The strongest testament to just how incredible this Manchester City era has been has that their season now carries an air of disappointment. A painful loss in the FA Cup semis against their foil club, Liverpool, plus an even more agonizing defeat in the Champions League semis to Real Madrid, have combined to cast a pall over this Sky Blue campaign. And yet, after Liverpool dropped points over the weekend and Man City won big against Wolverhampton on Wednesday, those “disappointing” Mancs are in commanding position to claim another Premier League title, their fourth in six years.
The disappointment about the Champions League is real, as is the club’s now-decided need for a new superstar, who is coming in the form of none other than Erling Haaland. But it’s always useful to put things in perspective: Man City has had yet another insanely good year, and a large part of that comes from their present superstar Kevin De Bruyne, who is preposterous.
When pundits and fans call De Bruyne the best player in the league, they’re talking about games like the one he had against Wolves on Wednesday, where he scored four of City’s goals in the 5–1 victory. The Belgian was in goal-hunting mode from the start. His first goal came from a give-and-go with Bernardo Silva that left him with a tight angle for a low roller past Wolves goalie José Sá. That same goalie gifted De Bruyne his second, as he mostly whiffed on a ball to Raheem Sterling that bounced directly into the Belgian’s feet. The third goal was all thunder from De Bruyne’s left foot, as he cut in to the top of the box and fired a laser past Sá for a 24 minute hat-trick:
His fourth goal of the day put a perfect exclamation point on the whole thing, showcasing once again that De Bruyne is one of the smartest movers in the league. Aside from the wonder strike on the third goal, his other goals on Wednesday were a result of his continued movement into goal-scoring positions, even if he was not meant to be the target of a particular move. That’s what Manchester City needs from pretty much everyone ahead of the back-line, given its lack of a traditional striker. City’s system depends on patient build-up and picture-perfect movement into open spaces, and there’s no one better suited for both sides of that equation than De Bruyne.
City’s No. 17 has been the major reason why the team has been able to prevent the recent FA Cup and Champions League failures from affecting their league form. Since that FA Cup semifinal loss, the scorelines of City’s Premier League matches have looked like this: 3–0 win against Brighton, 5–1 win against Watford, 4–0 win against Leeds United, 5–0 win against Newcastle, and the 5–1 win against Wolves on Wednesday. In those five games, De Bruyne had five assists and four goals. That he was directly involved in 41 percent of City’s goals in that stretch is eye-popping enough, but that he’s doing it on the tail end of what would have been seen as a disappointing individual campaign is even better.
During the summer, De Bruyne came back to Man City from the Euros clearly exhausted, following Belgium’s run to the quarter-finals, and it showed. Through the 2021 portion of the season, he had as many goals (five) as he did sub-45 minute appearances. More worrying for the best playmaker plying his craft in England, he had no league assists at the turn of the new year. The change of the calendar brought back the best De Bruyne, though. Since then he had 10 goals and seven assists, and is in all likelihood about to add another winner’s medal in his near future.
Kevin De Bruyne’s —and, by extension, Manchester City’s — greatness and consistency are so profound that they tend to ratchet up expectations and demands. Goals, assists, wins, and even titles get normalized over time, and the bar for success can always inch higher. One year’s great season is next year’s disappointment, even if objectively the results are more or less the same.
Of course, no one should cry for De Bruyne’s or Man City’s fate. This is what you sign up for at the very top of the game, and especially with a club only at such heights because of a despotic country’s ill-gotten wealth funding that rise, it’s impossible to feel “bad” about the application of an arguably unfair standard of success. Nevertheless, for our own sake as fans of soccer, it’s worth it sometimes to take a step back from the narratives and expectations and everything else that can cloud our vision, and taking a good look at what is real. In this case, what you’ll see is Kevin De Bruyne obliterating the opposition in a fashion that would absolutely blow your mind if you weren’t already so used to it.