Kevin De Bruyne’s flash of old-school magic leaves Chelsea spellbound | Manchester City
Put more flags. Book in the ticker cannon. Prepare, once again, for long-term triumph. Brew a nice cup of tea and maybe everyone will be there in a moment.
At the final whistle here, there was a heartfelt staccato cheer around those cantilevered stands. Fists were clenched, seats freed, aisles filled, the moment locked.
It would be rude to suggest that home fans did not seem suitably impressed, zapped or ecstatic at the realization, two weeks into January, that that was about it, another Premier League title almost lassoed by a measured victory against a Chelsea team presented (it is written here) as the closest challenger to Manchester City.
In the event Chelsea played most of this match as high quality FA Cup minnows looking for a lucrative replay. But then, that’s where we are now, the level of sustained performance achieved by this brilliantly relentless sky-blue machine. The weirdest thing about the table isn’t City’s 13-point lead, but the part that indicates they’ve seemingly lost two games along the way. Oh good? Can we verify this? Can we know exactly when and how this happened?
This first-versus-second encounter boiled down to a sort of slow-burning tactical tussle, a struggle for space decided by a gripping moment of push from perhaps the most interesting player in the ranks. of City.
Kevin De Bruyne is an unusual presence in some ways. He has the standard wide portfolio of roles, from deep midfield to false nine. But one of his key elements is a sort of throwback role, something from the 1990s: the raging midfielder, Gerrard’s archetypal, knee-high shooting power that leads from box to box , shoots Captain Marvels around the spot from a distance and that might, in a Pep Guardiola team, seem a little risky and offbeat.
Not, however, when you can do it like that. It was that push from De Bruyne, that old-school dance move that opened this game after 75 minutes on a balmy, wet and foggy day in Manchester that seemed to freeze into a stalemate.
“We are going to hunt them down and make them underperform,” Thomas Tuchel had announced before kick-off, which is, at the very least, an expert talk on pre-match fights. We will do such things. They will be the terrors of the Earth. But what would those things be?
Tuchel’s plan, his depth charges, the bombs dropped on this City system, turned out to be a kind of cold strangulation mush. Everyone has a plan until you stand a little too close to them and bite their ankles. For much of the first half, those two benches of blue stuck together, leaving no space, no air.
At times there were moans as City repeatedly made space but seemed to lack something simple: a body in the right space to finish, an urge to cross the ball. It’s tempting to crave those old-school comforts when City are mired by an opponent like this. Would Chris Wood make a difference? Should Guardiola revise his plan, tear up the playbook, go ‘correct’, order his wingers to bomb in the crosses? Again, City are 13 points ahead, so you know.
But someone had to do something. It was De Bruyne who found this moment with the decisive intervention which will look, in isolation, like an old-fashioned surge moment but was really a case of waiting, waiting again and being able to see this single opening when he came.
João Cancelo put the ball inside and suddenly De Bruyne was in the space between those tightly bound lines. He felt it instantly and began to surge, legs swinging, bouncing off N’Golo Kanté, who read it too but was just on the wrong side.
De Bruyne knows that path to goal, has something in his stride, the image his brain conjures up in those moments, the way he starts to see the arc of the shot, tilting his body four steps forward . He veered inside, unobstructed, with time to nudge the ball his way and, with a full view of the goal, curling the shot into the far corner. Kepa Arrizabalaga dived and, for form’s sake, raised an arm a bit sadly, but his only real function here was to act as a sort of usher, a member of the ground crew scattering the ball into the corner of the Chelsea net.
De Bruyne left the field five minutes from the end, like a big one being carried away by his suite, applauded from all sides, running, bath chair calling. For much of the second half, he looked a little chipped and breathless.
It has now been seven years for De Bruyne at City, six of them under Guardiola. He seems, as he enters his thirties, a little more distinct, a more majestic figure. But he managed four shots on goal here, the same number as the entire Chelsea staff, took four dribbles, more than anyone on the pitch, and provided the only outstanding moment in a game that became the first victory lap stage.