The worst thing about Kevin De Bruyne is that he looks like Timon from The Lion King. It’s hard to ignore. Every time the camera pans to his face, he looks like a meerkat in fear of being eaten by a starving lioness because the rule of King Scar has ruined the food supply of the pride lands.
Beyond his looks, De Bruyne is a soccer genius. He’s one of the best at getting the ball through a defense and to the feet of his forwards so they can score. He also good at scoring himself, because he can hit the ball better with both feet from outside the box than most strikers can inside of it. But his assists and pre-assists are some of the most wonderful things about the Premier League right now.
De Bruyne showed all of his brilliance against Stoke City last weekend. The guy who looks like Scotty Smalls had a hand in four of Manchester City’s seven goals. All of his passes leading up to the goals were great, but three were truly exceptional.
The first one was a pass to Leroy Sane for Raheem Sterling’s goal. De Bruyne was at the top of the left side of the box, facing Sterling who was in the middle, with David Silva and Gabriel Jesus beneath him. Sterling thought he was going to get the ball, so he made a run into the box. The cameraman thought Sterling was going to get the ball so he focused on the middle. Silva and Jesus thought Sterling was going to get the ball, so they stood a bit flat-footed to watch.
But instead, De Bruyne played the ball across his body through two defenders and the pair of Silva and Jesus to find Sane, who had made a run beyond the fullback. The defense was so ill-prepared for it that when Sane received the ball, he had his choice of either Jesus or Sterling for the finish. The goalkeeper had no protection or chance to stop it.
The second was a typical pass from the player formerly known as Dewey from Malcolm in the Middle. It’s his signature move; a pass that he could probably make in his sleep — the pass that he made several times in the same game, and one of them led to a Sane opportunity at the far post that went over the bar before Jesus’ first goal.
De Bruyne won the ball from a dallying defender and set off down the right touchline. There were three defenders between him and Jesus, who was making his run down the center. De Bruyne hit a vicious but accurate low ball that curled around all three defenders, even with the one closest to Jesus resorting to a desperate slide tackle, before finding the forward’s left foot. The ball was so powerful that all Jesus had to do was meet it on the run for it to rifle past the keeper.
The last pass was the best pass. It came from the right side again, though his position this time was closer inside. Sane made a run toward the box from the left wing when De Bruyne won the ball above the midfield line. There were four defenders between the two: three in a slanting line from De Bruyne to Sane and the center-back who was tracking Jesus at the right side of the box.
De Bruyne’s ball curled around the three in a line and went in front of the center-back who couldn’t turn his hips from running with Jesus and toward the center fast enough to react. The ball met Sane’s run perfectly, and the young forward nutmegged the goalkeeper with his finish:
Credit must be given to Pep Guardiola and his system for De Bruyne’s genius. As an individual, the young Ron Howard is talented enough. He proved that in his time in Germany. But individual talent and hard work are hardly ever enough in soccer or in life. Every genius needs a nurturing environment.
De Bruyne went to Germany only after being rejected at Chelsea by Jose Mourinho, playing only three total games for the Portuguese. The story of discarded-player-turns-out-great is normal in sports, but it speaks on the importance of finding the right situation. There are things that De Bruyne can’t do and in a system like Mourinho’s, his defensive weaknesses would be exposed so much that his positives would seem a luxury. In a Guardiola system that allows reckless attacking, he’s allowed to be the best version of himself.
At Manchester City, he has the freedom to play to his strengths and he is surrounded by a wealth of talent that further promotes his abilities. When he goes forward, he has Silva, Jesus, Sterling, Sane, Aguero; hell, even Fernandino is scoring screamers now. He has movement, fluidity, and the opportunities to pick out passes that the defenders and audience don’t even see. Manchester City is the perfect place for De Bruyne to be the best version of himself.
With that said, soccer’s Wes Borland is a genius in his own right. There are few players who can play the first pass, less who can complete the second, and a handful who can do what he did for the third. He’s as technical as they come. Manchester City is going on a full-out assault on teams to reclaim the Premier League title, Guardiola finally has his players and system in place and at the heart of it is De Bruyne, one of the best passers that the league, and soccer itself, has ever seen.