Column: Manchester City and Kevin De Bruyne have eyes on more prizes
Kevin De Bruyne is more than 30 minutes late for a scheduled phone interview. And when the call finally does go through, it rings four times then goes to voicemail.
“I’m putting the baby to bed,” De Bruyne later apologizes.
The midfield motor that makes Manchester City go would soon follow his 10-month-old son to bed, rest being invaluable to a world-class soccer player at this time of year. In two days, the two-time defending Premier League champions would open the new season with a 5-0 rout of West Ham United in which De Bruyne would play a solid 79 minutes, setting up the first of Raheem Sterling’s three goals with a penetrating run and delayed pass.
It was a good start to an important season for De Bruyne, who struggled with fatigue and injury following Belgium’s deep run in last summer’s World Cup, appearing in just 32 games in all competitions for his club, his fewest since returning to the Premier League in 2015.
“I’m fine with it,” he said. “I’ve been fairly lucky with injuries except for last year. Mentally, it’s not nice to be injured because you always need to come back and train by yourself. It’s boring.”
That word has never been used to describe the play of the versatile De Bruyne, who can be deployed as an attacking midfielder, a second striker or in a deeper box-to-box role. An exquisite passer who can also hold up the ball, he is arguably the game’s most complete modern-day playmaker — which makes him the perfect quarterback for Pep Guardiola’s high-pressure, short-passing attack.
He missed nearly half of City’s matches last season, one in which the team captured the first-ever domestic treble, winning the league title, the FA Cup and the league Cup in the same year while reaching the quarterfinals of the Champions League. Imagine how much better City will be with a healthy, rested De Bruyne — especially after spending $147 million in the summer transfer window on Spanish midfielder Rodrigo and Portuguese right back João Cancelo?
“For the new guys, they adapt quite quickly,” said De Bruyne, 28, who was a new guy himself once, going first from his native Belgium to Chelsea, to two teams in the German Bundesliga and finally to Manchester City in 2015 for $66 million, then the second-most expensive transfer acquisition in British soccer history.
“To come in from another league and another language and another culture may be difficult,” he continued. “[But] the environment is quite easy to fit in, so I don’t have any real doubts about all the guys who came in to fit in.”
City is coming off the best two-season stretch in Premier League history, one in which it piled up 198 points, won a record 64 games and averaged more than 2.6 goals a game. None of that means anything this season.
“It all starts from [nothing] again,” De Bruyne said. “Every season you start from zero and you just see how it goes. That’s what it’s all about.”
Repeating again figures to be much tougher since the rest of the league’s top six teams are all carrying significant momentum into the new season. Liverpool, which lost just once in league play and finished a point behind City in the most competitive EPL race ever in 2018-19, has played in the last two Champions League finals, beating league-rival Tottenham last May to claim its first continental crown in 15 years. Chelsea also won a continental crown by beating Arsenal in the Europa League final and the Blues, under new coach Frank Lampard, could be even better this season, adding American Christian Pulisic on a U.S. record $73-million transfer from Germany’s Borussia Dortmund.
Manchester United, which will play host to Chelsea in its league opener Sunday, is also much improved after paying a reported $102 million last week for Leicester City’s Harry Maguire, most ever for a defender. United’s 54 goals allowed last season was its worst in a 38-game season since 1914-15.
If that isn’t enough to keep City from growing complacent, consider the team’s unfinished business: For all of City’s recent brilliance, the only major European prize in its trophy case is the 1970 UEFA Winner’s Cup.
“The Premier League is always the first goal because you train every week to win the league. And if you’re not there in the league, you can’t even play in the Champions League,” De Bruyne said. “If we can do both, that would be unbelievable. It’s not like if you have a good team on paper you’re going to win it.
“If it was that easy, we could always win it. But obviously it isn’t.”
Consider that a goal for this season then — although De Bruyne isn’t sure he wants to push aside the last one just yet. Although injuries limited his performance on the pitch, his team won a historic treble, and off the field, he and wife Michèle Lacroix welcomed their second son.
Then, in March, he signed with Jay-Z’s New York-based Roc Nation Sports, which also represents the Rams’ Todd Gurley, new Laker Danny Green and World Cup teammate Romelu Lukaku.
“I’ve been coming to the U.S. for seven or eight years now. So I’m used to being out there, and I’ve got some interest in the American market,” De Bruyne said. “It was a nice opportunity for me to work with them because they obviously have more influence over there. I think I made the right decision, to be honest.”
Could the jump to an American management company mean a move to MLS is in the offing?
“For the moment, it’s not the right time,” he said. “I would consider it. But not yet.”
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