Kevin De Bruyne has the stage in Porto to make his case for Ballon d’Or | Barney Ronay
You failed. No matter. Fail again, fail better. All very well. But when you’re as good as Kevin De Bruyne – which is, to be clear, very good indeed – and as the bloom of those peak years continues to roll by, you probably want to start nailing a few of those moments too.
“We need to learn, it’s not good enough,” De Bruyne told the TV cameras nine months ago, wreathed in Beckettian despair in the bowels of Estádio José Alvalade. Defeat by Lyon had capped Manchester City’s Champions League run at the quarter-finals for the third successive year, and for the third successive year in disappointing circumstances.
Still damp and tired from the game, De Bruyne was in the middle of one of those candid interviews in which he switches off the filter and becomes that spiky, awkward 15-year-old who turned up at Genk and began chipping away at the team’s senior pros in his first training session.
But he does have a point. Outside the current run to face Chelsea in the final of this season’s Champions League on Saturday night, it hasn’t been good enough from Manchester City in Europe. At least, it hasn’t been De Bruyne level.
There is a tendency in football to measure merit, worth and even things such as character by the industrial-scale hoovering-up of team prizes. So Harry Kane is an inferior player because of the poverty of his Tottenham teammates; and so the online fanbase of Star Player X will celebrate a team prize for the latest steamrollering superclub as though some ladder of personal greatness is being scaled.
In reality, sporting talent refuses to be pinned to the wall. It expresses itself in moments, relative success, opportunities eventually taken. But yes, at some point it also expresses itself in trophies, not least when you’re the player who makes the difference in a team this good.
De Bruyne will turn 30 next month. He’s about to play his 494th professional game. He has three Premier League titles, an FA Cup and five League Cups, which is certainly a lot of League Cups. He has been player of the year in England, Germany and Belgium, but never above ninth spot in the Ballon d’Or.
At the end of which it seems fair to say De Bruyne is more highly rated in England than across the rest of European football; that for all his sustained brilliance in the Premier League he hasn’t had that crowning moment in the wider world.
Until now, anyway. It would be hyperbole, sensationalism and obvious clickbait to suggest De Bruyne is one match-winning performance from a defining peak, and elevation to outright Ballon d’Or contender. But that doesn’t stop it being true.
As ever the Champions League is the key driver. De Bruyne has been a man of the match in the last 16, quarter-finals and semi-finals. He played every minute of City’s five straight wins en route to the final, scoring three times, each a game-turner. He was thrillingly good in the first leg against Paris Saint-Germain, pulling himself up to his full height and turning the day with a masterful passage of hard-running, beautifully subtle all-round midfield play.
It was a performance that felt significant in various ways. First because this was De Bruyne dominating the stage in an away leg semi-final against a billion-euro project team.
And second because it spoke to a persistent question throughout De Bruyne’s career. What kind of player is he exactly? In Paris he was in the false nine role, but free to play as central midfielder, inside forward, roving eight, all sniping runs and snaking passes, the full range from close-quarter precision to net-wiffling long-range bombs. This is a player so good he can make those basic component parts – pass, dribble, shoot – look startlingly fresh and personal.
It has been a winding journey to this point. De Bruyne left Chelsea aged 22 having played only three league games, dropped for good after José Mourinho was left unimpressed by his impact in a League Cup game against Swindon Town.
Wolfsburg made him. His one full season brought 10 Bundesliga goals, 21 assists and Germany’s footballer of the year gong. Pep Guardiola tried to sign him for Bayern Munich. De Bruyne ended up at City, blowing away some reflexive snark over his transfer fee (£55m) with a sublime first season switching from counterattacking inside forward to central midfielder.
In the years since, De Bruyne has played on both wings, as a No 10 and even as a left wing-back. It was perhaps to strengthen the spine of his team against quick transitions that Guardiola experimented with that false nine role at the turn of the year. Midfield solidity behind, midfield craft in front: this has been the formula for that surge through the second half of the season.
It has looked the perfect role for the mature De Bruyne, and also a kind of homecoming for Guardiola, the great midfield fetishist, who been restrained from these wilder extremes by Sergio Agüero’s more conventional brilliance.
It seems right De Bruyne should benefit from that tactical fiddle. His absence from the late stages of this competition has often been caught up in Guardiola’s less successful blinks and flinches. Odd as it sounds, De Bruyne was left out for the quarter-final first leg defeat against Spurs in 2019. Before that he was part of a midfield exposed by Liverpool’s raptor-like gegenpress, and the weirdly open team blown away by Monaco.
Last season, he was the main man as City overpowered Real Madrid, then let down by the flakiness of his teammates in that supine loss to Lyon. “We need to learn,” he said, and this team, and indeed his own role, has been reconfigured. One step from a more measurable kind of greatness.