A famous scene in Home Alone 2 occurs when Kate McCallister arrives in Miami for a holiday and realises she has left her young son behind. The horror dawns on her, she screams his name – “KEVIN!!” – and promptly faints.
Man City manager Pep Guardiola might have displayed a similar reaction as he watched star playmaker Kevin De Bruyne crumple to the ground with a nasty knee injury in training this week. The Belgian was City’s player of the season last term, scoring 12 goals and providing 21 assists as his side won the Premier League in record-breaking fashion and also seized the EFL Cup, and his absence will be keenly felt.
De Bruyne was seen hobbling around on crutches after the session, and he is expected to miss a large chunk of the team’s title defence. Guardiola is desperate to secure back-to-back titles, a feat no English side has achieved since Man Utd in 2009, and this represents a serious blow to those ambitions. De Bruyne is the conductor of the Man City orchestra and he is integral to their swashbuckling style. Playmaking partner in crime David Silva is now 32, and City were expected to be increasingly reliant on De Bruyne to dictate the pace of their play this term.
He is now 27 years old and in the prime of his career, and he is arguably the best player in the Premier League. His range of passing is magnificent, he reads the game exceptionally well and he is a match winner. Man City will be a poorer team without him. But that does not mean their title hopes are scuppered. Far from it. The bookmakers have reacted pretty nonchalantly to the news and Guardiola’s men remain odds-on favourites to win the league. Take a look at these sports spreads and you will see that the Citizens are still way ahead of Liverpool et al in the indexes.
Football is a squad game these days and City have players that can cover for him. De Bruyne was never a deep-lying playmaker, but Guardiola’s masterstroke was to convert him into one and reap the rewards. He could pull off a similar feat with Bernardo Silva, while David Silva remains a creative maestro. Ilkay Gundogan continues to grow in stature, and a midfield of Fernandinho, Gundogan and David Silva still probably beats any in England. Then there is Phil Foden, the young protégé that Alan Shearer is tipping to thrive in De Bruyne’s absence.
Man City are an interesting team as they do not have any huge superstars that stand head and shoulders above the team. If the wage demands are too high or the agents get too pesky, Guardiola walks away, as evidenced in the Alexis Sanchez saga. There is a collective brilliance about this team, as they have all bought into Guardiola’s philosophy and they are tactically streets ahead of their domestic rivals. They are blessed with great individual talent – De Bruyne, David Silva, Sergio Aguero – but no one is bigger than the team.
This would not be the case if Liverpool lost Mohamed Salah for a chunk of the season. The Reds have spent well in the summer, plugging gaps in their starting 11, but the Egyptian forward remains their talisman. Heads dropped when he went off in the Champions League final and they went on to lose. It is the same situation with Chelsea, who would be a bit lost without Eden Hazard going forwards, while Tottenham look toothless without Harry Kane. It could be extended to Barcelona and Lionel Messi. But that is not the case with Man City. You might argue that De Bruyne is a midfielder, while the others are attackers, but if Aguero went down with injury – as he often does – Gabriel Jesus would plug the gap, or Raheem Sterling would play down the middle.
The point is that City are collectively so brilliant that they can afford to lose a few of their stars for lengthy spells and they could still win the league. It is not guaranteed, as Liverpool looked extremely sharp in their opener and they could run Guardiola’s men close. But it makes sense to see that Man City remain the odds-on favourites for the title. They should also welcome De Bruyne back into the side in a few months’ time, and that will totally galvanise them. Once he settles back into the side, he will provide an extremely potent weapon for Guardiola to call upon and that could deal a real psychological blow to their rivals. Even if he misses three months, De Bruyne can still play in more than half of Man City’s games this season, and the biggest matches come towards the end of the campaign. Write the champions off at your peril, as they are still the team to beat this season.