Kevin De Bruyne has long been one of the untouchables at Manchester City.
Being benched for three of the team’s last seven Premier League games suggests that might no longer be the case.
City manager Pep Guardiola thinks De Bruyne — European football’s assist king — needs to focus on the “simple things” to get back to his best. They’ll both hope that starts Tuesday against Leipzig in the second leg of their last-16 matchup in the Champions League, with the score at 1-1 after the first game three weeks ago.
“I’m not going to discover Kevin. Kevin has an ability to do it. What I’d like — I spoke many times to him — is to go to the easy principles and do it well,” Guardiola said in a news conference Monday.
“He has an incredible ability to make an assist, to score goals and see passes like no one else, but I always have belief they will increase and will get better when (he does) the simple things, like don’t lose the ball, the mobility, the incredible capacity to be active in the movement, to do it again better and better.”
De Bruyne has still made 17 assists in 34 appearances for City this season, setting up more goals in the Premier League — 12 — than any other player.
The Belgium midfielder had an underwhelming World Cup, when his country failed to advance to the knockout stage in Qatar. And his radar has been off in recent weeks, during which he has given the ball away more than he normally does and struggled to connect with prolific City striker Erling Haaland.
City’s players are still getting used to having a central striker to feed, having played without one last season, though De Bruyne believes there are reasons why Haaland isn’t perhaps having as much joy as in the first half of this campaign.
“I would say people are maybe more anticipating to his runs,” De Bruyne said of Haaland, who has a Premier League-high 28 goals this season — and 34 goals in 34 appearances in all competitions. “But there’s always a first part of the season and a second part. I feel in the second part, there’s a lot more going on. Teams are more well-organized, they are playing for more, also — on both sides of the table.
“So I feel people are more prepared in every sense. Maybe he was a little more prolific when he got the chances but I don’t think we need to complain about the output of Erling in any way. I think he’s fine.”
At 31, De Bruyne has said he is “an old man in this game” but doesn’t think it’s quite the time to adapt his style, potentially dropping deeper in midfield.
“I’m a perfectionist,” he said. “Whatever I do in football or life, I will always want it to be 100%. In that regard, if the time would come, that is something I would think about but it’s not necessarily now.
“If I think about it at this particular time, I would like to stay as high as possible, for as long as possible, but that isn’t only my decision.”
City, the dominant team in England for the past decade, is looking to reach the quarterfinals for the sixth straight season but has never won European football’s biggest prize. The team’s only appearance in the final came in 2021, when it lost 1-0 to Chelsea in Porto.
De Bruyne knows the “noise” will get bigger around City in the competition the longer the team backed by Abu Dhabi wealth goes without winning it.
“We’ve not won it but I feel we’ve done really well in the Champions League,” he said. “I know people base everything on only winning but I feel there’s been a lot of circumstances in these types of games.
“Obviously I want to win it, but I know as long as we don’t, I will get the same question. And I’m fine that people judge you on that.”
Leipzig is coming off a 3-0 win over Borussia Mönchengladbach on Saturday, a game that saw Spain midfielder Dani Olmo come off the bench for his first appearance since January after a leg injury. France striker Christopher Nkunku is likely to miss out with a thigh muscle injury.
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