Three of Manchester City’s five previous Premier League triumphs have gone right to the wire, where margins are so fine the title battle can be settled by a single man in a single moment.
Sergio Aguero of course set the standard in 2011-12 with surely the most iconic goal of the Premier League era, defeating QPR at the death and clinching a first City championship in 44 years.
Then, in 2018-19, it was Vincent Kompany’s turn. Although the departing City captain made only 17 league appearances that year, he will forever be associated with the title win after his thunderous strike secured a vital late-season victory over Leicester City.
“Where do you want your statue, Vincent Kompany?” asked Sky Sports’ Gary Neville. Both Aguero and Kompany – and those celebrations – have since been committed to steel structures outside the Etihad Stadium.
The City hero was perhaps not quite so clear-cut in 2013-14, when Liverpool’s collapse took centre stage, but Yaya Touré’s 20 goals from midfield kept his side in touch. Touré remains just the second midfielder in Premier League history, after Frank Lampard in 2009-10, to hit 20 goals in a single campaign.
While City spent only 15 days of the season at the summit, the win that put them there in the final week perhaps provided the defining image of the champions’ campaign, as Touré charged through the Aston Villa defence to score a goal that BBC Sport’s Alan Shearer considered “like watching a 15-year-old against under 12s”.
Three City legends have had seasons to call their own. Kevin De Bruyne, until now, had not.
De Bruyne was the PFA Players’ Player of the Year in consecutive years, but the 2019-20 campaign in which he equalled Thierry Henry’s 20-assist, single-season record ended with Liverpool on top. The 2020-21 season played out largely without fans and ultimately without a serious challenge to City, robbing their leading man of his platform.
Consistent excellence had for so long characterised the midfielder’s career rather than any particular peak.
Now, however, 2021-22 might be remembered as the De Bruyne season – a most unexpected conclusion given how slowly the campaign started for him.
‘Difficult Physically and Mentally’
The player of the year he may have been, but De Bruyne’s 2020-21 season did not finish in the manner he would have wished.
The former Chelsea man lasted only an hour of City’s Champions League final defeat to the Blues last May, suffering facial fractures that impacted his preparation for Euro 2020. De Bruyne found form again at the finals, only to hobble out of Belgium’s last-16 win over Portugal with an ankle issue.
Although De Bruyne played in the next round, as Belgium lost to Italy, he continued to be hampered by the injury at the start of this season, appearing in City’s Premier League opener but then not again for almost four weeks.
“It’s been a bit difficult physically and mentally,” the 30-year-old told the MIDMID podcast in November, revealing he had played through “some serious pain”.
“It’s going to be a little more difficult this year than usual,” De Bruyne suggested, and that seemed a fair prediction.
The City superstar, who also missed time with COVID-19, made his 10th league appearance of the season in a 1-0 home win over Wolves on December 11. At that stage, he had scored only twice in the competition and failed to provide a single assist – averaging a goal involvement every 246 minutes.
The only comparable De Bruyne season in a City shirt was in 2018-19, when two knee ligament injuries meant his 10th league appearance did not come until early February. Over 465 minutes up to that point, he scored once.
That is the sole other example of De Bruyne not contributing an assist through his first 10 league outings in a season for City. In fact, he had tallied at least four assists and six goal involvements by that point in each of his other five campaigns prior to 2021-22.
A week before De Bruyne’s podcast appearance last year, Belgium coach Roberto Martinez was also asked to address his star man’s form, acknowledging the “scrutiny” he faced while underperforming in a team as talented as Manchester City’s.
“I’m not worried at all,” Martinez said. “We feel that his best football is coming back.”
De Bruyne added: “I just needed more time than expected.”
‘Now He Scores a Lot’
De Bruyne’s 11th game of this campaign was very different. In a 7-0 City win over Leeds United, the team’s talisman doubled his seasonal tally by scoring twice, including a thunderous 25-yard drive for his second.
“For the whole team, it’s a booster,” De Bruyne told NBC Sports – although that surely applied more to the two-goal star than his team-mates, with City moving four points clear at the top of the table with the victory.
“There’s been a lot happening this year, a little bit out of my control, so the only thing I can do is try to work hard and come back as quick as possible,” he said. It was clearly a turning point for De Bruyne, who has scored 13 goals and provided seven assists in 19 matches from the Leeds game onwards. A goal involvement every 81 minutes over this period just beats his single-season best from 2019-20 (85 minutes per goal involvement). Overall this campaign, the Belgian is averaging a goal involvement every 96 minutes.
Yet De Bruyne’s role has altered in the past two years. He will not match his outstanding 33 goal involvements from the year Liverpool won the title, but 15 goals already represent a career high with one game still to play on Sunday.
The reason for that change perhaps has more to do with De Bruyne’s City team-mates than the player himself.
In 2019-20, six of De Bruyne’s 20 assists were for record scorer Aguero – more than for any other player. Of course, Aguero has since departed.
The retired striker was City’s leading marksman in six of his 10 league campaigns in Manchester, including each of his first four playing alongside De Bruyne.
With Aguero gone and Erling Haaland not arriving until next term, City needed someone to fill the void in front of goal. De Bruyne, whether used in midfield or attack, has done that in the second half of the season.
Despite the slow start, City’s top scorer has scored with 20.3% of his shots in 2021-22; his previous high, in his debut 2015-16 season, saw a shot conversion rate of 14.3%.
De Bruyne is receiving the majority of his passes centrally, and almost a quarter of them in dangerous areas right outside the box.
But it’s actually on the right-hand side of the pitch where he’s really upped his involvement. Comparing his touch map this year with last year shows that he’s operating more heavily on the right, attacking the right half-space with devilish crosses and intricate passing.
“I like it a lot,” Pep Guardiola said in April after De Bruyne had netted four in four games – including two against Manchester United and one against Liverpool.
“He is not just a player to make assists – now he scores a lot of goals. I’ve said to him many times, ‘I know you enjoy making a lot of assists, for you and your team-mates, but you have to score goals to reach another stage’. Now he is doing that, a lot of goals and chances.”
And while this is De Bruyne’s best goalscoring season on record, he still remains a chance-creating machine.
Combining chances created and secondary chances created per 90 minutes, the City midfielder rules the roost in the Premier League, making 3.91 of these combined.
His influence on City’s attacking play is further shown by looking at attacking sequence involvements per 90 minutes where, again, the Belgian sits top. Either through taking shots himself, creating them for team-mates, or being involved in the build-up, he contributes to almost nine shots per game for Guardiola’s side.
‘We Have to Move On’
De Bruyne has either scored or assisted in 13 of his past 19 games, but he saved his best performances for when it mattered most – at least in the league.
There were suspicions City’s season might fall apart when Real Madrid’s remarkable semi-final recovery eliminated Guardiola’s side from the Champions League at the start of May. With Liverpool in hot pursuit in the Premier League, the leaders were afforded little time to regroup as they headed straight into matches against Newcastle United at home and Wolves away.
“We are going to play against Newcastle thinking about [the Madrid defeat], for sure,” said Guardiola in an enthralling news conference, revealing two days before the Newcastle match: “We didn’t speak. No words can help what all of us feel. It’s just a question of time.”
Time, and Tottenham drawing at Liverpool, as it turned out.
A rare slip-up at Anfield on the eve of City’s game against Newcastle eased the pressure on the champions. Then De Bruyne got to work.
Briefly restored to his 2019-20 vintage, De Bruyne attempted only a single shot at the Etihad but created six chances in a 5-0 win – his most in a single game this season – including an assist for Rodri’s goal.
That performance prompted Jamie Carragher in the Sky Sports studio to declare De Bruyne “the greatest player to ever play for Manchester City”, “the best midfield player in the world right now” and “the best player in the Premier League for the past three or four years”.
Yet better was still to come at Wolves, where City became the first team in English top-flight history to win five consecutive league games by a margin of at least three goals. De Bruyne alone outscored Wolves by three, netting four in a 5-1 victory.
The first hat-trick of his City career was completed inside 24 minutes – the third-fastest in Premier League history – to blow away a Wolves team who had briefly threatened to cause their visitors some problems.
“It should have been five, to be honest,” De Bruyne told Sky Sports, before conversation turned back to the Madrid match.
“It’s very difficult to explain because it was just a mad five minutes,” he said. “It’s not that we played bad or something, it was just five minutes that you can’t explain as a player. I don’t know what happened. I was out of control on the bench anyway, so you feel a little bit in shock. It’s not nice and the feeling is still not nice.
“But you need to move on. We’re trying now to win the title and whatever happened unfortunately happened. We have to move on.”
The Wolves display would have been fresh in Carragher’s mind on Monday when he named De Bruyne his personal player of the season. Whether established individual end-of-season honours beckon for De Bruyne is another matter, though. He was nominated for the official Premier League prize, but many such awards are voted on well in advance of the final weeks of the campaign – before De Bruyne had done his best work.
Mohamed Salah is the FWA Footballer of the Year; he has scored three goals in his past 10 games – fewer than De Bruyne managed on one night in Wolverhampton.
A Premier League title, defined by his clutch performances, would not be a bad consolation.