Record-breaking Manchester City's midfield steps up in absence of Kevin de Bruyne
And then there were two.
Exit Chelsea, at least if Maurizio Sarri is to be believed. The Italian declared his side’s title challenge was ended by defeat at Wolves on Wednesday and anointed Manchester City as probable title winners and potential Uefa Champions League winners.
Chelsea have dropped 14 points, the same number as City dropped in the whole of last season. “We have to fight to be in the top four. For me City is maybe the best team in the world,” Sarri said.
And so, as the last two champions meet, it is worth rewinding to the moment the balance of power between the two clubs shifted.
Go back to the last time Chelsea departed a title race – to all intents and purposes, if not mathematically – and they were beaten by an old boy. Kevin de Bruyne rifled in City’s only goal at Stamford Bridge last September.
While Mohamed Salah overhauled the Belgian to win the individual honours, it remained the most significant moment of the Premier League season. It served as an indictment of Jose Mourinho, the manager who barely picked De Bruyne at Stamford Bridge.
It cost Chelsea the services of a player who would have suited both Antonio Conte and his successor Sarri.
One of the biggest moments of last season...King @DeBruyneKev! #mancity pic.twitter.com/eFEt3Mr9Bq — Manchester City (@ManCity) December 6, 2018
And yet as De Bruyne’s two English clubs reconvene, it will probably be without him. The midfielder may not recover from his second knee injury of the campaign in time to feature.
City’s statistics are remarkable: they have dropped only four points, are on course to post a new record of 104, have conceded only two goals away from home, have a goal difference of plus 38 that is better than Liverpool and Tottenham’s combined.
Yet, the most extraordinary element is that it has been accomplished without De Bruyne starting a league game.
It is proof of strength in depth, testament to Pep Guardiola’s prowess and to City’s resourcefulness. Above all, it reflects well on the three men found most often playing as what De Bruyne called “a free eight”, an attacking central midfielder.
None of David Silva, Bernardo Silva or Ilkay Gundogan could be described as a duplicate of De Bruyne. None brings as much drive, as much visible urgency. Yet a trio of technicians have provided a contribution that can be measured in goals.
They have delivered 17 between them so far. It puts each on course to record his career-best total.
If that reflects on their individual form, it illustrates the extent to which Guardiola has manoeuvred them into goalscoring positions in the box. David Silva has had more tap-ins than before; a playmaker has ended up in a predator’s positions, often meeting cutbacks from the wingers.
Gundogan’s Manchester derby clincher was spectacular in the sense it was the culmination of a 44-pass move, but not in the way De Bruyne’s thunderbolt at Stamford Bridge was. The passers have started to ape poachers, whereas the sidelined De Bruyne was the man likelier to make something happen out of nothing.
His direct replacement is the man most responsible for ensuring De Bruyne has not been missed. Bernardo Silva has slotted in seamlessly.
Whereas the Belgian is waiting for his season to begin in earnest, the Portuguese made a flying start. He helped unlock Chelsea in the Community Shield in a performance Guardiola called a “masterpiece”.
A slight figure has shown the skill and footballing intelligence to outwit more physical forces. If De Bruyne has something of the all-action Steven Gerrard about him, Bernardo Silva has more of his namesake David.
“Normally when you want to fight with one guy, he will lose 10 out of 10,” Guardiola reflected in September. “But he’s so clever he finds the right moment when they are not stable.”
Elegant, elusive incision has been allied with a sense of responsibility. Bernardo Silva operated as a defensive midfielder at Anfield. City prevented Liverpool from scoring on home turf, just as they subdued Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur.
Shut Chelsea out on Saturday, and they will have a clean sweep of clean sheets away from home against the rest of the top five. Add that to the most prolific group of central midfielders in the league and it amounts to a formidable formula, with or without De Bruyne.
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