How old is ‘old’ for an elite footballer? Kevin de Bruyne has contemplated the question a few times since he turned 31.
There was the interview he gave before the World Cup, where he said his Belgium team had “no chance” in the tournament because they were “too old”. Some of the senior Belgian players discussed the remark with him before exiting the tournament at the group phase.
Then there was his comment to reporters after Manchester City’s 1-0 win at Crystal Palace at the weekend: “I’m an old man in this game, I know how it is.”
De Bruyne had come off the bench for the last 11 minutes, the fourth time in nine league matches he had been named among the City substitutes. “Obviously you want to play as much as possible,” he added, “but if you don’t, you do your best for 10 minutes.”
De Bruyne’s best, even with a little less time on the pitch than he has been used to in his eight seasons as serial champion and chief creator at City, is still better than anybody else in English football when it comes to providing goalscoring chances.
Nobody has more assists than his dozen in the Premier League this season. He will have a large say in the next scoring records Erling Haaland collects, too. Of the giant Norwegian’s 34 City goals so far in his first campaign in English football, De Bruyne has directly set up nine.
“I’m not an old man,” De Bruyne clarified yesterday, looking ahead to Tuesday’s Champions League second leg against RB Leipzig, a tie poised at 1-1. “I’m an old man in this game.” He had been aware of some observers wondering if De Bruyne has reached, even passed his peak. “I know how it works, when people talk about you you notice these things a lot more. People talk about form, about how you play.
“I’m a perfectionist,” he acknowledged, “I want to be 100 per cent, stay at as high [a level] as possible for as long as possible. I don’t know how long I’ve got left. As long as I’m having fun I’ll keep on playing.”
Leipzig 1 Man City 1: Player ratings
City’s manager, Pep Guardiola, admitted to some concerns, since the new year, that De Bruyne’s form and influence may have been affected by the demanding schedule of 2022-23. He has given specific advice to the midfielder not to overcomplicate his game. “It’s been a difficult season for all of us, me included, with the World Cup and many things,” said Guardiola.
“I’d like Kevin to go with the [basic] principles. His incredible ability to score and pass, I always believe, will increase with the simple things: Don’t lose the ball, move from outside to inside, attack the channels – and then creating incredible passes will be easier.”
The periods on the bench have been designed to ensure De Bruyne is at his best for the decisive stage of the season, for matches like Tuesday’s, against a Leipzig team who came back strongly in the second half of the first leg, are very much in the contest in a tight Bundesliga title race and enjoying the fine form of their own creative 31-year-old, Emil Forsberg.
Like De Bruyne, the Swede has been at his current club since 2015, and, like his Belgian counterpart, has galvanised a transformative era. Forsberg was part of the Leipzig team promoted to the top-flight in 2016. He was the top assister of goals across all of Europe’s strongest leagues the following season, his 22 goal-making passes trumping De Bruyne’s 19 from that year.
He arrives in Manchester on a hot streak as a finisher, his penalty in the 3-0 victory over Borussia Monchengladbach at the weekend his fourth goal in as many Bundesliga games. “I don’t know to explain it, I’m just going with the flow,” Forsberg smiled to reporters, and, like De Bruyne, he referenced his age. “It’s fun being around the younger lads – they keep me young.”
Like Guardiola with his Belgian pass-master, Leipzig manager Marco Rose strategically rests Forsberg. He has played a full 90 minutes just once this season, and been used from the bench in half his league and European outings.
“Because of his age, you can see sometimes he reaches the point where it’s enough, at around 70 or 80 minutes,” said Rose, who regards Forsberg “as an important factor is how I connect with the team. He gives a lot to the younger players”.
Rose will rely a little more heavily on his senior playmaker on Tuesday, and hope Forsberg’s eye for goal remains sharp, with the forwards Dani Olmo and Christopher Nkunku out with injury. “Now’s the time he must really go for it,” said Rose.