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When Pep Guardiola returned to Barcelona with his latest charges, it was fair to say that only a handful of his Manchester City players would be able to get into the starting line-up at the Catalonian club.
Sergio Aguero was left on the bench, while Claudio Bravo snapped under the pressure as he star-jumped his way off the pitch for an early bath. Raheem Sterling had a decent game, but Kevin de Bruyne was the one who caught the eye as City matched their illustrious counterparts during early spells of their Champions League tie.
De Bruyne started the match in an unfamiliar striking role, and he was the first to admit that it was a struggle as he attempted to fill the boots of Aguero. It was still a competent display, and it showcased his natural abilities as an attacker who has the intelligence to play in multiple positions.
Fast forward to the rematch, and the Belgian player further enhanced his credentials as one of the hottest talents on the Continent in a commanding, attacking midfield role.
He has quickly taken up the mantle as the instigator of most of the magic found at the Etihad, with strong performances in both Europe and domestically over the past two years.
In hindsight, it's easy to see that Chelsea missed out on one of the hbrightest prospects in European football, and the player was talked up while he still a member of the youth set-up in West London.
De Bruyne shone as he helped Genk to league titles in Belgium, joining the London side in 2012 on the final day of the transfer window. He was always talented enough to succeed at the Blues, but there was no route to the first team as Jose Mourinho continued to assemble his second title-winning side at Chelsea.
The player was adamant that he deserved a chance to prove his worth to the first-team, but had to move to Wolfsburg in 2014 to secure a starting berth. The £18m fee seemed like a decent price considering his role within the squad, but the loss of a player of his calibre came to be seen as one of the biggest mistakes of Jose Mourinho’s second term at the Blues.
The Belgian international returned to England in a deal worth £55m in 2015, signed with a view to unlocking defences for Manchester City over the next decade. In that respect, he's proved to be an able skeleton key, giving his team the run of numerous cities across Britain.
City are undoubtedly a better team when they have the Belgian international in the side, as evidenced by the relevant statistics. The team are more likely to win with KDB in the starting eleven, while they score goals more frequently thanks to his slick passing and vision.
It's no coincidence that he currently leads the charts with six assists in the Premier League, and it's not like he's suddenly hit a purple patch. This is the same player who provided nine assists in his first season back in England, and he's undoubtedly going to beat his previous tally within the next few months.
He does more than simply keep the team ticking with his passing range. His pace allows for faster attacks in transition, and he's not averse to hitting venomous strikes from range. Overall, he's a reasonably complete attacking midfielder, who can play on the wing or as a false nine at a push.
At 25 he still had the majority of his career to look forward to, and he's likely to continue to improve under the tutelage of one of the best man-managers in the game.
Pep Guardiola is famed for his ability to unlock hidden reserves of potential from his players, and De Bruyne is one of the latest to benefit from his manager's eye for detail. The system the former Barcelona manager uses focuses on keeping the player high up the pitch, where his vision ensures plenty of chances for his teammates. It’s clear that his new boss is a fan.
“[Lionel] Messi is on his own in the table but Kevin is in the next table and he is right up there, ” the Catalan tactician recently said of De Bruyne.
De Bruyne’s youthful looks may have some fooled, but the truth is that he's entering a critical point in his career, and he has the chance to adjust the trajectory. A close relationship with Guardiola is likely to provide dividends for their team if the player wants to be promoted into the Messi bracket in the next few years.
The club record £55m transfer fee and the increased wages and expectations have done little to dampen his enthusiasm on the pitch, and he’s on the way to becoming one of the best in Europe. Above all, the team is more potent when he's helping to lead the attack, and he already has an affinity with his team-mates that is likely to grow with time.
The fee was large, but it was money well spent. Manchester City have the resources to deal with half of their first team missing, but they found it hard to cope without the Belgian when he was withdrawn through injury late in September.
It's true that most clubs would struggle with two of their most important players ripped from the side, and City are no different. Without the combined efforts of Aguero and De Bruyne, the Citizens would be an entirely different prospect, even if they have the capability to field three replacements who are full internationals. It's also worth pointing out that their Argentine talisman is three years older than his main provider this season, which means that the latter is likely to be in it for the long haul.
So, how important is De Bruyne to the Citizens? He's the key to their long-term plans, and he could realise his role as their Messi if he continues to flourish under Guardiola.
In a league chock full of water carriers, it's easy to see the influence that a truly creative midfielder can have. It's not just his role within the team and the shade of his hair that set him apart from the majority of his rivals. He’s a true game changer, and he’s one of the best in the business.