Kevin DeBruyne eight seasons Manchester City‘s increasingly epic quest, and he summed it up in eight words. “We haven’t done the final part yet,” said the only man who has ever captained City. Champions League end. Instead, the final came with one final, two semi-finals, three quarter-finals and a last-16 tie during his time at City. For De Bruyne, who will turn 32 in June, the end may come as arguably the greatest player in City history to become the best player of his generation to never win the Champions League.
Check out Kylian Mbappe and his teammate at City. Erling Haland – they’re in a younger generation, and there’s a feeling that De Bruyne is the oddball guy in the club game who doesn’t have the most coveted medal. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo won the Champions League. So do Luka Modric, Karim Benzema, Robert Lewandowski, Mohamed Salah, Gareth Bale, Luis Suarez and Neymar. His long-time Belgian colleague Eden Hazard was at least an unused substitute in Real Madrid’s final win last year. De Bruyne, by contrast, walked out of the 2021 final with a concussion and tears after a chilling clash with Antonio Rudiger. The city lost.
It might be the closest he’s come to. Still, he’s adamant that he won’t be upset about the trophies he didn’t win if he admits that his career considerations will revolve around the Champions League. “Not really,” he said. “I don’t regret what I did. We did a really good job in the Champions League and I know people base everything on winning but I think there are a lot of situations in this kind of game – Madrid game, Tottenham game is the game we deserved but we didn’t succeed. T.
“I want to win but unless we win I know I’m going to come here and ask the same questions and I’m fine because people judge you based on that. I don’t see it that way because you can win the Champions League and do nothing else, then you’ll be called the best in Europe but I don’t know. “What are the criteria to be a good team? Everyone has their own opinion on this and we want to be the best possible every year. In eight years it was pretty great.”
Certainly City’s outlets are often among the big entertainments. They have become experts in near misses, finding ways to stand out from the competition while scoring multiple goals. They won the second game 4-3 against the Spurs in 2019 and De Bruyne blew up one of their great performances. Last year they beat Real Madrid 4-3 in the first leg of the semi-finals. They scored six goals in two legs against Monaco in 2017. They’re out of the game every time.
There is another theme. It often relies on a stellar De Bruyne showdown when City win big knockouts against Paris Saint-Germain in 2016 or Real in 2020 or Borussia Dortmund and PSG in 2021. It was a magical power.
And yet he finds himself in an awkward position. Elected 11 of the year for Fifpro’s 2020, 2021 and 2022. He spent part of 2023 on City’s bench. He hasn’t started four of the last 11 games he’s been available for: roster rotation was out of the question as two of them were against Tottenham.
Nobody played any more games. Pep Guardiola More than De Bruyne with 300. Still, the manager now feels more like a critic if he’s a constant part of the Catalan reign at City. “It could be better,” Guardiola said in October. “He’s not playing at his highest level, Kevin, not yet.” In December, he thought De Bruyne had to be grumpy to look his best. In January and February, the game was neglected in development.
Still, De Bruyne is a unique talent, as Guardiola would readily admit. “He has an incredible talent for assisting, scoring goals and seeing passes,” the manager said. “But I’ve always believed that doing the simple things like not losing the ball will increase and get better.” Perhaps De Bruyne’s ambition clashes with Guardiola’s preference for control. The risk of losing the ball is inseparable for the Belgian; defence-splitting passes are rarely anything simple.
There is statistical evidence of his bravery. Even sitting outside for 351 minutes in City’s last nine games, he still has three assists topping the Premier League charts. With only five goals so far after the most productive campaign of his career, he is on track to record the best total assists of his career, while his goals this season have been reduced. There are 17 of them so far. The Norwegian’s arrival means his days as a false nine are over, but he is Haaland’s chief supplier.
This was a sign of his versatility. “People say you get low when you get older, and for me it’s the opposite. I went down, up, left, right,” he said. “I feel like I’ve changed positions less now because the coach is the same but I will try to do the job no matter what, but I will never be offended. I just do what I do.”
And arguably, no one can do it better. “I’m a perfectionist,” De Bruyne said. “No matter what I do in football or in life, I will always want it to be 100 percent.” And the problem for him is that City’s Champions League record is flawed.