Kevin De Bruyne is teaching Jose Mourinho to regret
He hardly needs to use his goal celebrations to rub his former manager’s nose in it
Manchester City’s Belgian midfielder Kevin De Bruyne celebrates scoring against Tottenham at the Etihad Stadium. Photograph: Getty Images
Jose Mourinho, one suspects, is not the sort for regrets but in a business littered with big calls on players that backfired, his decision to let Kevin De Bruyne leave Chelsea almost four years ago continues to climb the charts.
Over the last few weeks, indeed, the Manchester City midfielder has seemed determined, to have it at the coveted number one spot by Christmas.
The 26 year-old is making headlines for all sorts of reasons these days and sparked the usual round of speculation with a goal celebration the other day. The Belgian held up two fingers on one hand and one on the other which was initially taken to be jibe at his former manager by way of a reference to the scoreline six days previously at Old Trafford.
Actually, it seems to have been a salute to absent team mate David Silva although sticking with the Mourinho theme it’s worth pointing out that it is also happens to reflect the number of Premier League appearances the now City star got to make under the Portuguese at Chelsea: two starts plus one appearance five minutes from time in a game that had just been made safe.
On the face of it De Bruyne showed every sign of having a bright future back then. It was seen as something of a coup when Chelsea landed him from Genk for around £7 million and no great slight on a player who had already played an important part in a title winning side when they farmed him out immediately to Werder Bremen.
The Bundesliga side seemed an ideal choice to provide the sort of solid base in which a top level prospect just emerging from his teens might take some important steps forward but things became more challenging as the club’s campaign crumbled after Christmas threatening, for a while, to end their 32 year stay in the German top flight.
Having beaten Stuttgart 1-4 away on February ninth - De Bruyne scored the game’s final goal in injury time - they failed to win again that season, managing just six draws in 13 league games. The young midfielder seemed to defy the collective slump, however, scoring four times in the last three games to end up in double figures for the season, just one behind the club’s two joint scorers with 10 in 33 starts.
He must have arrived back in London that summer of 2013 believing he had done enough to be taken seriously as a potential starter under newly returned manager Mourinho and he made a dream start to his competitive career at the Premier league club, showing just the sort of creative confidence that now seems almost routine when Eden Hazard doubled back in from the left flank and played a short ball to the De Bruyne who took a touch with his right foot then immediately nutmegged James Chester with a low through ball with his left that took two other defenders out of things and set Oscar clean in on goal.
That first assist in English football seemed to announce him as a coming star but he started just once more for the club in the league, against Manchester United eight days later when he was replaced after 60 minutes of a scoreless draw. After that, it was clear he was being marginalised and by the end of January he was gone, back to the Bundesliga, Wolfsburg this time, for around £18 million.
If more than doubling your money on young players is your thing - and it certainly seems to be a significant part of Chelsea’s thing these days - then that might have been regarded as a good piece of business at that stage but even the potential for a serious debate on the issue began to evaporate quickly enough.
These days the decision seems to rank up (or more accurately down) there alongside the likes of Raul being allowed to go to Real from Atletico or Pogba’s initial departure from Manchester United for peanuts.
Mourinho defends the move, saying that De Bruyne whinged like a child about the lack of first team opportunities and player himself admits that he perhaps pushed things too far due to his impatience but claims that the manager only actually spoke directly to him about the situation twice with one conversation apparently revolving around his poor statistics. “I have no statistics,” he says he said. “Two games. What do you want me to do?”
At City, who paid £55 million for him, at a time when his original contract at Chelsea would still have had almost two years to run, he has certainly shown what he can do; take a team assembled at huge expense and help bring it to a different level. He looks just now like one of the most complete midfield players of the Premier League era with his goals (five in his last eight league games), and assists (eight so far this season) simply providing the most quotable stats for a player whose ability to win the ball, change the pace and direction of the game, to drive the entire team forward were just as significant as Tottenham were beaten so comprehensively on Saturday.
Those around him have reason to be grateful. Great players know what is possible if they make the ideal run but it often takes an even better one to spot the pass that makes the effort worthwhile and it is hard to think of anyone, anywhere who is doing that better just now than De Bruyne. Nobody, in any case, debates anymore whether Manchester City are more effective with Sergio Aguero in or out of the team by reference to the number of times they slip up when he starts. It simply doesn’t arise anymore.
The Belgian’s reward, it seems, is to be a long and lucrative new contract so as to ward off potential bids from the likes of Real, Barca and PSG. United, it seems, safe to assume, don’t come into the equation. But De Bruyne hardly needs to use his goal celebrations to rub his former manager’s nose in it that. He is doing that rather effectively almost every time he touches the ball.