guardiola would rather have De Bruyne available to him than not, and he could well be the catalyst for a charge to another title (and perhaps even another treble) over the next few months.
The City boss said after the win over Huddersfield: “Kevin needs to accumulate training sessions, training sessions and more training sessions – even more than games… Now with Newcastle [next weekend] we have another chance, then we have two weeks to have good training sessions here and in Abu Dhabi [during the winter break], so we are ready for the second part of the season.
“But I am incredibly happy to have him back because Kevin helps you to win games.”
The question is, can he help Man City win enough games from here to make it six Premier League titles in seven seasons? As you can see below, the Opta supercomputer thinks so.