A A few weeks ago, Kevin De Bruyne and Oleksandr Zinchenko were filming a video for Manchester City’s YouTube channel in which they answered questions from fans. Someone called Hesham from Egypt asked who he thought would be the best player in the world in 2030. “I’ll be retired,” whispered De Bruyne. “No, you’re already gone,” Zinchenko retorted. “Gone. You’re already 30 years old. You’re done.”
Not a bad joke, as footballer gags say. And yet in that installment of harmless male banter there was a vaguely poignant note, a recognition that even in the city locker room, De Bruyne is increasingly seen as an older statesman, whom he has already reached the point of his career when you start counting the years down instead of up.
It’s an impression reinforced by some of his recent performances, in which the current Professional Footballers Association Player of the Year has gradually, but noticeably, begun to display the scars and attrition of more than one decade at the highest level of the game.
It is, of course, a matter of degrees. A slightly leaden and squeaky De Bruyne is still one of the best players in the Premier League. Even in this apparent hollow of form, he is still capable of producing moments of sublime grace: the clear through pass for Kyle Walker in the away loss to Club Brugge, the scintillating diagonal pass against Liverpool who started the movement from which De Bruyne himself scored. But in recent weeks there has also been some regression.
Seven games after a season hampered by injury, De Bruyne has yet to register an assist in the league. His passing stats and defensive numbers are all down sharply from previous campaigns. Plus, the eyes tell a similar story. There were moments of deadly bewilderment: misplaced passes, heavy touches, loss of sharpness. Above all, you get the impression of a player who is currently striving and failing to win in games, regain his confidence, meet the improbably high standards he has set himself for years. years.
And so a player who towards the end of last season was being hailed as one of the greatest in the world, and perhaps one day the greatest in City history, is no longer even sure of his place in the starting lineup for Saturday’s Manchester derby. at Old Trafford. Until now, Pep Guardiola has continued to trust his talisman, despite some fans claiming it should be ditched in its current form. But all of this raises intractable questions about how we should nurture and protect elite players in modern gaming, which is reasonable to expect from them. In short: Does De Bruyne just need a little more football under his belt? Or is football slowly breaking it?
In retrospect, we may well come to see the summer of 2021 as a turning point in De Bruyne’s career. The Champions League final against Chelsea in Porto was the perfect stage for De Bruyne to take the final step of his ascent. In the 56th minute of the game, he kicked the ball past Antonio RÃ¼diger, chased after it and was wiped out by the force of RÃ¼diger’s shoulder. De Bruyne’s orbit was fractured; he left the stadium in tears and spent the night in the hospital. To this day, he remembers nothing from the time of the challenge himself until 10 a.m. the next morning, when he returned to the hotel to collect his things.
Weeks later, playing for Belgium against Portugal in the last 16 of Euro 2020, he was mercilessly cleaned from behind by JoÃ£o Palhinha. Still feeling pain in his ankle ahead of the quarter-final against Italy, he had two painkillers injections to get through the game, a decision he says he regrets. In the short term, De Bruyne was forced to miss the entire preseason, the Community Shield and three of City’s first four league games. The medium term effects that we can see now. The long-term effects, as always, are unknowable.
What realistically did someone involved think was going to happen to a player whose game relies on speed, relentless running and quick thinking and very often trying to get defenders to tackle him? ? Since resuming football following the forced end of the pandemic, De Bruyne has played 77 games for club and country while suffering at least four layoffs for injury.
Its longest break – between Belgium’s exit from the European Championship and the start of the Premier League season – lasted six weeks. And so De Bruyne’s Crisis is really less the story of a genius footballer than an edifying tale for the game in general. If you’re going to force players to play at an insanely high intensity twice a week, for years, often through the barrier of pain, and with a bare minimum of rest between matches, then don’t be surprised if one day they crack.
De Bruyne was, remember, only 30 years old. He is four months younger than Riyad Mahrez. This year he signed a four-year contract at City worth an estimated Â£ 385,000 a week. And yet, it’s reasonable to wonder how long he will be able to continue to express the full range of his talent without significant rest or rotation or additional injuries. His struggles in a City jersey this season indicate that despite his relative youth and work ethic, it may not be as long as we would like.
“We forget that they are human beings,” Guardiola said this week of De Bruyne’s workload. place.
Either way, it looks like those rushed 18 months – between that fateful Champions League final and the next World Cup in Qatar – will be the turning point in De Bruyne’s career, and one that the administrators, coaches and De Bruyne himself will need to navigate with great care.