One of the dangers facing exceptional players in elite teams is being lost within the collective excellence. If ever a player ran that risk, it’s Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne – part of the Abu Dhabi Group’s galaxy of stars at club level, and a member of Belgium’s golden generation internationally.
2018/19 is yet to get going for him; a succession of injuries have mainly rendered him a bystander to City’s strong start in the Premier League. His first half of the year was spectacular, though, during which he was arguably the finest player within by far the country’s strongest team.
Like several of his team-mates, De Bruyne has prospered greatly under Pep Guardiola, moving deeper into midfield, assuming more general responsibility, but continuing to pile up the offensive statistics. City players dominated the assist charts in 2017/18, occupying all of the first four places, but De Bruyne was top of the pile, reflecting the weave of dynamism, vision and artistry which has made him the most feared playmaker in the country.
One of the reasons why De Bruyne’s influence isn’t hidden within City’s glare is that so much of what he does is so obviously exceptional. And because, even in that context, when surrounded by such wonderful players, his contribution is unique.
His final ball, from any position within the final-third, is arguably the finest in the country, and his ball-striking ability in open play is also unrivalled. They may not have been decisive moments in tight games, but his goals against Swansea and Leicester last season – plus his most recent against the poor Foxes – were genuinely spectacular.
Not that he was shy in changing the score in big games, though: he scored home and away against Bristol City to take City through to the League Cup final, provided the critical breakthrough against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, and helped put the game away against Tottenham at the Etihad. All of which came before arguably his finest moment, incontestably on the biggest stage: the fizzing drive against Brazil at Russia 2018 which set Belgium on their way to the World Cup semi-finals.
De Bruyne is such an overwhelming player, so gifted in so many different ways, that now his fitness issues are cured, a further ascension towards the very top of the game seems inevitable.