Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola replied to a simple question with the obvious answer.
“Who is the best player in the Champions League?” a Spanish journalist asked on Monday.
“Messi, Messi,” answered Guardiola. “There’s no one better than him.”
It is now over four years since the pair worked together at Barcelona but (with apologies to the Cristiano Ronaldo contingent) little has changed in that regard since 2012. Guardiola, after three years at Bayern Munich, is beginning a new era at Manchester City and, although it is early days yet, perhaps a little further down the line, were he to be asked a similar question about the best player in the Premier League, then Kevin De Bruyne might become just as clear a reply.
On Saturday, De Bruyne delivered a withering riposte to Jose Mourinho, the manager who cast him aside at Chelsea, with a match winning-display in City’s 2-1 Manchester derby victory.
The previous time De Bruyne had played at Old Trafford with Mourinho in the dugout had been in August 2013, for the Blues, a 0-0 draw where he was subbed off on the hour following a wholly ineffectual contribution from the right flank.
Granted little responsibility, and with it the merest crumbs of possession, De Bruyne started a Premier League match for Chelsea just once more before being loaned to Wolfsburg, a 2-1 loss at Sunderland in December. Despite having been fit to play for that entire period.
“He was not ready to compete, he was an upset kid, training very bad,” Mourinho explained last August, just as City were preparing to pay Wolfsburg £55 million for a player Chelsea sold for £18m. Seven victorious matches into Guardiola’s reign at City, few would now doubt De Bruyne’s quality.
Arsenal loyalists may talk of Mesut Ozil or even Alexis Sanchez. Manchester United fans have high hopes of Paul Pogba. Eden Hazard is on the way back to his best Chelsea form. City may also have Sergio Aguero, but this season De Bruyne has surged into the spotlight, kicking on from a highly impressive, if truncated, first season back in England.
The knee injury that De Bruyne suffered in January, in a 3-1 League Cup semifinal defeat of Everton, ruled him out for two months. City won just four matches of the 12 he missed, as they faded into fourth place in Manuel Pellegrini’s final season in charge.
“He has impressed us more than we thought he would,” a typically understated Pellegrini told Marca on April 22. At that point, De Bruyne had scored 15 goals and supplied 14 assists, a significant downpayment on a transfer fee that was then a record for an English club.
Last weekend, set against the £89.3m United paid for Pogba, De Bruyne’s fee looked positively economical. As the Frenchman toiled in Saturday’s derby defeat, disconnected from his teammates, De Bruyne was truly outstanding. During the opening 40 minutes, as City scored two goals to take them from United’s reach, De Bruyne was both architect and destroyer.
With Fernandinho and David Silva supplying angled passes for him to explode onto, and feeding off striker Kelechi Iheanacho’s notably intelligent play, De Bruyne repeatedly bounded through United’s midfield, his speed of thought and vision laying waste to Daley Blind and then David De Gea for City’s 15th-minute first. Having lashed in that first with his right foot, it was with his left that he rattled a shot off the post for Iheanacho to score City’s second from close range.
Later on, in the second half, De Bruyne, seizing on a Leroy Sane pass, again struck the woodwork. As United pushed for an equaliser after Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 40th minute goal threatened to bring the game to life, De Bruyne’s threat on the counter remained ever present as City held off a United team reduced to pumping the ball at struggling debutant goalkeeper Claudio Bravo.
In probably the most hyped early-season Premier League match of all, he dominated. The Belgian’s busy, rangy running style eats up the yards, his finishing is explosive and, as he showed when assuming Silva’s playmaking duties against Borussia Monchengladbach in City’s 4-0 stroll on Tuesday, he can also be an unselfish and cogent distributor of the ball. Aguero, with a hat trick, was the beneficiary.
City dominate possession but still attack at breakneck speed; the passing interchanges are rarely deliberate, the ball is usually moving at pinball pace. De Bruyne, playing centrally rather than coming off a flank, is given space and licence to either link play or go beyond the striker.
Last year, as City made their move, Mourinho clarified his problem with De Bruyne as being the Belgian’s expectation of being handed that licence, the status of being key man; the Portuguese’s teams usually give such freedom to one player, if at all. Chelsea’s sale of De Bruyne to Wolfsburg is viewed as one of Mourinho’s great errors but perhaps the truth lies in their never being suited to each other.
At City this season, an already high-quality player has shifted through the gears. On the evidence so far at his new club, Guardiola, the anti-Mourinho, appears exactly the manager to make De Bruyne the unquestionably outstanding player in Premier League football.