Welcome to Kevin De Bruyne’s Manchester City. This was the deafening message sent by the Belgian in a midweek dismantling of Real Madrid that will have Aston Villa wondering how to shackle him when he tries to drive City to a third successive Carabao Cup on Sunday.
Operating as a false 9, De Bruyne’s performance in the Champions League last-16 first leg ranked as a career highlight. There was a sublime assist for Gabriel Jesus’s equaliser and an ice-cool penalty for the winner, while the bewitching ability to conjure space ran from first whistle to last.
It was also a glaring beacon of optimism as City adjust to a future facing a Champions League ban. Whatever the outcome of their appeal at the court of arbitration for sport, there is a definite sense of before and after the moment Uefa handed down a swingeing two-year exclusion. The team then seemed in flux, with the impending exit of the 34-year-old David Silva in summer and the ageing of Sergio Agüero (32 in June) and Fernandinho (35 in May) further calling into question City’s ability to compete in coming seasons.
Yet after Pep Guardiola benched all three in Madrid the De Bruyne show pointed to a different truth: that the manager is already overseeing a rejuvenation of the team, rather than heading for a frantic close-season rebuild. De Bruyne has been the intended heir to Silva since the Spaniard began to fade in recent seasons. Yet if the Belgian’s injury travails prevented the succession occurring last season, Wednesday signalled the interregnum is over, as he wore the armband – in Silva’s place – in a snapshot of a new City with Jesus (22), Bernardo Silva (25) and Riyad Mahrez (29) joining him as lead acts.
David Silva, Fernandinho and Agüero are the last representatives of the first impressive vintage of Sheikh Mansour’s ownership: the dominant domestic side of the previous decade. Now De Bruyne is chief conductor in the evolvement of a new wave for the 2020s. Mikel Arteta, Guardiola’s former assistant, says the manager’s coaching has been vital to De Bruyne’s elevation. The Arsenal manager told Pol Ballus and Lu Martin in Pep’s City: The Making of a Superteam: “A few years ago he couldn’t have played pivot, because he didn’t quite have the capacity to transmit orders to those around him. Now he can – he understands the pitch, his team, the demanding, associative football which links parts of the team with passes and movement.”
De Bruyne’s vignette for Jesus’s equaliser exemplified Arteta’s assessment. There was gazelle‑like movement to the byline. A ballet‑style pirouette to create time that left a ring of defenders befuddled. Then, a nonchalant yet pinpoint cross to engineer a Jesus header that also felt like a watershed for the Brazilian: the moment he proved there will be life after the prolific Agüero.
The debate regarding Jesus has concerned whether he is lethal enough to prosper: scoring a vital equaliser in the Bernabéu is one answer. It suggests a growing maturity, that the pressure of a high‑stakes contest is to be revelled in. The manager has never harboured any doubts about Jesus. Since his arrival from Palmeiras in Januart 2017 Guardiola has been quick to praise him for his tirelessness and for “being there” even when chances are missed. If his strike ratio is inferior to Agüero’s one goal in 106.4 minutes, a finish for every 122 is hardly shabby.
The hanging header that beat Thibaut Courtois – Jesus’s 63rd goal in 136 City appearances – came after being deployed in one of Guardiola’s ever-shifting team shapes as a winger-defender hybrid along the left. Just as impressive as the strike was the cute push in Sergio Ramos’s back as Jesus rose: an example of the kind of dark arts of which Real’s captain is a master.
With Mahrez and Bernardo Silva, Jesus represents City’s present and future. They should be regulars for seasons to come, alongside De Bruyne, who, at 28, has an argument for being one of the “top five players” Guardiola insisted he could become when they first met – a declaration that surprised a modest character.
De Bruyne may be the player Villa fear most at Wembley but, even if he can somehow be stymied, this is a City side entering a fresh cycle, with a personality and potency that is the best response to the potential two‑season elimination from Europe’s premier club competition. On Sunday they can lay down a marker by claiming a first trophy of the season, the sixth major one of Guardiola’s exceptional reign. Expect De Bruyne to lead the charge – again.