Champions League final: Kevin de Bruyne - Chelsea's costliest oversight

Manchester City's Belgian playmaker can inflict further pain on his former employers in Saturday's European Cup final

Imagine, as the teams line up in Oporto for Saturday’s Champions League final, Kevin de Bruyne wearing a much darker shade of blue. That was, after all, the way things were supposed to pan out.

Imagine that, after Chelsea recruited the 20-year-old De Bruyne from Genk in January 2012, their careful plan to ease him into their first team had followed the path designed. By now De Bruyne would likely have played 350-odd matches for Chelsea. He may well have become their captain. Given what we know of De Bruyne, galvaniser and peerless match-winner, it’s a strong possibility they’d have won one or two more trophies over the past nine years.

The European Cup final this weekend is the latest bookend on an extraordinary story of one club’s squander and another’s gain, of how Chelsea scouted and signed one of the sport’s great global talents, misjudged him, and were then obliged to watch him go from better to best in the jersey of Manchester City.

The tale is framed by one European Cup and, this Saturday night, another. Chelsea won the Champions League for the only time in their history less than four months after capturing young De Bruyne’s coveted signature. De Bruyne had no part in that triumph - he was a Chelsea employee when his new club beat Bayern Munich on penalties, but had been allowed to stay on at Genk to complete the 2011/12 Belgian season. Yet Chelsea’s vision for De Bruyne was clear. The old guard who had ground their way to an improbable Champions League triumph in Munich were to be upgraded: De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and the Brazilian Oscar were among the creative, young, gifted recruits earmarked for a bright Blues future.

There would be others on the horizon: a speedy Egyptian named Mohamed Salah; a skilful Colombian winger, Juan Cuadrado. The list of fine players who have passed too briefly in and out of Chelsea on the way is notorious, and can easily look like a catalogue of carelessness when you count up the medals, the goals, the assists the likes of Salah, now at Liverpool, and Cuadrado, a star at Juventus, later provided for teams more appreciative of their talents. But discarding De Bruyne ranks as the greatest Chelsea error.

The statistics record that he played nine competitive matches in two years as a Stamford Bridge employee, out on loan for most of that time. And the stats became the story. De Bruyne was reminded of them in a now famous conversation with his then Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho in the late winter of 2013. The dialogue was short and bigger on numbers than on sentiment.

In their meeting, Mourinho read out figures from a list. “‘One assist. Zero goals. Ten recoveries’,” as De Bruyne recalled to Sky Sports. “It took me a minute to understand what he was doing. Then he started reading the stats of the other attacking forwards – Willian, Oscar, [Juan] Mata, [Andre] Schurrle. And it’s like – [they had] five goals, 10 assists, or whatever.” The meeting, as De Bruyne looks back on it, would be “a life-changing moment.”

De Bruyne sensed there and then he should move on, and having impressed hugely in Germany when Chelsea loaned him to Werder Bremen, he was sold to Wolfsburg. The rest is history: De Bruyne was named the Bundesliga’s Player of the Year in his first full season at Wolfsburg. City swooped in for him.

Chelsea's English defender Gary Cahill, right, vies with Manchester City's Belgian midfielder Kevin De Bruyne during the English Premier League football at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, north west England, on December 3, 2016. Paul Ellis / AFP
Kevin de Bruyne, left, was let go by Chelsea after two season before eventually finding his way to Manchester City. AFP

Three Premier League titles and six domestic cups later, English football’s 2019/20 Footballer of the Year would need a hefty lever-arch file to count through his City stats in the way Mourinho crunched his numbers on that ‘life-changing’ day at Chelsea. 67 goals. 107 assists. Countless recoveries. That’s in 261 Manchester City appearances.

Four of those City goals have been scored against the club who let him go. Ominously for Chelsea, De Bruyne has netted in his last three Premier League meetings against them. He never talks of ‘revenge’; that is not his style. But at Stamford Bridge, the regrets about letting De Bruyne go, only to watch him become a giant at the best club in England are perpetual. They act as a warning to be more attentive to a business model that involves a high turnover of young players, to make sure the wrong ones do not slip out.

Frank Lampard, Chelsea manager until the beginning of this year, had De Bruyne in mind when he urged patience in the way the club look at current younger signings like Kai Havertz and Timo Werner, saying: “We have seen players come here, didn’t really adapt, went elsewhere and came back to the Premier League and absolutely lit it up to unbelievable levels.” None more brightly than the Belgian now wearing sky-blue.

Updated: May 28, 2021 02:16 AM

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