Kevin de Bruyne marked his return to Premier League football with a goal and an assist in Manchester City’s thrilling 3-2 win over Newcastle United. He once again proved that he was the most influential player in City’s world-beating side and Pep Guardiola will pin his hopes primarily on de Bruyne to win his sixth league title in seven years.
There have not been too many attacking midfielders with de Bruyne’s effect and ability during the last couple of decades or so. He has 97 goals and 152 assists in 360 matches for Manchester City, and has won every silverware there is to be won with them. In fact, no attacking midfielder since Zinedine Zidane has been as effective overall in world football. Even Zidane, who scored 125 goals in 695 matches in his club career, was not as proficient in scoring goals as de Bruyne is.
Zidane, however, was decidedly more successful for his national team and was also a better big-match player. His ability to score important goals in big matches made him stand out. Still, in the Premier League era at least, none of the other attacking midfielders boast the exploits of the Belgian maestro. De Bruyne also managed to win a bronze medal at the 2018 World Cup with Belgium.
However, in this context, it has to be remembered that Zidane did not play in a 4-2-3-1 formation, which de Bruyne has throughout his career. Hence, the Frenchman probably had more defensive responsibilities, especially in his Juventus days. That makes Zidane’s stats even more impressive.
One other attacking midfielder who can feature in this discussion and has a playing style similar to de Bruyne’s is Kaka, especially while he played for AC Milan. He had a fine return of 95 goals in 270 matches for the Rossoneri, but played as a forward for them often. When he went to Real Madrid and started playing as a midfielder, his numbers dropped considerably. As for Ronaldinho, the other supremely skilled Brazilian, he did play in the midfield, but spent his best years at Barcelona as a left winger.
Then there is the diminutive Spanish duo of Andres Iniesta and Manchester City’s very own David Silva. However, while Iniesta played as a No. 8 in a more possession-oriented, less direct 4-3-3 or 3-4-3 system at Barcelona, Silva operated in a slightly deeper role than de Bruyne does. Moreover, neither were ever as much a goal-scoring threat as de Bruyne and did not score from shots outside the opposition penalty box as often as the Belgian does.
The Premier League has seen a number of influential central midfielders over the years, but not too many great attacking ones.
The likes of Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard were all central midfielders primarily. Scholes had great passing and shooting skills, but was not as decisive in the final third as de Bruyne. Lampard did not create as many chances as the Belgian does, while Gerrard possessed better defensive skills, but not as many offensive ones as de Bruyne does.
The ageless Ryan Giggs of Manchester United still leads the Premier League assists tally with 162 of them (de Bruyne has 103), but he accumulated them in 672 league matches, while de Bruyne has played in only 241.
Then there have been a couple of German attacking midfielders in Michael Ballack and Mesut Özil, both of whom played in Premier League for a certain period of time, aside from playing in Bundesliga (Özil played in La Liga too).
However, Ballack’s goal-scoring skills were not as obvious as de Bruyne’s and Özil, despite being a top playmaker, excelled in providing passes to the forwards. Neither of them combined the passing, crossing and shooting abilities as well as de Bruyne does.
There has been only one other attacking midfielder in world football during the last decade who comes close to de Bruyne in terms of all-round abilities. That man is Antoine Griezmann, who is equally adept at scoring goals as well as creating chances for his team. However, even he does not have the overall success that Genk youth product has enjoyed so far. Moreover, Griezmann has sometimes played as a forward in a 4-3-3, which increases his chances of scoring goals.
The best thing is that de Bruyne is not done yet and should have a couple of years left at the top at least. Football-lovers all over the world will hope that he continues to enthrall them for as long as possible.