Its official: Kevin De Bruyne is the greatest midfielder the Premier League has ever seen
Manchester City are storming towards their third successive Premier League title, and no one is left to stand in their way after Arsenal's capitulation at the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday night.
City's 4-1 victory takes them to within two points of the Gunners at the top of the table, and they still have two games in hand. Pep Guardiola's team rose to the pressure of the occasion like champions while Mikel Arteta's men folded.
And, as so often has been the case down the years, it was Kevin De Bruyne that led City's charge.
With only seven minutes on the clock, he picked up a pass from Erling Haaland in central midfield before driving at the Arsenal defence and firing a perfectly placed shot past Aaron Ramsdale at his near post.
De Bruyne then turned provider with an exquisite free-kick delivery for John Stones to double the home side's lead, and he finished Arsenal off early in the second half with another clever low shot after more good work from Haaland.
The Norwegian finally got in on the act in stoppage time, breaking Mohamed Salah's Premier League goals record in the process, but this was De Bruyne's night.
A number of world-class midfielders have made a lasting impact on the English top-flight, from Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira to Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. City have also been blessed in that department, with the likes of David Silva and Yaya Toure earning their place among the greats - but De Bruyne stands above them all.
The Belgian maestro is the kind of player that only comes along once in a generation. An inimitable genius whose legacy will endure long after he eventually hangs up his boots...
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All-rounder with genius-level footballing IQ
De Bruyne is so special because he sees things on the pitch that no one else can. He is one of the game's most accomplished 'scanners' - picking his head up to assess the options and space around him well before even receiving the ball, which allows him to cause maximum damage when he gets it.
City's success under Guardiola has been underpinned by De Bruyne's inventiveness in the middle of the park, as he's been the man they turn to for something special against teams that sit back in a low block.
When it comes to control and technique, De Bruyne has no equal, and his decision-making in the final third is always exemplary.
Even under pressure, he has the spatial awareness, skill and explosive turn of pace to open teams up in an instant, with his team-mates always expecting him to make a decisive contribution.
"Kevin is a very specific player in terms of when he has got the ball, you know that something can happen," Bernardo Silva told City's official website in January. "If I have the ball or [Ilkay] Gundogan has the ball it is completely different.
"It is like a click and a moment where Kevin has the ball, so Phil [Foden], Jack [Grealish], Riyad [Mahrez], Erling etc are running in behind because they know the ball can go there. He is a very special player, and he has been doing well, not just this season but for a very, very long time."
De Bruyne's right foot may be his main weapon, but he's equally as comfortable on his left, and his versatility has also been crucial for City during their recent dominance of the English football landscape.
Guardiola has asked the Belgium international to play in a number of different positions, including as a traditional No.10, deep-lying playmaker, right-sided No.8 and false nine. No matter what role he is asked to fill, De Bruyne is always able to adapt seamlessly.
His intelligence and maturity make him a complete midfielder - and the scary thing is that the 31-year-old only seems to be getting better with age.
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Now let's get down to the numbers.
Only five players in the history of the Premier League have managed to record 100 or more assists, with Manchester United icon Ryan Giggs leading the way on 162.
De Bruyne joined that exclusive club during City's 4-1 victory at Southampton on April 8, but he achieved the feat far quicker than Giggs, or indeed the rest of the top five made up by Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and Cesc Fabregas.
Two-hundred-and-thirty-seven games was all the City superstar needed to bring up his ton - 56 games quicker than his nearest challenger, Fabregas. To add even greater context to his achievement, Giggs only reached his record haul after 632 appearances in the top-flight.
Still, the Belgian remains humble, and adamant that City's general attacking prowess has given him the platform to hit such giddy heights.
“Cesc is an unbelievable footballer player. I don't compare myself to others. I just try and do the best I can do," he said after breaking Fabregas' record. "People will talk about (being) quicker. Everything is different, you play different positions and teams. We score a lot of goals!"
De Bruyne has added two more assists to his total since then, which takes him up to 16 for the current campaign.
City still have seven games remaining, which means he could go on to break the record for assists in a single Premier League season that he currently shares with former Arsenal striker Thierry Henry (20).
Yes, De Bruyne plays in a team full of talented goal-getters, but he'd also be racking up assists for any other side in world football. After all, he managed a combined total of 83 across spells at Genk, Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg earlier in his career.
His ability to create chances is unrivalled, not least because most of the time, he puts so much power into a pass or cross to find the smallest pockets of space in behind defences.
De Bruyne's unique delivery style is perfect for forwards that are constantly running between the lines, and his weight of pass is absolutely sublime.
He can penetrate defences from any angle and his accuracy over varying distances is staggering. There is quite simply no stopping De Bruyne when he is firing on all cylinders.
Pep's perfect student
When City initially signed De Bruyne from Wolfsburg for £55 million in 2015, there was plenty of scepticism over whether he could cut it in the Premier League.
He'd previously flopped at Chelsea, and some pundits pointed out that the Bundesliga was a far easier environment to perform in - most notably Arsenal great Paul Merson.
"Manchester City paying so much money for Kevin De Bruyne is an absolute joke." Merson said in his column for the Daily Star. "Okay, he's had a good season in Germany. But there are only a few decent clubs there really, aren't there? It's not the Premier League."
Oh how he was made to eat his words. De Bruyne helped City win the League Cup and reach the Champions League semi-finals for the first time ever in his first season at the Etihad, recording nine goals and 27 assists across all competitions.
City only finished fourth in the league, though, and Manuel Pellegrini was sacked to make way for Guardiola.
De Bruyne had already silenced his doubters, but few could have predicted just how good he would become under the Spaniard's stewardship.
After seeing him shine during a 4-0 victory against Bournemouth in September 2016, the former Barcelona boss said: "When we talk about [Lionel] Messi, maybe he can sit alone at the table, with no-one else allowed. But at the table beside, Kevin can sit there."
Guardiola was unable to deliver a trophy in his first season in Manchester, but he managed to figure out a winning formula. City broke the record for the most points in a single season (100) on their way to their third title in 2017-18, with De Bruyne emerging as the most important player in the team ahead of Silva and Sergio Aguero.
A domestic treble followed the following season, which De Bruyne missed the majority of due to injury, but he spoke candidly about Guardiola's influence on his career after recovering in time to help City down the finishing stretch.
“Pep and I share a similar mentality,” De Bruyne said in the Players’ Tribune. "He is not just interested in winning. He wants perfection.
“The first meeting I ever had with Pep, he said, ‘Kevin, listen. You can be — easily — a top-five player in the world. Top five. Easily.’ I was shocked. But when Pep said it with so much belief, it changed my whole mentality. It was kind of genius, I think. Because I felt like I had to prove him right, instead of prove him wrong.”
Since then, De Bruyne has added two more Premier League winners' medals to his CV while becoming one of only three players to win the PFA Player of the Year award in consecutive seasons - alongside Henry and Cristiano Ronaldo.
De Bruyne was a very good player when he arrived at City, but Guardiola unlocked his full potential and turned him into one of the all-time greats.
To achieve that, the City boss has had to be hard on him at times, including earlier this season. Guardiola insisted De Bruyne wasn't at his "top level" in October, and challenged him to do the "simple things" better after dropping him from his line up in March.
Some players would have lost confidence or downed tools completely, but De Bruyne is made of sterner stuff, and has since proven he deserves to be the first name on the teamsheet.
City are reaping the rewards at the business end of the campaign, with the ultimate treble on the cards if De Bruyne can keep reaching his maximum.
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Eye for goal
De Bruyne may be best known for creative attributes, but he also finds the net himself on a frequent basis, and often in spectacular fashion.
The former Wolfsburg starlet has scored 95 goals in 349 games for City to date, and could become only the 13th player to reach the 100 mark for the club before the end of the current campaign.
As Arsenal found out to their peril in midweek, De Bruyne is a serious goal threat from both long and short range.
He often uses minimal back-lift when shooting, which catches opponents off guard, but is still able to generate incredible power and very rarely misses his mark.
His first goal against the Gunners was a trademark strike, as he found the smallest gap beyond Ramsdale with a precise side-footed finish. Many other players would have rushed their shot in that position, but De Bruyne's execution was flawless.
He's also a master of the dead ball.
When City were in dire need of inspiration during a home clash with Leicester back in October, De Bruyne stepped up. The Belgian stood over a free-kick 25 yards from goal, and picked his spot. After a trademark run-up, he fired what can only be described as a thunderbolt past a completely helpless Danny Ward.
The Foxes keeper was barely even able to catch a glimpse of the ball before it had cannoned off the inside of his post and into the net, with De Bruyne again able to put so much pace on the shot despite only using his instep.
That goal ended up being the winner for City on the day, and could be one of the key moments we look back on at the end of the campaign if they do indeed land a third successive title.
De Bruyne striking a football is one of the most beautiful sights in the game, and no team is safe when he gets a sight of goal.
Strength of character
It's easy to forget that De Bruyne's first foray into English football was a complete failure, due to how much joy he has brought to fans across the country over the last eight years at City.
Jose Mourinho was the first man to bring him to these shores, way back in January 2021. De Bruyne joined Chelsea from Genk for just £7m, committing to a five-and-a-half-year contract at Stamford Bridge.
Mourinho had obviously seen something in him to give the deal the green light, but the then-20-year-old just could not settle in west London.
After failing to force his way into the first team picture in his first six months with the Blues, De Bruyne was sent out on loan to Werder Bremen, where he rediscovered his best form.
Chelsea welcomed him back ahead of the 2013-14 campaign as a result, but he still couldn't win Mourinho's favour, and he was sold to Wolfsburg for £18m in the winter transfer window.
Mourinho has faced criticism for that decision, but he explained that De Bruyne was the one who pushed for an exit when discussing their time together at Chelsea in 2021.
“He knew very well what he wanted and he was not ready to have that season at Chelsea where a lot of good players were in the same team, he didn’t have that, let’s say, patience to not start every game or be on the bench," the Portuguese coach told talkSPORT.
"Sometimes us coaches make mistakes, and we don’t consider that this player has the potential to do this in the future, but that was not the case with Kevin. I saw he had the potential to do it, but he was just a kid who was very clear in his mind. He knew perfectly what he wanted.”
De Bruyne has always had unwavering belief in his own abilities, and wasn't willing to compromise with his future. He had the courage of his convictions to give up on a career at one of the Premier League's biggest clubs in order to keep progressing with the benefit of regular football week in, week out.
And after just one stellar year at Wolfsburg, City came calling, at which point he was ready for the physical and mental demands of the Premier League.
He's faced plenty of adversity at the Etihad too, with the knee ligament injury he suffered in 2018 stalling his progress significantly and niggling fitness issues restricting his time on the pitch in 2020-21.
But De Bruyne always comes back stronger, and the very best players in history all shared that same resolve. He is a born winner and a perfect example to the next generation of just how far hard work and dedication can take you.
Haaland partnership elevates him even higher
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about De Bruyne's assists record for City is the fact that for multiple seasons, he didn't even have a natural No.9 in front him.
Aguero had lost his place in Guardiola's line up long before his exit in the summer of 2021, and City functioned well without a striker, as their recent haul of domestic trophies proves.
However, the Champions League has been elusive for Guardiola so far at the Etihad, and he acknowledged that a proper centre-forward was needed for City to end their wait for European glory.
Enter Haaland. The Manchester outfit won the race to sign the Borussia Dortmund star ahead of a whole host of top European clubs last summer, snapping him up for the bargain price of £51m on a five-year deal.
The 22-year-old adapted to life in England instantly, and has 49 goals to his name across all competitions after his latest strike against Arsenal.
Haaland has been a force of nature, and his presence could well see City finally get their hands on the Champions League and become only the second English team to win all three major trophies on offer in a single season (after United in 1998-99).
But he owes a great debt to De Bruyne, who has set up a large portion of his goals. As soon as the Belgium ace gets on the ball, Haaland is on the move in anticipation of a chance to score, and their partnership has been deadly for City throughout the campaign.
De Bruyne finally has the perfect target man to aim for and he has admitted that have struck up a telepathic understanding.
"He scores a lot of goals. It is insane,” De Bruyne said in April. "He is there. If we create chances he is there. It is a good combination. He knows what I want to do and I know what he wants to do."
The City talisman is already up to a career-high 27 assists in all competitions this term, and there will surely be plenty more to come.
De Bruyne has been the perfect foil for Haaland, but the Norwegian has also brought out the best in his new team-mate. He set up both of De Bruyne's goals against Arsenal, which just shows that their relationship is only getting stronger with each passing game.
City have arguably the two best players in the world right now spearheading their assault on three trophy fronts, and it's difficult to see how anyone can stop them.
And if there was still any lingering doubts over who is the greatest midfielder to ever play in the Premier League is, De Bruyne has erased them all this season.
He's in his own league, and we should savour every single second of his remaining years in Manchester.