Kevin De Bruyne’s injury is a timely reminder of the uncertainties that help make football the sport it is. Not to revel in one man’s misfortune, of course, but a Premier League title race widely expected to be a procession for City has been handed a nice early twist.
There is no way around it: De Bruyne’s knee injury is a considerable blow.
As City’s chief playmaker last season, De Bruyne was a top-five Premier League attacker in the following stats per 90: accurate passes (65.59, 2nd), accurate through-balls (0.46, 3rd), big chances created (0.55, 3rd), set-play key passes (0.96, 3rd), assists (0.46, 4th) and expected assists (0.38, 2nd).
He also led the league in assists with 16.
No outfield player at the club accumulated more minutes than his 3,085 and he missed only one game all season – a 3-1 home win over Brighton in the penultimate game of the campaign with the title already comfortably secured.
It’s difficult to analyse and consider Guardiola’s best version of City without De Bruyne because he was an omnipotent figure throughout their record-breaking season. In a squad of such quality, he and Ederson were the only definite starters each week.
And while the strength of the group of players the Catalan has at his disposal means City have plenty of options, so familiar was the sight of De Bruyne appearing in pockets of space, there will need to be a slight re-jig in personnel and re-focus in how they attack.
Here are Guardiola’s alternatives.
The Portuguese is the obvious like-for-like replacement who, for his quality, was a luxury spare part last season. Bernardo was involved in 35 Premier League games but only 15 were as a starter and his average minutes per appearance was just 43 minutes.
Despite his sporadic involvement, he still scored six goals with four assists, averaging one every 152 minutes; not the lowest ratio but it’s a solid rate of production.
Bernardo can certainly fill the void left by De Bruyne. His 48.13 accurate passes per 90 ranked seventh among Premier League attackers and without the Belgian by his side, he should get more touches on the ball and more opportunity to use it.
The 23-year-old also averaged 1.53 open play key passes per 90, which was just 0.10 shy of De Bruyne’s figure, and against the backdrop of having to come into matches and quickly adjust to the tempo.
He also offers a similar level of penetration in terms of successful take-ons, as his 1.71 per 90 last season wasn’t far behind De Bruyne’s mark of 1.83. Where he does lag behind is accurate through-balls: 0.05 to 0.46.
It could be argued that Bernardo’s introduction tended to occur in matches where the contest was already won, alleviating the pressure on him, and allowing him to boost his numbers by creating chances that were of little consequence, other than to City’s goal difference.
Starting the Premier League opener against Arsenal, he may have scored the decisive second goal but with no De Bruyne on the field for 59 minutes he failed to create a chance, was only their ninth-highest passer overall, while only Ederson had a lower pass accuracy than his 69.4 per cent and Sergio Agüero had fewer touches, among the starters, than his 44.
But having played that No10 role, and given similarities in style, the former Monaco midfielder may become Guardiola’s go-to playmaker.
Failing Bernardo, then having one of the best playmakers in world football over the last decade alongside him should help. The major caveat, of course, is that the Spanish Silva’s minutes have to be managed.
David Silva’s 1.7 open play key passes per 90 last season were better than both De Bruyne’s (1.63) and Bernardo’s (1.53) and the veteran also out-passed the younger playmakers with a considerable 79.83 accurate passes per 90.
He also averaged far more forward passes than both playmakers – 24.17 per 90 to De Bruyne’s 21.89 and Bernardo’s 10.06.
The recently-retired Spanish international’s assist number were unsurprisingly impressive, creating 11 goals, at a rate not far off De Bruyne – 0.4 per 90 compared to the Belgian’s 0.46. He has the experience and Premier League knowhow to seamlessly slot into that position behind Agüero or Gabriel Jesus and be the creative hub for City.
With Raheem Sterling, Riyad Mahrez, Leroy Sané or Phil Foden occupying more advanced areas, there isn’t as much of a requirement for him to operate so directly in the final third and in a deeper, more withdrawn role, we could get to enjoy a more refined version of David Silva.
Silva’s international retirement will have helped ease the miles on the clock of the 32-year-old but with the Champions League soon to consider, he cannot be expected to be a ubiquitous figure in the team ala De Bruyne.
Mahrez has been viewed as a £60million squad player by some since his arrival from Leicester City but De Bruyne’s injury may thrust him into a more prominent first-team role.
Against Arsenal, the Algerian was deployed on the right of the attacking midfield three. It’s a position that suits his dribbling ability but during his four-and-a-half seasons at the King Power, Mahrez was the Foxes’ main playmaker.
Although Claudio Ranieri, Craig Shakespeare and Claude Puel tended to start him in a 4-4-2 on the right flank, his natural inclination often saw him drift inside as a centralised playmaker.
Puel did experiment with him in the No10 role last season with mixed results but, technically, Mahrez has the qualities to do it and his move to City was prompted as much by a desire for self-improvement as it was silverware and finance.
He’ll certainly need to enhance those capabilities, though, as his open play key passes per 90 (0.97), accurate passes (30.89), through balls (0.24) and big chances created (0.36) were well below De Bruyne’s number.
However, some of those numbers can be mitigated by the quality of his team-mates and different system at Leicester and with better and more attacking players to aim for, his encouraging 0.30 assists per 90 from last season, does suggest he can carve out a new role for himself.
Among the most underrated players in the Premier League is the Germany international who began his career with Nürnberg as an all-encompassing playmaker only to be incrementally moved deeper with each transfer.
Some of the theory behind that is to do with his passing proficiency and how he holds and carries the ball so well, knowing when to play short, long, try the ambitious or just keep it nice and simple. But that level of decision-making, often under pressure, can also be applied higher up the field.
Granted, Guardiola would have to find another holding midfielder to operate alongside Fernandinho, or he could keep Gündoğan there, just ensure the 27-year-old is allowed to dictate the play in a more forceful manner.
Gündoğan averaged 76.32 accurate passes last season, 20.51 of which were played forward and his 1.07 open play key passes was among the top 10 for Premier League midfielders. The first statistic is inflated slightly given how much non-pressurised possession he receives deep, but the third number is a strong indicator for placing him further forward.
Another is his xG per 90 which was an impressive 0.18, fifth among all midfielders. Not that he’ll be required to be a goal threat in the final third with so much around him, but it highlights his attacking prowess even when stationed much further back.
He may not be the obvious pick to assume the De Bruyne role, and his importance at the base of the midfield is also crucial with Guardiola loathed to imbalance his side. But if other plans fail, Gündoğan is a fine option for the Catalan to turn to.