Pep Guardiola believes there’s no reason why Phil Foden and Kevin De Bruyne can’t play in central midfield together going forward.
De Bruyne returned from a lengthy spell on the sidelines as Manchester City began their FA Cup title defence against Huddersfield at home.
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Foden netted twice as City ran out 5-0 winners. He’s subsequently the only player to score in the FA Cup proper in each of the last six seasons; with his first strike being goal number 70 for City.
De Bruyne, meanwhile, came off the bench to assist fellow returnee and countryman Jeremy Doku in that rout. The mercurial Belgian playmaker has now created 30 goals in all competitions since the start of last season which is more than any player across Europe’s big five leagues.
Despite only making three appearances this season he’s ahead of Mohamed Salah (24), Vinicius Jr (22), Bukayo Saka (21) and Antoine Griezmann (21).
“We are incredibly delighted he is back,” Guardiola told reporters. “Kevin helps to win games and there are few in the world. Win games, Kevin, Haaland, these guys win games, Phil, Haaland. I am pretty sure Kevin felt how people love him and other people are in love with him.
“He played really good minutes. He has a special special ability to do something that is not easy to find. With all the runners we have now, to have a guy who can find these passes, Kevin is exceptional, he is unique. The quality of the assist for the Jeremy goal.”
— Manchester City (@ManCity) January 7, 2024
Considering how many observers saw Foden as De Bruyne’s natural successor in his absence there’s a feeling seeing both occupying the same central area together could be limited which Guardiola disagrees with.
“Always I am a big fan of the talent, why can’t talent play together? When I arrived in Barcelona people said Xavi and Iniesta and [Sergio] Busquets could not play together, why not? It is really important to put a lot of talent there in the central positions,” he added.
Foden and De Bruyne to date have shared the pitch on no fewer than 138 occasions with 12 joint goal participations. However, when it comes to playing the full 90 minutes, it’s been 27 times with the most recent coming in a 2-1 win over Leeds on Premier League matchday 35 last season.
Look back for inspiration
Going forward there’s a precedent Guardiola can turn back to. When he assumed the City coaching position he inherited talented playmakers David Silva and De Bruyne before taking an unorthodox approach to utilise them both. Guardiola is capable of repurposing that approach with De Bruyne and Foden in his team.
So far this season the Catalan tactician has regularly deployed a 4-2-3-1 shape with City’s midfield three consisting of two central midfielders and one deep-lying forward. It stands to reason De Bruyne can remain in the number 10 role with Foden (LCM) hovering near Rodri (RCM) from a much deeper position.
But neither would operate this way as before De Bruyne and Silva were given licence in what the Belgian once called a “free eight” role.
“It’s a different role,” he told the Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws back then. “It’s all right. It’s a little change but it’s all right. The coach has his own tactics. I play not as a No10 but as a free eight with a lot of movement everywhere.”
Rather than De Bruyne being the No10 and Silva/Foden the No8, or the other way round, both occupy a halfway position. De Bruyne’s return could not come at a more opportune time as City look to successfully defend last season’s haul.
Into the FA Cup fourth round, Guardiola’s men have a Champions League round 16 tie with FC Copenhagen next month and find themselves five points behind Premier League leaders Liverpool with a game in hand.