Why hasn't De Bruyne been missed and can Gundogan heap the pain on Thiago this weekend?
Manchester City haven't skipped a beat without Kevin De Bruyne...why is that?
The most straight-forward answer to why hasn’t Kevin De Bruyne been missed might be ‘it’s a pure coincidence’; simple fortuity that the pendulum finally swinging Manchester City’s way just happened to coincide with Kevin De Bruyne’s injury.
So maybe there’s no need for an inquisition, an investigative article…a newsletter to see whether there was really anything to it at all. Maybe drawing too many conclusions from four games is unhealthy. Or maybe some people just wake up in the morning and decide to choose violence.
Of course, there’s certainly a case for the original proposition being true. The quality of opponents dispatched in De Bruyne’s absence has to be taken into consideration given every side City beat sat 17th-20th in the Premier League or were in League 2.
Secondly, City’s form this season has been on an upward trajectory with goals finally starting to flow and a defence looking studier than ever. With City having conceded more than 1.0 xG on just one occasion you could be forgiven for wondering whether they were headed for a default title win - with or without De Bruyne.
But - all those things considered - there has been a shift in the style of football City have played this season. The Belgian is a spectacularly unique player and I think Pep Guardiola once described him best:
“Kevin is exuberant. He is not a controller, he is more dynamic, coming from behind, finishing, crossing, appearing here, then there, defending, attacking … He is a complete player, less control and much more movement. When he stops he is not that effective as Xavi (Hernandez), David (Silva) and Andrés (Iniesta)."
Now, such lavishing praise is all well and good but what does it suggest about a team that plays through De Bruyne? That it’s more guns blazing and unrestrained, gung-ho chaos rather than control and slowing things down to a tempo where everybody can hear each other.
City’s attack usually funnels through the right-hand side that De Bruyne likes to occupy but what we’ve seen now is more interchanging through the middle and less reliance on crossing. City averaged 29 crosses a game in De Bruyne’s last two league games but only 15 a game in the three league matches since.
No two players personify this differing style more than Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva who are enjoying more freedom and are doing a pretty good job at shouldering the creative responsibility left behind.
They are also getting in amongst the goals with Gundogan scoring three in De Bruyne’s leave and Bernardo grabbing his first league goal in a year. Gundogan’s finish against West Brom and Bernardo’s crucial goal against Aston Villa all came from central positions too.
That is key because one of the few qualms with De Bruyne recently were his lack of goals, especially in the strikerless systems Pep has employed this season. The Belgian has had more than his fair share of shots in the league registering 3.5 shots per game. Unfortunately, he only has one goal and two penalties to show for it.
The statisticians tell us that he’s underperforming his Expected Goals by about five goals. What that basically means is that he probably should’ve/could’ve/would’ve scored five more goals than he already so far.
I’m not for one second suggesting Manchester City are better off with Kevin De Bruyne - City will miss him during an extremely tough February - but the change of style has been a refreshing adjustment to an all-too familiar set up.
Can Gundogan heap more misery on Thiago?
It’s not been the prettiest of starts to life for Thiago Alcantara at Liverpool. Indeed, he had a similarly rough induction at Bayern Munich where injuries and high expectations derailed his first two seasons.
Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool primarily play through the full-backs and into the wingers, sometimes bypassing the midfield entirely. This means the midfielders act as sort of wall in front of the defence, covering their buccaneering full-backs and generally not doing anything fancy with the ball.
So where does that leave Thiago? Sure he generally doesn’t lose the ball, but he definitely prefers to go forward with it than sideways. Instead, he’s had to find a new role with Klopp increasingly tweaking his position:
“We and he had to learn how to play without changing everything. He was a #6 at Bayern but we decided to adapt his position a bit.”
It is fitting then that he should face Ilkay Gundogan this weekend, a player who’s had an eerily similar career dealing with blighting injuries, positional changes and a move to the sunny North of England.
Thiago might be a better passer than Gundogan but its the latter’s energy and late runs into the box that the Spaniard will have to watch out for. Can he contain the German who has already recorded a career best for goals in a season? Or will he succumb to yet another humbling defeat at Anfield?
What to expect from the 93:20 newsletter going forward
Ninety Three Twenty is an independent podcast and blog covering all the latest from Manchester City and Anis is a writer whose work has appeared on Sky Sports, Sports Illustrated and various Manchester City blogs on the internet.
This newsletter is a collection of thoughts, ideas and general bad takes on football from a Manchester City perspective. There’s a lot of discourse around the beautiful game so I want to create a space where I (and hopefully you) can discuss it in a fun way.
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