Manchester City: Pep Guardiola turns Kevin de Bruyne into a star
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Manchester City are often accused of simply trying to buy success, so is it time we gave their manager Pep Guardiola some credit for improving his big-name players too?
Kevin de Bruyne, who has gone from a goal-grabbing attacker into someone Guardiola described this month as being a "complete player," appears to be a prime example of a top talent he has enhanced further.
In assists alone, De Bruyne's statistics in his new, often deeper role speak for themselves, but they have come in tandem with some rave reviews from observers about his overall influence on matches, not merely in the final third of the field.
It seems he has become the kind of player Guardiola has always wanted to control his midfield, going back to his days in charge of Barcelona, when he nurtured several of them.
But while the Belgian's recent stellar form has seen him make the headlines, the evidence suggests he is not the only world-class City player their Spanish coach has taken to a new level.
'Guardiola takes good players, and makes them great'
De Bruyne's admirers include Guardiola himself, with the former Bayern Munich manager stating last week that the 26-year-old is "one of the best players I have ever seen".
You could argue De Bruyne should be that, given he cost City £55m in 2015 - at the time the second-highest fee paid by a British club, and still a club record despite their summer spree in an even more acutely inflated transfer market.
De Bruyne was clearly no slouch before Guardiola got his hands on him and the former Chelsea player also possessed the attitude and ability to adapt his game.
But his manager has played a part in that process - and has helped others to make similar progress.
"I 100% think De Bruyne has become a better player under Guardiola," says Pat Nevin, who was at Vicarage Road for BBC Radio 5 live on Saturday and saw City destroy Watford 6-0.
"But he is not the only one that has improved a lot in this City team. I look at Raheem Sterling and think he is monumentally better now than he was before. Sergio Aguero has clearly added to his game under Pep too.
"So whereas everyone else is talking about individuals, I am looking at Guardiola and thinking I love your system, I love your attitude and I love your ethos - in the way you are taking very good players, and you are changing them to make them great.
"That is quite unusual, because a lot of managers would think I have got a really good player who does a certain thing very well, so I will just let him play.
"You can tell that is not good enough for Guardiola, though. The way he has worked with those three players is pure Pep, really."
'Pep is building a more holistic thing'
Compared to last season, not an awful lot has changed for De Bruyne.
In his first year at the Etihad Stadium, under previous manager Manuel Pellegrini, De Bruyne was typically one of the three players operating behind striker Sergio Aguero in a 4-2-3-1 formation, either out wide or as the number 10, but that changed when Guardiola took charge in the summer of 2016.
The former Genk starlet began the 2016-17 campaign operating in a deeper role, usually as part of a 4-1-4-1 formation that - much as he does now - saw him help out City's holding midfielder when his team did not have the ball, but also act as a springboard for launching attacks when they won it back.
But Nevin points out that De Bruyne does not just have one position in this City team - and neither do his fellow midfielders.
"It really is not that simple with Pep," Nevin explained. "It is a much more holistic thing he is building.
"De Bruyne played on the right of midfield against Watford but, in their previous league game against Liverpool, he did a lot of work across the pitch. Against Bournemouth at the end of August he was mainly on the left. Who knows where he will play next week.
"I think that is what Guardiola has been trying to do with him, and the rest of City's midfield too.
"If you can play, you can play anywhere in his teams. If you look at his Barcelona side, Xavi and Andres Iniesta were not on the right or left, they were just players.
"It is the same at City now too. If you asked David Silva, I don't think he would care where he is asked to play. De Bruyne and Sterling won't either."
|Kevin de Bruyne in the Premier League|
|Games (starts)||25 (22)||36 (33)||5 (5)|
|Mins per goal||286||481||N/A|
|Mins per assist||223||160||142|
|Mins per tackles/interception||44||38||36|
'City are miles ahead of last season'
Guardiola talked last season about De Bruyne's willingness to adapt, and it appears the player has also bought into his manager's philosophy that the team is more important than personal glory.
When asked in April about the change in his ratio of goals and assists, he said: "I think the things I am doing this year are more collective, while probably last year individually was maybe better for me."
That must be music to the ears of a manager who, according to Nevin, "wants team players, who are part of a group".
City's current form suggests Guardiola has found what he was looking for.
They are joint-top of the Premier League and their win over Watford came at the end of a week during which they found the net 15 times in three matches.
"That was the first time I had seen them live this season," added Nevin. "A lot had changed because all their players had great understanding of each others' positions and utter belief in each other and the team.
"Everyone wanted the ball and everyone was good on the ball, and they were all confident. The biggest difference is that now there is no-one in that team who does not look capable of playing the way Guardiola wants.
"City had a great start to last season too, of course, but they are miles ahead of where they were then.
"Some of that is down to the players they bought over the summer - against Watford, left-back Benjamin Mendy looked like a professional playing against an Under-15 side. They could not get near him and his delivery was pretty damn good too.
"But right through the team, they have all bought into their manager's ideas, so their whole system - or, to be more accurate, systems, because they have more than one - is working better now than before.
"The players looked very comfortable, which helps them look better too. In fact, along with Manchester United, they look a class apart at the minute."
'Every City midfielder can control the game'
|Most Premier League chances created 2017-18|
|Player||Chances created (assists)|
|=1. Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Man Utd)||17 (5)|
|=1. David Silva (Man City)||17 (4)|
|=3. Kevin de Bruyne (Man City)||15 (3)|
|=3. Mesut Ozil (Arsenal)||15 (0)|
|5. Cesc Fabregas (Chelsea)||14 (0)|
Listening to lavish praise from Guardiola is nothing new to De Bruyne either.
This time last year, his manager said he rated him as highly as any player he has managed, with the exception of Lionel Messi.
But while Guardiola's latest comments have continued the conversation about whether De Bruyne is world class, Nevin is at pains to point out that City do not rely on him to make them tick.
"As well as he is playing, the spotlight is on De Bruyne at the moment because his manager is saying again how brilliant he is," added Nevin.
"But I think part of the reason he is doing that is just him trying to get the best out of him.
"Of course he has been playing really well - his creative play, in particular, has been fantastic.
"But on Saturday there was no doubt in my mind that Sterling was the best player on the pitch. The week before that, against Liverpool, it was probably David Silva.
"My point is that every single one of City's midfielders can be their best player and the controller and main influence on a game.
"Without a shadow of a doubt, De Bruyne is maturing and coming into the best period of his career and, yes, he is one of the best creative players around.
"But is he that far ahead of everyone else in this City team? Well, no. Absolutely not. I think that is harsh on Silva and Sterling, not to mention Aguero and Gabriel Jesus.
"So I am looking at it with a little bit of perspective. If he keeps playing like this he will be in the running for Player of the Year, but let's not get carried away because the same could be said of a few other City players too."