Kevin De Bruyne: The Perfect Architect to Realise Guardiola's Grand City Vision

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistSeptember 11, 2017

A match made in heaven as De Bruyne steps up to be Guardiola's on-field lieutenant.
A match made in heaven as De Bruyne steps up to be Guardiola's on-field lieutenant.Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

"Before he came we didn't have a cathedral of football, this beautiful church, at Barcelona. We needed something new. And now it is something that has lasted. It was built by one man, by Johan Cruyff, stone by stone. That's why he was special."

When Pep Guardiola talks of his one-time manager, mentor and friend he does so with an almost spiritual reverence, as one might discuss a deity. His own acolytes speak of him with similar zeal, though the bashful Catalan insists he is only a disciple at the altar of the late Johan Cruyff. 

To challenge Cruyff's inherent football philosophies, imbued in Guardiola during his formative years as an earnest student of the Dutch School of totaalvoetbal (Total Football) via a sponge-like relationship with his elder, is to invite the wrath of a holy man asked if they would ever consider changing religion. He may not need to if the weekend is an indicator of what is to come. 

Now in his second year in England, there is still some distance left to run on his plan to elevate Manchester City to cathedral-like status. Days such as Saturday's 5-0 immaculate demolition of Liverpool can only help, even if Merseyside brethren would argue City already had God in their corner in the form of referee Jon Moss.

What differentiates a cathedral from a church is the former contains the seat of a bishop, who is entrusted with a position of authority and oversight. As a conduit of the message Guardiola is trying to preach, Kevin De Bruyne looks to be the perfect bishop for the blue side of Manchester.

Guardiola did the same job for Cruyff at Barcelona, just as Xavi did for him when he took the reins at the Camp Nou. At Bayern Munich, Philipp Lahm was the obvious choice for the brief.

In De Bruyne's post-match interview when collecting his man-of-the-match award from Sky Sports, he spoke of the need to "play smart", "find gaps" and exploit "Liverpool's high line." He sounded not a little unlike his manager, albeit without the abruptness or ticks.

Whether having your eye on the ball means an opponent's is fair game is a debate that will rumble on long after Sadio Mane has scraped Ederson's jawline from the bottom of his boot. Less contentious is how De Bruyne delivered a midfield masterclass. It was a performance so in tune with what his manager wants that, if you look closely, it's possible to make out Guardiola pulling the Belgian's strings from the sidelines. 

The architect of City's first two goals for Sergio Ageuro and Gabriel Jesus, they were the first he has created this season having topped the Premier League's assist chart last term with 18. After a bout of head tennis threatened to go on for so long the fourth official enquired as to whether a net could be procured, De Bruyne killed the ball dead, pulled out his protractor and played a wonderful dissecting pass through to Aguero.

As far as it gets from tiki-taka, these are the quick forward passes Guardiola loves where players force the issue. As ever with De Bruyne, the weight of it was measured to perfection. If he were a butcher, he wouldn't need scales.

A David Beckham-esque whipped delivery from the left wing with his gilded right foot then had Gary Neville daydreaming wistfully. It was a cross Jesus was never going to miss for City's second. Just minutes earlier, De Bruyne had proved equally accurate from the opposite touchline to give the Brazilian a dry run, only for his header to be correctly ruled out for offside.

It is now 39 assists and counting since he arrived in Manchester from Wolfsburg for £51 million in August 2015. According to Squawka, the 56 he has recorded since the 2013/14 season is more than any other player across Europe's top five leagues over the same period. 

For him to be regarded as one of the world's best players, thoughas perhaps is the case with Paul Pogbahe needs to improve his goal return. Just six and seven over the past two Premier League seasons is a meek return from one of very few players in world football who can make raking one in from distance seem about as understated as bending down to pick up a newspaper.

In fairness to his strike rate, he hit the woodwork nine times in the league last season, more than any other player. Pogba was next best/worst with six.

Few as extravagantly gifted as De Bruyne are so modest as to keep things simple. The flashiest thing he has probably ever done is buy a kingsize Twix. Even then he probably thought better of it and saved one of the fingers for later in the week. Essentially he's an accountant who is world-class at football. If Hollywood finally gets round to making Twins II, any producer with vision would ditch Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito in favour of him and Pogba. 

While his assists on Saturday were indeed museum quality, it is perhaps an innate capacity to find space that is De Bruyne's greatest gift.

The Belgium international is not just the most creative player in the Premier League; he is its most economical. He runs when he needs to. Acutely aware in a country raised on a culture that deems not running a crime, he soon worked out it's often easier to pick pockets by standing still.

Most of the game he spends so alone it's like he has fallen asleep on a lilo and drifted out to sea. By the time opponents notice him, he's off on another current.

Though in a more advanced role, Thomas Muller is another master at finding the only free deckchair on a packed beach. The technical term in German is Raumdeuter, an interpreter of space, as coined by the player himself (h/t FourFourTwo). Guess it beats speaking about yourself in the third person.

Like many coaches to graduate under Cruyff's tutelage, Guardiola has moulded a unique variant of Total Football in his own image. But that's all it is, a variant. Strip it back to its rudiments to show the nuts and bolts, and key to it all is spaceor more pertinently how to control it. 

When you don't have the ball, you make the pitch as small as possible by pressing high. And when you win it back, you do the exact opposite in making it as big as possible.

Legendary Italian manager Arrigo Sacchi said of the greatest side never to win the World Cup (via The Economist):

"It was Holland in the 1970s that really took my breath away. It was a mystery to me. The television was too small; I felt like I need to see the whole pitch fully to understand what they were doing and fully to appreciate it." 

Without the benefit of a widescreen TV on Saturday, it would have been nigh on impossible to appreciate just how high and wide City's full-backs were playing. All of a sudden, Guardiola spending £100 million-plus on a position once filled by the two worst players in any team seems to make perfect sense.

For City's fifth goal, Kyle Walker retrieved Benjamin Mendy's overhit cross from the opposite flank and fed the ball to Leroy Sane, who emphatically put the seal on the most polished of performances.

The sight of both City full-backs swashbuckling into Liverpool's box to attack one another's crosses was a feature all afternoon, adhering perfectly to the Cruyff dictum in Sustainability Through Soccer: "Attackers could play as defenders and defenders as attackers."

At times on Saturday, it was Total Football in full working order. Albeit against a 10-man Liverpool side with a defence so preposterously bad it looked as though Nicolas Otamendi would improve it.

Those full-backs usurped in Guardiola's clear-headed and dead-eyed overhaul of the position over the summerPablo Zabaleta, Aleksandar Kolarov and Gael Clichywere all perfectly adequate going forward but lacked the dynamism to yoyo back and forth. 

With City's full-backs playing high, De Bruyne has sat that much deeper this season. A perfect quarterback, his right boot can be trusted as much as Tom Brady's right hand. Now he has a pair of wide receivers to match those at the New England Patriots. 

Finding space is one thing, knowing what to do with it is something different altogether. De Bruyne has that unique capacity to see the whole of the pitch, forever scanning and darting between team-mates and opponents. He's like a Google Maps satellite. Technically, he has all the attributes to hit his targets too, which always helps.

At the launch of Cruyff's posthumous autobiography in London in October, Guardiola—in a brilliant interview with the Guardian's Donald McRaespoke of how the Dutchman would espouse the virtues of, "the efecto mariposa (butterfly effect). For him one good pass at the beginning could create absolutely everything."

While it will take more than that to justify Claudio Bravo, it's not hard to see the advantage of getting De Bruyne on the ball early given his range and ability to think two, three, even four passes ahead.

The best way to control space is to employ an on-field architect, someone to slow everyone else down when things get frenetic, then speed it up when the time is right to counter en masse. In terms of dictating a game's rhythm, there are few better than De Bruyne. At the weekend he was physically and technically on a different plane to his Liverpool counterparts. 

To a large extent whether Guardiola will ultimately succeed in England could depend on how well De Bruynealong with David Silva if the pair continue to share equal billing as "free eights"can interpret exactly how he wants City to play.

What will work in Guardiola's favour is that the depth of City's squad means neither can afford an off-day with Bernardo Silva, Yaya Toure and Ilkay Gundogan, a triumvirate of frankly ridiculous talent, waiting in the wings. Not to mention Fabian Delph. 

It is a geometrist's appreciation of space that buys De Bruyne the next most valuable commodity, time. It is because he normally has more of it than anyone else that everything he does tends to look so easy. Players who traditionally catch the eye are those who can perform magic tricks to get themselves out of tight spaces­, conjurers such as Mane, Marcus Rashford and Eden Hazard

De Bruyne is the exact opposite. He probably just wonders why they bother getting into a tight spot in the first place. It's like squeezing into a telephone box when everyone carries a mobile.

A football pitch tends to be a claustrophobic place. Guardiola's on-field lieutenant at Barcelona, Xavi, along with Cruyff, was arguably the best there has been at finding it. Yet, even he is an advocate of football being reduced to 10 versus 10.

Given you could put Xavi in a straitjacket dressed in his pyjamas and he'd find room to change into a three-piece suit, it is a measure of how as the game becomes quicker and quicker, the pitch seems smaller and smaller.

De Bruyne was just a callow 18-year-old when his manager at first club KRC Genk, Hein Vanhaezebrouck, compared him to Cruyff, per Jack Pitt-Brooke of The Independent.

In the 1970s, a decade defined by Cruyff perhaps as much as any other individual, the Dutchman in body was as supple and graceful as the Russian ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev; and in the mind, he was capable of operating three steps ahead like the grand chessmaster Bobby Fischer.

It was quite the claim on Vanhaezebrouck's part. De Bruyne is no Cruyff, but given Guardiola believes (per BBC Sport) "Messi is on a table on his own. No-one else is allowed. But the table beside, Kevin can sit there," it has proved a statement more prescient than preposterous.

The difference between good and great players is often whether their movement is an act dictated by the head or legs.

Cruyff spoke of movement as being an intellectual pursuit more than an athletic one. It's telling how even as a kid De Bruyne would not hide his disdain at coaches preoccupied with making players run long distances in training. One can only wonder why Jose Mourinho found him a little precocious for his taste at Chelsea.

"Every trainer talks about movement, about running a lot. I say don't run so much. Football is a game you play with your brain. You have to be in the right place at the right moment, not too early, not too late," said De Bruyne Cruyff, per Dennis Bergkamp's autobiography Stillness and Speed: My Story.

"Because you play football with your head, and your legs are there to help you. If you don't use your head, using your feet won't be sufficient. Why does a player have to chase the ball? Because he started running too late. You have to pay attention, use your brain and find the right position. If you get to the ball late, it means you chose the wrong position. Bergkamp was never late."

Bergkamp is the type of man who would never break stride for a train but somehow never miss it, either. Try to imagine him as a sweat-drenched, out-of-breath commuter sprinting on to a platform as a train pulls away. You can't, because it's impossible. It's exactly the same with De Bruyne.

It's often said of the greats that they would be the best player on the pitch regardless of the position they played. In his formative years at Ajax, the most famed academy of them all, Cryuff would be employed in a variety of positionsfrom full-back to centre forwardto build up his wider appreciation of the game. De Bruyne could likewise run a match from centre-half.

There's little doubt he would be comfortable playing for Ajax or Holland in the 1970s because he understands the game like only the very best do, via an intuitive intelligence. He certainly plays as though he has wandered on to the field fresh from a team talk conducted by Rinus Michels, the godfather of Total Football. Given Guardiola by his own admission is more magpie than innovator, maybe his own aren't so different.

The preeminent German designer Dieter Rams lives by the mantra "good design is as little design as possible." It is a view Guardiola shares, but it is the hardest design principle to get right.

The City manager is often accused of overcomplicating things, but it's usually only through a desire to pare the game back to its simplest form with the cleanest lines. To do so requires the finest technicians. He has one in De Bruyne.

"With one instruction he knows what to do immediately," Guardiola purred post-match in his press conference, via Yahoo

"He produces huge assists, is quick, and he sees the spaces more than anyone else. His running is good. He is a complete player and we are lucky to have him with us. He is always optimistic and is one of our captains."

Not all of City's players are technicians, however. The most often-cited criticism of Guardiola's spell in England thus far is his team can look confused. After his first game in charge, against Sunderland at home last season, De Bruyne said (via Stuart Brennan of the Manchester Evening News): "You could see everybody sometimes had to think where to walk."

Watching Otamendi in action on Saturday, more than a year on, it was still possible to see the cogs turning. At one point it was as though Sky Sports had introduced a new red-button player-cam option, one that was carrying out a live MRI scan on the centre-half.

Guardiola is not the only former Cruyff pupil in the Premier League. When Everton played City earlier in the season, Ronald Koeman said he encouraged his players to let Otamendi get on the ball, with Cruyff having once said: "We must make sure their worst players get the ball the most. You'll get it back in no time."

The Argentina international has about as much control over his critical faculties as Trainspotting's Begbie does a pint glass in a crowded pub. That Guardiola obsessed over getting Alexis Sanchez in on deadline day, when Otamendi is still a first choice, is essentially voting for Brexit because you quite fancy a blue passport. People did that too.

To rely on Vincent Kompany as an alternative is like booking The La's for your venue every week and then panicking on the Friday night when the queue is snaking around the block and word has got out Lee Mavers probably won't be turning up. Quelle surprise, Pep.

It's a good job he's found himself a new bishop then. 

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