Kevin de Bruyne exited in tears. He had done more than any other player to propel Manchester City to a maiden Champions League final and had captained them in it but it was coming to a premature end and it would not finish with him lifting the trophy. A decidedly forceful collision with redoubtable Antonio Rudiger brought different types of pain: a fractured nose and eye socket as well the emotional disappointment.
The Belgian’s run of man-of-the-match performances ended: he had taken UEFA's official award in the last 16, the quarter-final and the semi-final. It had threatened to be a Gerrard-esque feat of powering a team to glory but there was no fitting finale. De Bruyne was not City’s club captain but, with the veteran Fernandinho only starting one of the knockout games, he represented the on-pitch leader.
Not anymore. Or not in one respect, anyway. When De Bruyne lined up against Leipzig last week, he was back in the ranks. The armband resided with Ruben Dias. De Bruyne was a loser in a democratic exercise, in City’s annual vote for the leadership positions behind Fernandinho.
Now Ilkay Gundogan is vice-captain and Dias third, which suggests City’s players and staff had last season’s form in mind when they nominated their two outstanding players then. De Bruyne is fourth which, as Dias seemed so immune to injuries and rotation that he played 68 games for club and country last season, renders it unlikely he will skipper City much this year.
He is not alone in losing his place in the pecking order. Raheem Sterling, who was third in line to lead club and country, has now slipped out of contention (Kyle Walker seems to have the largely irrelevant fifth spot locked up) at the Etihad Stadium. With respect to Gundogan and Dias, it all feels rather needless, a public demotion for two of the finest footballers in the land and two of the best to have played for City.
Perhaps those polled felt spoilt for choice. City’s squad contains plenty of plausible candidates for the captaincy. Gundogan is eloquent, an intelligent player with the tactical understanding Pep Guardiola appreciates. Dias had the look of a future skipper within a few games of his arrival, but now the future feels fast-tracked.
But it came at a cost to another deserving figure. De Bruyne’s leadership had not been confined to the 90 minutes on the field; he was the City representative on the committee of Premier League captains Jordan Henderson convened during the pandemic. Moreover, he has the blend of extreme talent and forceful personality that suggested he could be a special captain; not just the ambassador but the alchemist.
De Bruyne can be the driving force, the footballer who can grab a game by the scruff of its neck and if he possesses those traits regardless of who is wearing the armband, there is a case for saying that, more than most, Guardiola’s City may require a big personality as captain. Their setbacks show occasions when a well-coached team suddenly look lost when things stop going their way, when they have a habit of conceding in quick succession in defining games.
Celebrate @DeBruyneKev's birthday with all his #UCL goals! 🥳🎉Pick the best GIF to wish @ManCity's 🇧🇪 superstar a happy birthday... 👇 pic.twitter.com/NyES2dUFuOJune 28, 2021
Such moments can call for an authoritative figure; perhaps Gundogan’s smile can disguise his stature but he feels more amenable than De Bruyne. The Belgian has the air of a man who can rouse a team in times of need.
Yet even if the popularity contest has produced the right outcome, there is a secondary question of whether it was a necessary one. Democracy is desirable in, for example, the United States, but not essential in the City dressing room.
If many managers are benevolent dictators – and some in previous generations were altogether less benevolent ones – it feels as though, in an attempt to be inclusive, Guardiola has delegated too much responsibility for what can be a delicate issue. De Bruyne had looked like being City’s first long-term leader since Vincent Kompany and the appropriate choice for the job when Fernandinho, like David Silva before him, departs.
Given his exploits with the armband last season, he has a right to be aggrieved that he has then been relegated. This time, he may have been bruised by his team-mates, rather than hurt by Rudiger.
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