Kevin De Bruyne: Performance Review vs Arsenal
After losing to their neighbours in the league, Manchester City were looking to put their foot back on the gas against Freddie Ljungberg’s Arsenal. Pep Guardiola’s side didn’t hold back, with Kevin De Bruyne opening the scoring in the second minute of the match. His influence over the game didn’t stop there though, as the Belgian went on to assist Raheem Sterling’s goal and score a second for himself. If not for a brilliant Bernd Leno save, De Bruyne would have been walking away with a match ball under his arm as well.
But while he was a vital part of all three of the match’s goals, De Bruyne’s influence was much greater than cool finishing and key passes. The midfielder’s offensive positioning disrupted Arsenal’s defenders, while his defensive contributions helped prevent the Gunners from getting on the scoresheet themselves. This tactical analysis and scout report will look at the aspects of De Bruyne’s game that made him so unplayable. We will attempt to look at the impressive components of his game that may not have been as obvious when watching the game live.
Before analysing how De Bruyne contributed to Guardiola’s tactics, let’s set the scene by highlighting some key statistics. Interestingly, many of his statistics from this game are underwhelming given his average performances this season. He only made 49 passes in this game while averaging 53.81 per 90 minutes in previous matches this season. He averaged less long passes, crosses and dribbles than normal in this match as well. He had two long passes to his average of 3.89, three crosses to his average 5.82 and four dribbles to his 5.03. The success rate of these metrics were also lower than his average scores this season.
There was one metric where De Bruyne really stood out from his average though. In all games this season, De Bruyne averages 2.71 progressive runs per 90 minutes. In this game, however, he made seven progressive runs. These actions show how vital De Bruyne was at transitioning the ball at his feet.
While his overall statistics are underwhelming, and in some ways disappointing, his performance should be judged by looking at more than just the numbers. After all, you all voted for him as Player of the Week, so there must have been something about his performance that stood out, right? The rest of this analysis will show you what it was that made De Bruyne so good.
The main objective for De Bruyne was to find an opportunity to get on the ball. When he positioned himself centrally there was much less space to receive the ball. Because of this, the Belgian quite often opened up to the right side of the field. Despite playing as the central-attacking-midfielder, a majority of his time on the ball came while operating in this area. We can see from this heatmap just how much time he spent out there.
In fact, in the buildup to his first goal the midfielder can be seen hugging the touchline. As the ball progresses into the attacking third he drifts into the free space centrally.
As the ball is played into Gabriel Jesus, De Bruyne accelerates into the box unmarked. Had De Bruyne started this attack centrally, there is a good chance his run would have been picked up by an Arsenal midfielder or defender. By starting out wide, he was ignored, and therefore, free to transition without notice.
We can also see De Bruyne moving from a central position to the right side to receive the ball. In the following passage of play, De Bruyne is in a central position. İlkay Gündoğan is on the ball with limited options. De Bruyne checks his shoulder and notices Raheem Sterling is isolated in a 1v1 with Sead Kolašinac. He then moves into the free space on the right side to receive the ball from Gündoğan.
When De Bruyne has the ball, he now has space to drive into. If Kolašinac were to step to close him down, De Bruyne could quite easily play Sterling in behind the Bosnian defender. De Bruyne did eventually play the ball to Sterling who was in a 1v1 with the full-back, but Sterling instead chose to play the ball back centrally.
Later in the match, the Arsenal players began shifting out to the right side of the field to cover the midfielder. This opened up tons of space centrally for the likes of Sterling to drift into. In the following example, we can see an example of this happening. On the transition, De Bruyne drifts into the space with the ball. The Gunners, given the damage he already did in the first half, were not willing to let him drive into space freely.
But their press sacrificed numbers centrally. De Bruyne checks his shoulder to see his teammate in space and, with a brilliant pass, splits the defenders. De Bruyne’s wide positioning also gave dangerous players, like Sterling, a chance to drift into the middle of the field.
While his ‘game-winning’ contributions came from central areas, De Bruyne’s positioning out wide was a big part of what gave him the space to operate centrally. Whether it was picking up the ball wide and driving into space, or drifting into space without the ball at his feet, the midfielder’s positioning played a big role in his success.
Between the defenders
As well as effectively working from wide areas, De Bruyne wasn’t afraid to get into central positions between the defenders. Instead of always looking to sit in open spaces with no defenders around him, De Bruyne was happy to disrupt the Arsenal defenders by sitting right in the middle of them. This allowed him to become an outlet for teammates who were looking to progress through the lines.
In the following example, we can see the Belgian sitting between four Arsenal defenders as the ball is progressed down the right side by Phil Foden. De Bruyne checks his shoulder to look for options behind him, anticipating a pass from the Englishman.
He does receive the pass from Foden, but with no support behind him he looks to play the ball back to his teammate. De Bruyne plays the ball back to Foden but a heavy touch takes it out of his reach.
We can see this situation happen once again in the 77th minute when De Bruyne looks to support his teammate on the right side of the field. This time it is Riyad Mahrez who is the widest City player. With De Bruyne in a similar position as before, between the four midfielders, he is able to play a successful give-and-go with his Algerian teammate.
After the quick linkup play, Mahrez is dribbling into space centrally and three players have been taken out of the game. Not only did De Bruyne’s position effectively bring those players over, but it also allowed the team to play through them.
The two scenarios above are nearly identical. The only difference is that Mahrez was able to take a successful touch out of the pressure, while Foden could not.
De Bruyne was positioned between four defenders in the buildup to his second goal, as well. In the image below we can see him checking his shoulder, not necessarily to look for support, but to see the position of Matteo Guendouzi.
Then, after receiving the pass, De Bruyne lets the ball come across his body into the space behind him. He is then able to drive towards the top of the box and place the ball into the side of the net with a brilliant finish. The central positioning disrupts the Arsenal defenders who are unsure of who is marking him. His spatial awareness allows him to take his first touch into space.
In the passage of play above, we can see Foden making a run into the space that De Bruyne is occupying between the midfielders, much like in the first two examples. In this case, however, De Bruyne didn’t play the ball back into his teammate and decided to turn and drive into the space.
Shifting opponents’ positions
Before, in the statistics section of this analysis, we discussed one key statistic of De Bruyne’s game that stood out. De Bruyne’s progressive runs were a big part of what made him so effective in the transition. There is one example, in particular, that shows just how good the midfielder is at shifting his opponents’ positions with the ball at his feet.
In the 55th minute, De Bruyne picks up the ball at half and drive towards Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Calum Chambers. As the space between him and the defenders closes, he recognises a run from Jesus out wide.
To make the pass itself might have been difficult, considering the cover on Jesus, but De Bruyne makes use of it anyway. When driving at the defenders, he very slightly and subtly opens up his hips to the right side of the field as if he is going to make a pass. It is a very feint movement, but enough to cause Chambers to move his position, creating separation between him and Maitland-Niles.
This separation gives De Bruyne space to drive into and also gives him more of a free shot at Leno’s net. Luckily for Leno, Chambers recovers quite well. His job was made a lot more difficult, though, because of De Bruyne’s subtle movements on the ball.
High press and defending
While De Bruyne was outstanding offensively, he also contributed greatly when his team was out of possession. He made 15 recoveries in the game, four in the opposition’s half. This is surprisingly similar to De Bruyne’s average recoveries per 90 minutes this season, which is 13.26 per 90.
But De Bruyne’s high pressure was instrumental in forcing turnovers. Despite playing in the midfield, The 28-year-old was quite often the most advanced Manchester City player when Arsenal possessed the ball in their own half. When Arsenal tried to play the ball out from the back, De Bruyne would quickly close the ball carrier down, forcing a dispossession or backwards pass.
In the 62nd minute, Bukayo Saka passes the ball back to Sokratis Papastathopoulos. De Bruyne instantly presses the centre-back who is forced to play the ball to Chambers. Sterling’s press of Chambers results in an interception from Jesus, who drives into the box for a goal-scoring opportunity.
De Bruyne was constantly pressing the Arsenal defenders, giving them little time to play out of the back. When Manchester City were defending deeper, De Bruyne was also effective at tracking runs, anticipating passes and winning the ball back in defensive duels. In the 20th minute, De Bruyne anticipates Mesut Özil’s pass to Nicolas Pépé. As the pass is played into the Ivorian winger, De Bruyne quickly closes him down.
The Belgian is patient not to jump into the tackle and wins the ball back. There were many other instances in the match where the midfielder showed how effective he could be when defending, by tracking back and stealing the ball off an Arsenal player to start the counter-attack.
This performance was absolutely brilliant. Not only did De Bruyne win the game with three moments of magic, but he also put in an incredible shift for 90 minutes. Despite making a few misplaced passes in the earlier stages of the game, he controlled the tempo of the match by finding himself on the ball both centrally and out wide. He was effective at progressing the ball on the dribble and was also effective at providing linkup play for teammates by sitting between defenders.
With the talent in this Manchester City squad, there is a good chance that, even without De Bruyne, Guardiola’s side would have found a way to win the game. With that being said, however, this analysis shows just how much of an impact the Belgian did have on the match.