Everyone knows that Kevin De Bruyne is the King playmaker of the Premier League.
Under the guidance of Pep Guardiola, the Belgian has transformed into the best midfielder in the world. A near-supernatural force of constant acceleration at the heart of the Manchester City midfield. He made everyone familiar with the term “free 8” and propelled Manchester City to an incredible 100 point Premier League title win in 2017/18.
The thing is, he didn’t just do it from that central midfield. The idea of a “free 8” seems to be, on the face of it, a central midfielder who has license to push forward and attack. But if you actually watch how De Bruyne plays the game you’ll see that under the positional role of “free 8” the Belgian essentially plays two positions at the same time.
Kevin De Bruyne
- Age: 29
- Assists (since 2017/18): 39
- Chances created (since 2017/18): 293
- Big chances created (since 2017/18): 65
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Manchester City tend to play with a right-winger who often cuts inside when in possession (or out of it). In 2017/18 it was Raheem Sterling who played wide on his orthodox right side but often ended up centrally. In subsequent seasons it’s usually been a left-footer like Riyad Mahrez or Bernardo Silva out there, again, players who cut inside only this time onto their stronger foot.
This leaves the job of production from out wide on that flank to someone else. And the role is usually split between two men: right-back Kyle Walker and, most effectively, De Bruyne.
A “free 8” is more than just a midfielder who can attack. In this role, Manchester City’s midfielders start in the half-spaces and then either come centrally or move wide, depending on the game state. De Bruyne plays this role to perfection, using it to essentially function as two players in one.
Yes, Manchester City’s chief playmaker spends a lot of time in central areas advancing the ball or recycling possession, but in the final third he often streaks out of that right half-space, on the overlap; then the ball arrives to him and he pings a cross in like he’s a Ginger David Beckham.
Since the start of 2017/18, De Bruyne has attempted 668 crosses in the Premier League, that’s a total that can only be bettered by Trent Alexander-Arnold, a right-back who also takes all of Liverpool’s set-pieces.
De Bruyne’s relentless crossing is incredibly effective at scything open sides because he can deliver the ball in all sorts of ways. Low and flat? Yup. High and curving? Yup. Fast? Slow? Lots of hang-time or with a flat trajectory? Everything you can think of, he can do.
De Bruyne has 35 assists from open play since the start of 2017/18. No one else has even touched 30. Those numbers would be phenomenal for a right-winger to produce, but what makes De Bruyne truly great is that this is just a facet of his game. It’s just something he does in the final third (such as in the recent Champions League win over Marseille where he bagged two assists from two superb crosses).
De Bruyne is of course a magnificent central midfielder. A probing and penetrative force from the middle of the park when playing in the left half-space. From here De Bruyne functions more like a classic centre-midfielder.
Since the start of the 2017/18 season, De Bruyne has attempted 86 through-balls (the next highest player has 56) and he’s completed 33. He is always looking to cut opponents to ribbons with the kind of classic passes midfield playmakers are known for, and he does it supremely.
Then, if the game calls for it, he will break wide and send in a lethal cross into the penalty area. Alternatively, he can stay central and hammer a shot at goal – no one has more shots (158) or goals from outside the box (11) than De Bruyne since the start of 2017/18 – or slip a delightful through-ball in behind the defence.
Kevin De Bruyne has so many ways of hurting you because he is utterly regal in two roles at the same time. The one true king playmaker.