Kevin De Bruyne has a fight on his hands to win a place back in Manchester City’s starting XI, but Pep Guardiola insists he would not have it any other way.
De Bruyne, the reigning PFA Players’ Player of the Year, made his return from a hamstring injury as a second-half substitute during City’s 3-1 win over Everton in midweek – a result that increased their lead at the top of the Premier League to 10 points.
Guardiola’s side won all five top-flight games De Bruyne missed, scoring 15 times and conceding once, while they also negotiated away ties at Cheltenham Town and Swansea City in the FA Cup.
It is a body of work that has helped to rack up a record-breaking 17-match winning run across all competitions.
Bernardo Silva has excelled on the right of Guardiola’s fluid midfield three, as he did when De Bruyne missed chunks of City’s treble-winning campaign of 2018-19, and this is another factor to give the City boss food for thought heading into Sunday’s trip to Arsenal.
“I cannot forget, [during] this incredible run of games, Kevin was there,” Guardiola said. “We have not done these incredible things without him.
“But, of course, it is a challenge. He has to play good. That is what we need. That’s what I want and that’s what he wants.
“The competition is so healthy, today in this crazy schedule – 11 months, playing every three days. It is not human to maintain mentally and physically.”
In all competitions this season, City have won 15 of 21 games with De Bruyne in their starting line-up, drawing four and losing two.
However, that impressive win percentage figure of 71.4 vaults to 87.5 – 14 victories, two draws, no defeats – when he has been injured or taken out of the first XI to rest.
Guardiola believes watching on from the sidelines and witnessing fine performances is fuel for De Bruyne, whose 15 assists on all fronts remains the best return of any Premier League player in 2020-21, with only Bruno Fernandes (90) and Jack Grealish (79) able to better his 74 chances created.
“It is so good, when a player is out injured or for my decisions, seeing his mates playing good and winning games. That is the best way to be a competitor, the best way,” said Guardiola.
“We cannot be a competitor team if everyone knows, ‘It doesn’t matter what happens, I am going to play.’
“They have to play good to stay in the team because they know, when they are not playing good, they have no chance to stay in the team.”
This sense of collective endeavour is backed up by City’s capacity to work effectively off the ball – a hallmark of all Guardiola’s best sides.
No team in the Premier League has had more high turnovers resulting in a shot this term than their 49, with Brighton and Hove Albion second on 35.
In terms of winning the ball back within 40 metres of the opposition goal, only Liverpool (227) have done so more often than City (224) this season.
However, perhaps with an eye on the compressed schedule Guardiola mentioned, it also appears his team are working smarter.
In 2019-20, City ranked third in the division behind Liverpool and Southampton when it came to pressed sequences – defined by Opta as passages of play where an opponent has three or fewer passes and it ends within 40 metres of their own goal.
This time around, they lie sixth on that metric and are allowing rivals an average of 11.9 passes per defensive action (PPDA), as opposed to 10.1 last term – figures that underline an increased efficiency to their pressing, given the impressive high turnover numbers.
“It’s about being effective when you run. If you run, run, run you are not effective,” Guardiola said. “The ball is quicker, the opponents are better and you can run like a marathon and not take the ball.
“I am pretty sure you cannot take the ball if you make an endurance season or go 100 per cent in all the actions.
“We can talk about this a little bit but we are more concerned… 80 or 90 per cent of our talks are about keeping the ball. It is about how you do with the ball, not without the ball.
“All the times we run, we run to take the ball, to keep the ball as much as possible. I never consider putting the players on the pitch just to follow the opponent.
“We have to do it when the opponent is better but when they decide to be football players they do it to play with the ball.
“I want them to come back to the amateur feeling that they enjoy playing football because there is the ball.”
Another Guardiola belief where the returning De Bruyne would appear to be a key disciple.