Does the rest of Europe really get Kevin De Bruyne?

Modric-Kroos remains the standard, the defining central midfielders of the last decade

Three games from the summit: now for The Cartel. It is a key element of elite football’s febrile brand of double-think that the richest club in the world can still portray themselves as underdogs, outsiders, thieves in the temple.

As Manchester City contemplate their Champions League semi-final first leg against the imperial meringues of Real Madrid on Tuesday night, there is still that lurking sense of novelty, of an entity that is, on some level, forcing its way in from the outside.

“It is an honour to be here in the semi-final against Real Madrid,” Pep Guardiola remarked at his pre-match press conference, doffing his cloth cap and presenting his chipped enamel mug for another helping of turnip soup. “In the last decade we start to be here and it is an honour. We try to do a good game.”

And so here they come, the nowhere boys: beating down the mahogany-panelled doors of the shadowy elite, cartwheeling across the dining tables like sky blue Spice Girls - and doing all this mainly by spending €433m a year on salaries, hiring the greatest coach in the world, setting their lawyers against anyone in their path and trying to join a super league.


It should be noted that Manchester City's supporters have largely dropped the cartel stuff over the past year. It is a logical move given City have tried and failed to join an anti-sport cartel of their own. The European Super League may have stalled under the weight of its own tin-eared incompetence.

But it remains a handy guide to how the super-rich really feel about stitch-ups and closed shops. Deeply unhappy when they’re left out of one. But absolutely delighted to be included.

It is on the pitch that the Citizens versus Royals dynamic still has some way to travel. City may be favourites for this competition. They may have the most powerfully balanced group of players in European football. But the fact remains that not one member of the current squad has ever won the Champions League (Madrid have 12 former winners).

And even in its current ageing iteration there is something gloriously, stupidly compelling about the optics, the enrage, the cultural weight of Madrid on these occasions.

City have fewer flaws. City are a better, more coherently constructed team. But Real Madrid are Real Madrid. Here is a club capable of winning these moments simply through presence, vibes, will to power. Being Real Madrid. It’s not much of a tactic. But you try doing it.

When it comes to match-ups, and indeed the area where these games will surely be settled, that sense of elite outsider-dom is dramatised best in central midfield. Kevin De Bruyne will be City's joint longest-serving player if Fernandinho leaves at the end of the season. But De Bruyne remains an oddity too, the component in this City collective who comes closest to the role of superstar, individualist and one-man magic bullet.

It is a studied kind of freedom. De Bruyne has licence to make riskier passes, to shoot and surge and break his own team’s lines simply because he is so good at all of these things, because doing them at this level of efficiency makes his team more likely to win.


Odd, then, to think of him as an underrated player outside these shores. Successive PFA player of the year awards are a mark of how cherished De Bruyne is in England, where it has become routine to refer to him as the best midfielder in Europe. He regularly makes those Uefa teams of the year.

But there is still something missing here, the kind of ultimacy only this stage can deliver.

Does the rest of Europe really get De Bruyne? His best years have brought him an eighth, a ninth and a pair of 14ths in the Ballon D'Or standings. Uefa's obscure statistical rankings have him as the 56th best player in the Champions League this season, a figure that demonstrates little more than its own inanity, but which is significant for one reason.

Even here De Bruyne is currently ranked below Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, direct opponents on Tuesday night, and the most gilded central midfield pairing of the age.

De Bruyne is six years younger than Modric and two years younger than Kroos. He is unarguably a more rounded player than the latter. But Modric-Kroos remains the standard, the defining central midfielders of the last decade of the Champions League.

This kind of comparison can often fall apart under any kind of scrutiny. Games at this level are decided on matters such as fitness and form, tactical tweaks, luck, destiny, the efforts of others. But the fact remains that sense of ultimacy has been hard-earned.

Kroos and Modric have four Champions League medals apiece, and even now they just keep on coming. In the quarter-final second leg against Chelsea it was in central midfield that Madrid finally asserted just enough pull, albeit only once Kroos had left the pitch looking spent.

Chelsea never did quite have the craft to dominate that area, despite their physical edge. Ten minutes before Modric delivered the decisive goalscoring pass to Rodrygo Madrid’s 36-year -old 5ft 6in dynamo could be seen splayed on the Bernabeu turf as Ruben Loftus-Cheek veered around him like a man absent-mindedly dodging a stray traffic cone.

At that moment you feared slightly for Modric.

He winced, got up and chased back. He knows this is going to happen. His entire career has been spent as a welterweight in a land of giants. But he remains utterly plugged in, able to regulate every part of a game from tempo and passing rhythms, and to springing the kind of press City will attempt to apply with a shimmy of the hips.

De Bruyne has had his moments in this company. He strolled around Kroos and Modric in the last-16 tie between these teams two years ago. He is if anything a more mature, versatile presence now, a midfielder so good he can decide to pack away for a couple of months a skill others would build a career around - those forensic deep crosses from the right - in order to fill a role as a false nine or a central conductor.

The next week feels like a step closer to the summit; and a perfect moment for De Bruyne to show his own champions qualities against legacy-defining opponents. - Guardian