How the Champions League’s richest clubs might look after a Kevin De Bruyne midfield makeover
Manchester City face the very serious prospect of losing star playmaker Kevin De Bruyne.
With the reigning Premier League champions looking at a ban of up to two years from Uefa competitions after having been found to have breached Financial Fair Play rules, the Belgium international recently hinted this could force his hand to move in search of European glory.
“I’m just waiting,” De Bruyne told Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws. “The club told us they are going to appeal and they are almost 100% sure they are right. That’s why I’m waiting to see what will happen. I trust my team.
“Once the decision is made, I will review everything. Two years would be long, but in the case of one year I might see.”
Who could blame De Bruyne? Since the start of 2017/18 — City’s “Centurion” year — no player has created more chances (238) or provided more assists (34) in the Premier League and at 28 years old, he is very much in his prime. But time waits for no man and waiting until he is in his 30s before playing Champions League football again could see his chances of lifting that trophy slip away.
So which of the richest clubs most likely to make next season’s Champions League could realistically afford De Bruyne? And how would he fit into each of those respective sides?
Deloitte Football Money League…
- Barcelona (€840.8m)
- Real Madrid (€757.3m)
- Man Utd (€711.5m)
- Bayern Munich (€660.1m)
- PSG (€635.9m)
- Man City (€610.6m)
- Liverpool (€604.7m)
Let’s have a look.
Quique Setien is a manager who draws straight from the Cruyffian playbook, obsessed with dominating possession, intense pressing and attacking intent.
That sentence could equally apply to the kind of football Pep Guardiola had Barcelona playing, and largely how he has Manchester City playing now. So would anyone foresee any issues for De Bruyne in adjusting to life at the Camp Nou?
De Bruyne is just as adept at playing through balls along the floor to split a defence as he is whipping a ball around or over them and in Lionel Messi, Antoine Griezmann and Luis Suarez, he has a front three to suit all needs. Messi has shown time and again over the years that he can drift between the lines to create space for his forward partners – and to open up passing lanes for midfielders – while he needs no second invitation to be the man on the end of assists himself. Suarez may not be as mobile as he once was but serve the ball up to him in the box and he will score, while Griezmann is comfortable right across the front three, cutting inside to shoot across goal or arriving late at the far post a la Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus for Manchester City. De Bruyne has brought the very best out of very similar types of players at the Etihad in recent years.
Guardiola will teach you and Kevin De Bruyne will assist you #Pep pic.twitter.com/5HGoCFPUCx
— The Pep (@GuardiolaTweets) September 29, 2019
But don’t Barcelona have enough midfielders? Can a club like Barcelona ever have enough midfielders? Well, Sergio Busquets turns 32 this summer. Elsewhere, Arturo Vidal, who has become symbolic of the club’s perceived drift from the ideals outlined above, was generally expected to leave in the next window until he came out publicly to express a desire to stay last week. He, like Ivan Rakitic, is well inside the last 18 months of his current deal, though.
Plus, in Frenkie de Jong, they have one of the most talented ball-players on the planet who showed during his time at Ajax just how capable he is of moving the ball quickly under pressure. De Bruyne could develop one of the most exciting midfield partnerships with the Dutchman – or even Busquets – at Barca, but their situation in terms of midfield personnel is pretty messy right now. More concrete confirmation of De Bruyne coming on the market might convince any club to overlook most complexities, but Barcelona appear more likely to to commit significant resource to their search of a Suarez replacement.
Yet the Miralem Pjanic swap-deal links suggest Barca’s insatiable appetite for midfielders rumbles on. And ,in any case, De Bruyne’s name looks quite at home on a Barcelona line-up graphic…
We’re staying in Spain, where the only other side practically nailed on for Champions League football next season who could afford De Bruyne is Real Madrid.
Despite having a league-high 16.1 shots per game this season, Los Blancos have managed just 49 goals in La Liga, which is 14 fewer than their rivals Barca.
Although Karim Benzema has created more chances from open play (44) than any other player in La Liga this season, no Real Madrid midfielder appears in the top 16 on that list. Toni Kroos comes closest with 29 but he, alongside Luka Modric and Casemiro, make up what is a quite a workmanlike midfield for Zidane, more focussed on winning and holding onto the ball than penetrating the opponent. That Benzema is Real’s top scorer with 14 La Liga goals, nine clear of his closest rival, is telling of just how reliant they are on the Frenchman right now.
Hazard Assist to De Bruyne pic.twitter.com/Ao5EyuFhl2
— ا (@RMasieF) November 19, 2019
De Bruyne could replace the 34-year-old Modric, a player constantly rumoured to be an Inter Milan target whose contract expires in a little under a year. While Casemiro locks up shop behind him, he and Kroos or Fed Valverde would be free to venture forward in search of combinations with Benzema, as well as the likes of Eden Hazard — whose injuries and fitness issues have made for a severely underwhelming spell in Spain so far – Vinicius Jr, Rodrygo et al. Hazard, especially, could do with some extra service from midfield and perhaps his compatriot’s crisp, precise deliveries are just what he needs to start getting in on goal when fit.
De Bruyne already has extensive Bundesliga experience from his Wolfsburg days, so why not return to Germany? After all, the Belgian’s agent, Patrick De Koster, admitted in the past that it was only Wolfsburg’s asking price that stopped him from moving to Bayern Munich ahead of Man City.
“Kevin’s heart was beating for the Bundesliga, where he broke through at Bremen and became a star at Wolfsburg,” De Koster said in 2016.
“I’m convinced he would have played for Bayern if they had been able to pay the asking price. We reached a personal agreement with Bayern after two meetings. The deal has collapsed on the asking price.”
Bayern are a side wonderfully suited to De Bruyne’s skillset. In Lewandowski, they have arguably the world’s best centre-forward right now who, despite turning 32 this August, remains deceptively quick. He and the lightning-fast Serge Gnabry would be perfectly suited to De Bruyne’s passes between the opposition full-back and centre-back, beating the offside trap to get onto the end of a perfectly weighted through-ball.
And although he’s never quite enjoyed the rock star status some of his teammates have, Thomas Muller has garnered a wonderful reputation for ‘interpreting’ space. He is, as he puts it himself, a ‘Raumdeuter’. So, although he has played slightly deeper of late, who better to creep in at the back post as De Bruyne bends the ball behind the entire opposition defence? Or to arrive late into the box as the Belgian cuts the ball back from the byline?
Let's take a moment to appreciate this perfect Kevin De Bruyne assist 🙌
(via @ManCity) pic.twitter.com/HZXQXWdaBc
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) January 13, 2020
Joshua Kimmich and Thiago form a wonderfully gifted and industrious partnership at the base of Bayern’s midfield, so De Bruyne would be free to pick up the positions where his delivery is most deadly. The Bavarians could use the width provided by attacking full-backs Alphonso Davies and Benjamin Pavard to stretch the pitch, creating even more gaps for the 28-year-old to pass into.
Bayern’s side is full of players who can create space and others who can intelligently move into that space, giving De Bruyne a plethora of passing options.
If there’s a side whose forwards could benefit most from De Bruyne’s delivery, it would absolutely be Paris Saint-Germain.
In Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, the Parisians have two of the most feared attackers on the planet and although both excel through the middle, they could arguably get even better feeding off De Bruyne as inside forwards. What’s more, according to a recent print edition of Gazzetta dello Sport, PSG have decided to take up a permanent option on Mauro Icardi, who has scored 20 goals in 31 games across all competitions this season while on loan from Inter Milan.
Picking up the ball deep, in the right half-space and drilling a precise pass between the opposition full-back and centre-back has become something of a trademark for De Bruyne during his time at Man City and the prospect of Neymar or Mbappe peeling off the left channel — or indeed charging in from the right — to get on the end of one of these deliveries is incredibly exciting.
Kevin de Bruyne's shot assist map in the Premier League this season.
Look at how many of them are down that right channel, inside the full-back and centre-back.
The best passer the Premier League has ever seen?#ManCity #KDB
Graphic via @Squawka pic.twitter.com/iY7b3TJziZ
— Chris Smith (@CJSmith91) March 31, 2020
This would require a permanent move away from a 4-2-2-2 system for Thomas Tuchel, but Idrissa Gueye is a wonderful No.6, while Marco Verratti would be the box-to-box engine allowing De Bruyne to excel in his “free eight” role.
De Koster was just as vocal about a potential move to PSG as he was Bayern ahead of De Bruyne’s departure from Wolfsburg, highlighting what his client’s passing could bring to the French Champions in an attacking sense.
“We had a meeting, we talked about Kevin,” De Koster told French broadcaster TF1 in 2015.
“They have the lustre, they have the possibilities. They’re a club with ambitions and have directors who are healthy in terms of their man-management. So, they’re certainly a club that is among those that Kevin would like.
“Now, I’m speaking about [Edinson] Cavani, [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic. If those people there get the passes Kevin can play, that can certainly add something in an attacking sense. It can add something big.”
Ibrahimovic may have departed and Cavani could soon follow, but Mbappe and Neymar are even more stylistically suited to De Bruyne — a playmaker quite possibly with enough talent to finally end PSG’s Champions League heartbreak.
The thought of De Bruyne leaving City to join Liverpool, their closest domestic rivals and the team set to topple their Premier League dominance, seems almost unthinkable, doesn’t it? Well, it’s important to remember that the Belgian himself admitted he was a boyhood red and idolized Michael Owen, while Jurgen Klopp also revealed he tried to sign De Bruyne during his Dortmund days.
Klopp told Sky Sports last season: “I love this player. I wanted him desperately when I was at Dortmund and he was at Chelsea, but Jose [Mourinho] didn’t give him to me!”
The likes of Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum are finally getting the praise they deserve now, but it still wouldn’t hurt to add a little (or a lot) of creativity into that midfield trio.
If this was Kevin de Bruyne or Paul Pogba you wouldn't stop hearing about this assist
But because it's Jordan Brian Henderson everyone's ignoring it… World class from our captain 👏 pic.twitter.com/WQ85DeRNjw
— Lawson (@ExpertlyHendo) December 8, 2019
And can’t you already visualise how that might go down? Roberto Firmino drops off to draw out a centre-back and De Bruyne threads the ball straight through that space for the onrushing Sadio Mane or Mohamed Salah. He could also combine with full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson in a similar fashion he does with City’s full-backs, progressing the ball to the byline before one of them cuts it back across goal for the forwards to gratefully fire home. Once again, Liverpool’s front three are perfect for De Bruyne here.
Those five players aside, Henderson (5) is the only Liverpool player to provide more than two Premier League assists this season, while the Englishman has created 24 chances from open play — again, sixth behind Salah (42), Mane (41), Alexander-Arnold (40), Robertson and Firmino (both 39).
Just like that, this Liverpool side — potentially the most dominant points-wise in Premier League history — become even better (in theory).