Not only was Kevin De Bruyne the finest player in Manchester City’s ranks before he suffered a groin injury against Swansea City on Saturday, he was also the leading light in Premier League football.
“(Lionel) Messi is on a table on his own. No one else is allowed. But the table beside, Kevin can sit there,” said Pep Guardiola a week before De Bruyne fell to the issue.
“Kevin is (an) outstanding player. Without the ball he is the first fighter. With the ball he is clear. He sees absolutely everything. He makes the right decision in the right moment every single time.”
Latest reports estimate an absence of around four weeks for the Belgian maestro. Here are three different ways City can cope with this dearth over the five matches in that period:
The system that has worked magnificently since Guardiola took the reins, and one the Spaniard still has the players at his disposal to deploy.
The return to fitness of David Silva would see him slot immediately into the lineup, with the hard running courtesy of Ilkay Gundogan’s box-to-box game helping remedy the energy lost in De Bruyne’s spell on the sidelines.
One of the reasons why De Bruyne thrived in this setup was his spatial intelligence and lung-bursting surges on the counter-attack. For this, lots of emphasis would be placed on Gundogan’s legs and also the ability for Silva to pick timely passes.
And in these forward rushes (and the remaining two matches of Nolito’s domestic suspension) much reliance could lean on the incredible pace of Raheem Sterling.
“Raheem feels that,” Guardiola said about players sensing the need to step up. “He feels that his teammates appreciate his efforts – the staff, the coaches – we are so happy about what he has. But again this is only September.”
An old favourite from Guardiola’s Barcelona days and one that wouldn’t require a change in personnel in midfield and attack.
Once again, plenty of emphasis is on Sterling’s finishing – he’ll be expected to assist and score in a front three – and that certainly wasn’t a reliable attribute in his first season at the Etihad Stadium.
However, Sterling is a wholly different proposition right now – a burgeoning talent under the more hands-on approaches of Guardiola and, at Liverpool, Brendan Rodgers, rather the stand-off training methods of former City boss Manuel Pellegrini.
The 4-3-3 would expect more penetration from the full-backs (think Dani Alves under Guardiola’s tutelage at the Camp Nou), which could be an issue. Pablo Zabaleta and Bacary Sagna can’t storm forward with the same intensity on the right, and Aleksandar Kolarov showed a lack of concentration and positional awareness in his natural position of left-back before this campaign.
If the thunder-footed Serbian displayed his old lack of willingness to get back and defend, Fernandinho could be even busier in Pep’s plans.
Back to the formation stubbornly adhered to through the vast majority of Pellegrini’s tenure, and one that sees a return to more forward-thinking duty for Silva.
Quite sensibly given Silva’s relative want of speed and increased nastiness in the tackle over the past few years, the Spaniard has been selected in a deeper position under Guardiola. He has fit in seamlessly, adding some creativity deeper in the midfield in a similar vein to Santi Cazorla at Arsenal, and also showing his inclination to get stuck in.
But this system would see him shunted back higher up the pitch, the magician able to cast his spells behind Sergio Aguero and the wingers – with one expected to narrow and infiltrate the space stretched out by his teammate on the other flank.
The 4-2-3-1 would also give some license for Gundogan to join attacks – similar to how Manchester United’s Paul Pogba was involved against Leicester City at the weekend – and Fernandinho to remain disciplined but quietly one of the most influential players in Guardiola’s squad.