Manchester City had just begun life without David Silva with a statement of intent when Kevin de Bruyne was asked if he could compensate for the departed captain. “David was an incredible player for us and I cannot recreate what he did,” came the reply. “Whoever plays in place of David will do their thing.”
De Bruyne and Silva had dovetailed wonderfully for much of the previous five years, but theirs was a partnership of opposites. The Spaniard had more similarities with Xavi, the Belgian with Steven Gerrard. De Bruyne is not the new Silva. Phil Foden has been given that billing and was the reason Pep Guardiola long cited for not buying a replacement for the most decorated player in City’s history. Foden duly scored in the first match of the post-Silva era, the 3-1 win at Wolves, but from a starting berth on the right wing.
Perhaps Silva is irreplaceable, but the reality is there was no replacement for him at Molineux. Rather, a rejig offered one glimpse of a post-Silva system. De Bruyne coined the term ‘free eights’ to describe the roles Guardiola afforded Silva and him after his appointment. There were none at Wolves. Instead City had two deeper midfielders, in Rodri and Fernandinho, and a No 10: De Bruyne.
If the defensive logic was to create a four-man box with the centre-backs, John Stones and the debutant Nathan Ake, to bring a solidity City sometimes lacked last season, it tied into Fernandinho’s specialist subject: cutting off the counter-attack. With a sudden surfeit of centre-backs, the new captain can return to his premier position and when Ilkay Gundogan recovers from coronavirus, Guardiola will be able to pick from three players who suit the holding-midfield roles.
But that dual shield did not leave City underpowered in the attacking department. And, with respect to Foden and Raheem Sterling, who set up the younger man’s goal, there is a major reason for that: De Bruyne. He did his thing, quite brilliantly.
There is a case for saying that he can do the creative work of two men. He is more than twice as creative as all but the finest. Last season, his expected assists total was 18.4. Trent Alexander-Arnold was next, on 9.9. He averaged 3.9 key passes per game; the best of the rest was 2.5. He supplied six at Molineux.
There are times when he feels in a different realm to everyone else. Liverpool’s midfielders contributed 15 assists in their title-winning campaign last year. De Bruyne got 20 on his own, albeit with very different tactics. If unleashing him as a No.10 threatens to make him even more destructive in the final third, it flies in the face of recent tactical developments.
There is a theory the No 10 has become a dying breed. Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea rarely field one, though that may change with Kai Havertz’s arrival at Stamford Bridge. Tottenham might not. It could leave Bruno Fernandes the lone exception among England’s big six. Guardiola has favoured 4-3-3, a system without a specialist No 10, at both Barcelona and City, even if Lionel Messi often felt a 10 as well as a false nine at Camp Nou.
Guardiola’s strategies can be both modernist and reviving ploys from the past. He can fly in the face of topical trends. Not that De Bruyne’s position is now set in stone for the season; as the Belgian pointed out, City can be tactically flexible and Guardiola is likely to adopt different systems. Yet the win at Wolves underlined that he has the best No 10 in the division, when he chooses to use De Bruyne as one.