The bad news for Manchester City’s Premier League rivals is that Kevin de Bruyne is planning to stick around a while. The worse news is that last season’s PFA Player of the Year is still feeling sore about missing out on the league title.
Winners don’t like losing and De Bruyne is no exception. Back in training for just one day after City’s fruitless participation in the Champions League, the desire to make good the mistakes of the last campaign lives strong.
‘The hunger is there every day, every time,’ De Bruyne told Sportsmail.
‘It never moves. Last season we had the most goals scored and almost the least conceded but we didn’t win the league, did we?
‘In the end we were so far behind because we made so many mistakes at both ends. It can’t happen again.’
De Bruyne is talking via Zoom from his home in Cheshire. Behind him on a sideboard is the PFA trophy presented to him this week. The first City player to ever win it, it feels rather overdue.
The Belgian, 29 now, is grateful if maybe not overwhelmed. The big stuff is the team trophies and he has his eye on some more. A father of three after wife Michele gave birth to a little girl, Suri, last week, he sees his long-term future in Manchester.
‘Mummy and daughter are doing fine and my two sons can’t leave her alone,’ he smiled.
‘We had her in Manchester. All three were born here. We are very happy here in Manchester.
‘We are still in the same house we bought when I came. We renovated it. So my family is happy and my son goes to school for the third year already.
‘Everything is going fine.’
De Bruyne has been at City for five seasons now. He has won two Premier Leagues and five domestic cups. The big miss is the Champions League and his irritation at City somehow losing to unfancied Lyon in the quarter-final in Portugal last month was evident by the simmering TV interview he gave immediately afterwards.
‘It’s not good enough,’ he said, and he was right.
Now, four weeks on, he claims to have let the anger go. He is not a player to dwell too much on the good or the bad for long. Tellingly, though, he knows there will be no change in Pep Guardiola’s approach as City launch another assault in 2020-21.
Guardiola was criticised for over-thinking tactics against Lyon but De Bruyne said: ‘The way he looks at football is different to how many people look at football. He has his philosophy and he stays with it and doesn’t change.
‘There is Plan A and there is Plan A.
‘There is no Plan B. For a lot of people that’s difficult to understand.’ Asked if there are moments when players sometimes hanker after a change in the style of music, De Bruyne was honest.
‘That can happen in your mind but afterwards you know that Plan A mostly works for us,’ he said. ‘I think everybody is really confident [in the plan] though you are always going to say in any moment of time in a game that you want ‘this’ or ‘this’. Or we should do ‘that’.
‘But that happens in every club. It’s good to have these discussions because you just need to win the game and sometimes the coach can say whatever he wants.
‘If a player just does something and it helps the team win he will be happy.’
The immediate challenge for Guardiola’s players is to win the Premier League title back from Liverpool.
The winning margin for Jurgen Klopp’s team last time round was a staggering 18 points. City have strengthened this summer while Liverpool have not done so significantly. De Bruyne does not expect their rivals’ levels to drop and expects other teams to enter the debate after activity in the market.
Equally, he knows how hard it is to defend a title. When City did so two seasons ago, they had to reach 98 points to pip Liverpool by one.
‘It is really hard, yeah,’ he admitted. ‘It was harder than we expected and we needed a very big fight with them to get it done.
‘Mentally sometimes it’s tougher. Some teams are a little more focused on beating you.
‘Sometimes some people find it more difficult after winning to get that same feeling again.
‘It is very difficult to recreate the same feeling even with the same team.
‘There is so much in life that goes on personally. Every little thing can change you. Injury can change you. Football is all about circumstances and it’s already difficult enough to try and win one, never mind twice.
‘I think they [Liverpool] can reach the levels again. I don’t think you need to change the team to have the same feeling or ambition.But I don’t know how they feel. I don’t know their desire. For everyone it is personal.
‘Sometimes when you win something you can feel less. Sometimes it can give you extra hunger. So it’s difficult to know. Let’s see.’
While Michele de Bruyne was in labour, her husband’s employers were trying to sign Lionel Messi. That would have been some new colleague to return to work with.
‘To be honest I didn’t really think about it,’ De Bruyne dead panned. ‘If it could have happened, it would have happened.
‘If you can get Messi to your team you are always going to do it. I can see it from a playing perspective and especially as a club.
‘Business wise, the amount of sponsors and money it would have attracted would have been huge.
‘Even if you would have paid him a load of money, in a certain way you would get it all back. So I could understand the decision (to try) in that respect.’
It’s a mature take on it by De Bruyne, but the bit where he says he never thought about it? Really? Not even for a second.
‘I really don’t care,’ he said.
‘I really don’t. If he would have come it would have helped us because, for me, he has been the best player of all time.
‘But I am never looking at what players may come and what may happen, you know.
‘You play with the players you have and I think we have a pretty good team in that respect. It would be stupid of me to assume what would happen if a certain player came. It happens in football all the time. People are supposed to come and eventually they don’t.
‘I was also pretty occupied at the time anyway…’
The attacking reserves in City’s squad run as deep as coal. It is one of the reasons Guardiola’s team are many people’s favourites to prevail over the course of a jam-packed schedule that De Bruyne fears will push many players to their limits.
‘These are special circumstances and I know there is a lot of pressure on everybody in this industry to be there and perform all the time, but if there is a moment you need help you should ask and the clubs should respond,’ he said emphatically.
‘The beginning will be fine, but I can’t say what it will be like in six months after all these games. That is something we will discover in the future. I hope we will feel fine.’
In Guardiola’s team this year will be young Phil Foden. One of the most compelling sights of Premier League’s Project Restart in the summer was that of De Bruyne and his young accomplice forging a flourishing partnership.
‘This is going to be a big year for him, but if he prepares the same and works hard he will do well,’ said De Bruyne.
‘He can be whatever he wants. If you are mentally up to it, you can do whatever you want. You need to get chances and then deliver but he has all the technical and physical aspects of the game.
‘He understands the game. He already plays at one of the highest levels in the world.
‘I was not at that level at 20-years-old so he is way ahead of where I was.’
Foden told this newspaper two seasons ago that he was in awe of De Bruyne and feared it was threatening to hold him back. His senior team-mate believes he is over that now.
‘I think he is much better now, but I get that,’ he said.
‘Everybody has been young and when you come into a team you look up to people.
‘You have that much respect that you don’t want to step on people’s toes. If you play, they don’t play. That’s tough.
‘But I don’t think he is viewed as a young boy any more. He is seen as part of the team.
‘Sometimes I talk to him but he is not a big talker in that respect. He follows with his eyes more.
‘He tries to pick things up but the good thing is that he has his own identity. You try to pick things up from others and implement them but you still need to be yourself.
‘I think that’s the only way you can grow as a person and as a player and I think that’s the best way to get to the top.’
De Bruyne’s own place at the pinnacle of the sport has been assured for a while. Few players in the game can see and play passes like the Belgian can but it doesn’t just come naturally.
Despite his 57 goals for the club, he sees himself as a ‘creator’ and as such takes time to learn and study exactly where each team-mate likes to receive the ball.
‘Everybody likes it differently and for example I am still learning that about Phil,’ he said.
‘Raheem likes it close to his feet. Someone like Leroy [Sane] wanted it in the space, one against one.
‘It’s something I look at and it’s the way I try to be good for other people. It’s the way I look at football.’
And what about the ‘blind’ and ‘reverse’ passes? How does he manage to find team-mates when seemingly facing and looking in the opposite direction?
‘Mostly you try to look and analyse the field as quickly as possible before you actually get the ball,’ he explained. ‘But sometimes it’s just intuition. You just play it. People talk about my cross from the right side but I don’t ever practice that one. It just happens in the game, I just do it.
‘But I fail more often in these things than I do well. Because it’s so difficult. Yeh, that’s true 100 per cent. I don’t know what the completion rate is of those crosses but I do know it’s not gonna be a high number.
‘But that’s not important. I just try them and if it doesn’t come off I will try again. And if one time it comes off and its dangerous then that’s why I am there.’
If it sounds like over-simplification of the art then maybe it is. But then that is why he has the PFA trophy on the sideboard and others don’t.
What is beyond doubt is that De Bruyne is a player at the peak of his powers and, given that he is without a major team trophy right now (the Carabao Cup probably doesn’t count), this makes him very dangerous indeed.
Unusually for them, Guardiola’s City have some catching up to do and De Bruyne will be front and centre of the charge.
‘Individual awards do matter but they come secondary,’ he said.
‘You don’t start the season aiming to win the PFA Player of the Year, you aim to win the Premier League and other trophies. This doesn’t stop for me.
‘The day it doesn’t feel this way I will probably play in a different team or look at life differently. At the moment that’s not the case.’
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