When Manchester City confirmed Kevin De Bruyne suffered a knee injury in training Wednesday, the reactions ranged from calamitous to profoundly concerned.
Fears that De Bruyne’s current ailment rivals a serious ankle and knee ligament injury he sustained in a League Cup clash with Everton during the 2015-16 campaign have become a common talking point. That injury forced De Bruyne to miss nine weeks, and on the surface, a similar spell on the treatment table could derail City’s aim of becoming the first side in a decade to repeat as Premier League champions.
On the contrary, there’s plenty of reason to think Pep Guardiola’s record-smashing juggernaut will not experience a drop in form.
With Sunday’s season-opening victory over Arsenal at the Emirates in the rearview, City look ahead to an almost laughable slate of league affairs.
The club’s next six matches come against the last six sides to nab promotion to the English top flight, and based on the first weekend of fixtures, only two of the half-dozen tilts pose a mild challenge. On Sunday, Guardiola’s charges welcome a Huddersfield Town side who were thoroughly dominated in a 3-0 defeat to a Chelsea side finding their footing under Maurizio Sarri. Next up is a visit to a rocking Molineux to face high-flying Wolves in a match that could be City’s sternest test. Nuno Espirito Santo’s men eked out a 2-2 home draw with 10-men Everton.
City then welcome Newcastle and Fulham to the Etihad before trips to Cardiff City and Brighton. Last season, City lost just once at home in the league, to rival Manchester United, and went 22 unbeaten to start the campaign – one draw paired with 21 victories. The first league loss of the season came against Liverpool on Jan. 14 at Anfield, and after a simple six-pack of matches on this year’s slate, City return to Merseyside to face their main title threat on Oct. 7, presumably sans De Bruyne.
An excess of alternatives
If there’s a side equipped to sustain the loss of an influential player, it’s Manchester City.
When Riyad Mahrez was lured to the north-west in the summer for a club-record £60 million, the signing was met with equal parts laughter and groans. The league’s deepest squad added the 2016-17 PFA Player of the Year, and while Mahrez’s addition bolsters an attack that De Bruyne often played facilitator for, it’s a slew of options already in Guardiola’s ranks who will help City maintain their early-season form.
Whether in the 4-2-3-1 formation the Catalan tactician employed against Arsenal, or in a 4-3-3 with the midfield at times resembling an inverted pyramid, City is rich with options. In a three-man midfield that Guardiola prefers, Brazilian ball stopper Fernandinho continues to sit deep, while crafty duo David Silva and Bernardo Silva are tasked with sharing the void left by De Bruyne’s injury. Bernardo Silva has looked stellar in a more central position than out wide right, where he featured in his first campaign at the Etihad, and David Silva is widely regarded as one of the league’s best midfielders. Statistically, David Silva and De Bruyne have plenty of similarities, with the Belgian marginally more successful in chances created per 90 minutes, but Silva ahead in terms of successful passes per 90 and pass-completion percentages, and level on assists per 90 at .41 per match.
Academy darling Phil Foden and Ilkay Gundogan could also stem the tide, establishing the wealth of alternatives at Guardiola’s disposal.
Guardiola’s ability to adapt
De Bruyne is the straw that stirs City’s superlative cocktail, but it’s Guardiola who plays puppet master. Few managers have exhibited a versatility and adaptability the likes of Guardiola, and there’s no indication this season will be any different.
Guardiola has already said that ball-playing center-half John Stones could help deputize for Fernandinho in a defensive midfield role following the failed summer pursuits of Jorginho and Fred. The former Bayern Munich and Barcelona manager has also proved an astute adaptor in terms of players and their positions of choice. Under Guardiola, Stones, Fernandinho, Fabian Delph, and Raheem Sterling have all become more versatile and accomplished players, adding refined skills to already plentiful palettes. Even De Bruyne, who started his career as a winger and second striker, has been crafted into the league’s most complete midfield metronome and one of world football’s best under Guardiola.
Beyond being blessed with the league’s deepest squad, Manchester City benefit from having a manager capable of making tactical and personnel changes to suit the situation. Don’t be surprised if the reigning Premier League champions are again chasing “Invincibles” status when De Bruyne returns.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)