Top of the league despite losing playmaker - how did Man City replace Kevin de Bruyne?
On Sunday Manchester City travel to London, where they will face a Chelsea side tasked with the extremely unenviable task of besting the team that have won five of the last six Premier League league titles. Despite their unexpected win over Tottenham Hotspur on Monday, few would bank on Mauricio Pochettino’s side getting the better of Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering team, who are currently first in the English top-flight table.
Man City’s star-studded side and their main strengths are well documented, but perhaps the most impressive feat that the Etihad club had achieved so far this season is the manner in which they’ve managed to compensate for the departure of one of their most important players. After picking up a hamstring injury just 23 minutes into the new season, Kevin de Bruyne has been out of action for all of City’s matches to date and after undergoing surgery on the injury there’s little hope of him returning anytime soon. But, despite this, City have marched on to the top of the table. So how has Guardiola replaced his playmaker-in-chief so effectively?
How good was Kevin de Bruyne last season?
Before taking a look at how Man City have replaced De Bruyne, it’s worth bearing in mind just how good the Belgium international was for his side last season. In a pivot role for the title-winners, the central midfielder bagged no less than seven goals and 18 assists in 32 league games last season. Not only does that equate to a goal or assist every 97 minutes of league football, but it also means that De Bruyne either scored or set up 27% of Man City’s total goals in the league campaign. And when we dive into the less apparent metrics, De Bruyne’s influence over the team only becomes more apparent. For example, the Belgian midfielder finished top of Man City’s assists, key pass and through ball metrics last season. But as we can see in the graphic above, that translated to 19% of all team assists, 17% of all key passes and a massive 30% of all through balls over the course of the 38 games. In no uncertain terms, De Bruyne was Man City’s undisputed playmaker and main source of chances.
How have Man City replaced Kevin de Bruyne?
To no great surprise, Guardiola hasn’t appointed any single player as De Bruyne’s replacement in his team this season and has instead relied on a number of players to try and compensate for the loss of the influential playmaker. This is perhaps most evident through the team’s key pass leaderboard this season, which has young forward Julián Álvarez sitting top with 22, followed by Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva. Rather than have another central midfielder like De Bruyne pull the strings, Man City have instead shifted goal creation responsibility to these players, who tend to play on either wing or off the main striker. This is evident too from the through ball metrics, which again sees Álvarez sitting top with 19% of his team’s through balls to date, followed by Foden in second place again. When it comes to direct goal assists, new winger Jérémy Doku leads the way with five assists, with the aforementioned pair of Foden and Álvarez in second and third place respectively.
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In other words, where De Bruyne used to pull Man City’s strings from the centre of the pitch as he marauded from box to box, Guardiola’s team now seem to push the ball down either wing and turn to the likes of Álvarez, Foden and now Doku to find a way through stubborn defences and provide accurate passes to the likes of Erling Haaland in the box. And if the league table after 11 games is anything to go by, it certainly seems to be working perfectly well.