Manchester City, Chapter 4: A Belgian dynamo joins the revolution
On February 1 this year, it was announced that Pep Guardiola would be joining Manchester City and that Manuel Pellegrini would move on. From there, two campaigns after Pellegrini had guided them to their second championship under owner Sheikh Mansour, City’s title challenge fell apart.
Many put that down to ‘lame duck’ syndrome, but it overlooks City’s failure to beat another top-five team all season. They took 16 points from 18 games against sides in the top half of the table – a worse record than 13 of the league’s other teams. Worse than relegated Newcastle, in fact.
From the minute he arrived from Wolfsburg for £55m, the Belgian midfielder has felt at home
And, in the same week Pellegrini’s departure was announced, City’s star performer was ruled out for 10 weeks with knee and ankle ligament damage.
Without him, they soon lost 3-1 at home to Leicester, a result that set both clubs on very different paths.
That man was Kevin De Bruyne, who has now arrived to talk to FourFourTwo.
Despite missing a sizeable chunk of the campaign, De Bruyne was deservedly City’s player of the season. From the minute he arrived from Wolfsburg for £55 million (S$99m), the Belgian midfielder has felt at home.
“I think my form started at Wolfsburg, where it went really well,” De Bruyne says. “Then I came here and immediately felt welcome.
"There’s a family atmosphere, and for me that’s important as I am an easy-going guy, and I prefer that people act like we’re all human. Footballers are not robots getting orders; we have good days but we have bad days as well, just like every normal person.
"But the people here help you. It was a good choice to come here.”
De Bruyne insists this despite his first campaign with the Etihad Stadium side ultimately ending in disappointment.
“It was a little bit hard last year: we started very well but we had so many injuries,” the 25-year-old says. “In the Champions League we went as far as the semi-finals, so we did play some good stuff – just not quite enough to win any titles.
"We did really well in Europe. To lose 1-0 over two legs in the semi-final with an own goal – that can happen. And it was against Real Madrid.”
Yet for such a free-scoring side, there seemed a lack of verve about City in each leg of that semi-final. While he is proud of the team for reaching the last four, chairman Al Mubarak has since admitted he felt some disappointment about the manner of defeat.
Everyone ran their socks off, so it wasn’t that we could have gone for it more. But sometimes it just doesn’t work out the way you want it to
“I don’t think we actually showed up for that game,” he said. “In both legs, there was too much we could have done that we didn’t do.”
De Bruyne is keen to stress it was not down to any lack of effort.
“Everybody gave what they had,” he says. “Everyone ran their socks off, so it wasn’t that we could have gone for it more. But sometimes it just doesn’t work out the way that you want it to.”
If there are any regrets, this season provides an opportunity to put them right.
For De Bruyne, his tale centres around two away matches against Steaua Bucharest. He was a Chelsea player when the Blues travelled there for a Champions League game in 2013. Struggling to win the affections of Jose Mourinho, having arrived from Belgium during Andre Villas-Boas’ reign, De Bruyne was left at home when the squad travelled to Romania. Quizzed about the decision before the game, Jose stormed out of a press conference.
Four months later, De Bruyne asked to leave and join Wolfsburg.