‘He just held on to one of the posts and refused to let go. He was in a rage. Three of us tried to pull him away from it but we didn’t manage.”
Kevin De Bruyne’s youth coach at Gent, Frank De Leyn, remembers the incident well. A young De Bruyne had been reprimanded for not helping to clear up the pitch after training and became so infuriated at being told off that he grabbed one of the posts and refused to let go.
“It was at a training camp in Spain,” De Leyn continues. “I stayed with him because he was planning to stay there all night. After a long conversation I finally managed to convince him to let go. We walked back to the hotel hand in hand. He was stubborn as hell, like a mule, but I also think that it is that stubbornness, that character trait, that has made him the player he is now.”
De Bruyne’s rise has been remarkable and it is fair to say that he has reached a different level this season. He is not in the Cristiano Ronaldo-Lionel Messi bracket but perhaps just beneath that. His performances for City have stood out, the best player in the best team, and this week there was a flash of that anger, that stubbornness, that sets him apart.
Most of the time he is the quietest, most amenable man – 99% of the time he is, in his own words, “super chilled” – and the saliva tests done by City’s doctors on the eve of games reveal his stress levels are so low they are negative. However, every now and then, as we saw at half-time in the Champions League game against Napoli, he erupts and reacts with a fury that few people in England have witnessed. “Once a referee has blown the whistle, you see another Kevin,” as he once said.
“Let me talk! Let me talk! LET ME TALK!” De Bruyne shouted at David Silva as he tried to get past his team-mate to admonish the officials, having been booked. He was eventually led away by team-mates and said afterwards: “That argument was over a minute later. It was like one of the ones I have with my wife. At the highest level a discussion can be good sometimes to get everyone back on their toes.” He was back in “super chilled” mode.
De Bruyne’s best friends call him the “tumble dryer”, because he often replies to WhatsApp messages in a very dry manner. He is the same off the pitch as on it. Most of the time he is modest, calm and collected, but when he doesn’t agree with something, he will let everyone know in a brutally honest way.
He has a long history of straightforwardness. Back at Genk, De Bruyne reprimanded the team’s star player, Elyaniv Barda, because the latter did not work hard enough in training. De Bruyne was 19 at the time. During a half-time TV interview in February 2012 he famously accused his Genk team-mates of not giving their all: “I’m ashamed of them. I suggest that those who don’t have a desire to play just leave.” While at Wolfsburg, he was caught in a media storm after insulting a dawdling ball-boy, shouting: “Give me the ball, you motherfucker.” He apologised and sent the ball boy a signed shirt. Most of these eruptions happen without malice. It is the winner in him taking control.
His frankness, strong will and single-minded pursuit of his goals have been with him for ever. When he was 11, he told his mum out of the blue: “I want to study Latin for two years, then I’ll go to the Topsport School and when I’m 18 I will fully focus on my football.” It was a plan he stuck to.
At home in Drongen, his bedroom was plastered with Liverpool paraphernalia. His mother, a Belgian born in Burundi and who grew up in London, as well as his grandfather instilled in him a passion for Liverpool. The young De Bruyne slept in Liverpool bed linen, he wore LFC tracksuits and a worn-out Michael Owen replica shirt was the pride of his collection.
Like so many children, he played football whenever and wherever he could – and it was in one of his friends’ gardens that he developed his weaker left foot. The young De Bruyne and his friends had been ruining the flowers and plants in the garden so were allowed to use only a plastic ball. However, after a while, they negotiated a deal to use a proper football – but only if they used their weaker feet. A disadvantage soon turned into an asset: he practised so much with his left foot that it became almost as good as his deadly right foot.
Throughout De Bruyne’s early career, however, he had to fight the perception that he was a difficult character. Aged eight he told his VV Drongen coach that he was joining Gent “because their training sessions are much better”.
At Gent one of the coaches made it his mission to “tame” De Bruyne. It backfired. De Bruyne, already very self-critical, did not understand why the coach was always on his back, even though he was performing well. He joined Genk, at the age of 14, leaving home to try his luck on the other side of the country because he liked their style of play.
At Genk he experienced something that changed him for life and probably made him even more determined to succeed. In his second year he lived with a family but because of his withdrawn character they informed the club they did not want him with them any more. De Bruyne was heartbroken but has since said: “People were saying that I wasn’t going to make it because of my poor character. I told myself at that point: ‘Let’s see who has the last word.’”
He went on to star for the under-21s, providing crosses for Christian Benteke, and made his first-team debut as a 17-year-old. Hein Vanhaezebrouck, one of his former managers, called him “the modern Cruyff” and, after De Bruyne won the Belgian league with Genk, Chelsea signed him as their long-term replacement for Frank Lampard.
Fast forward 18 months to September 2013 and for the first time in years his attitude was questioned again. There had been little sign of that coming. De Bruyne had enjoyed a good loan spell at Werder Bremen and Jürgen Klopp was desperate to sign him for Borussia Dortmund as Mario Götze’s replacement, bombarding the Belgian with phone calls and texts. They agreed personal terms and De Bruyne asked Chelsea if he could leave but José Mourinho phoned him and told him he was a good player and going nowhere.
He did not get many chances, however, and his mood worsened after being publicly rebuked by Mourinho after a disappointing performance against Swindon in the League Cup. “I didn’t like the match he played against Swindon and I didn’t like the way he was training,” the manager said.
In November, after only a handful of minutes in the League Cup and Champions League, he decided he wanted to take his future into his own hands. He did not fancy becoming one of Chelsea’s serial loanees and pushed for a transfer. It was mid-December when he met his agent, Mourinho and the board. De Bruyne has spoken of what Mourinho said: “He showed us the stats of all attacking midfielders: assists, goals, pass percentage, decisive actions, dribbles. He wanted to prove that I didn’t perform at the same level as the others. I answered him: ‘Sorry, that’s not logical. I’ve played fewer games. How can you compare us?’ That wasn’t fair. Mourinho told me things about competition, training hard, there’s always a chance that you’ll play.
“He also made it clear that he wasn’t keen on letting me go, even not on loan – ‘you are a good player’. I’ve told him that I had a feeling that I would never get a fair chance. That’s when the club started looking at a transfer too.” Wolfsburg took a calculated gamble by paying €25m fro him, an investment they will never regret. De Bruyne had a point to prove and we know what happened next.
The current Chelsea manager, Antonio Conte, talked of his frustration that the club had let De Bruyne go, after the Belgian scored City’s winner in September’s league meeting at Stamford Bridge. It is clear that Pep Guardiola has got much more out of De Bruyne than Mourinho did but then the player is older and wiser and every setback seems to have made him more determined to succeed. With Guardiola he has clicked. “Tactically he’s the best manager I have ever worked with,” De Bruyne has said. “We think about football in a similar way. I like his style and understand his ideas quickly. That’s one of the reasons I feel so good.”
The Spaniard wants his team to circulate the ball quickly and apply intense and constant pressure and needs players thinking ahead to the next move when they are passing. De Bruyne is a quick thinker and has the technical ability to do what he wants with a ball. He not only sees what to do but can execute it too.
It was no coincidence that City played their best football in Guardiola’s first season with De Bruyne and David Silva paired in midfield. However, with a lack of full-backs, Guardiola was forced to move De Bruyne around in different positions and systems: he played several games on the wing, even as a false No9 and once as a wing-back. He does not complain and has said: “Playing me in different positions helped me to get in the head of the others players: to know what they’re thinking, where and how they are going to move.” De Bruyne ended the season with 18 assists in the Premier League, more than anyone else.
De Bruyne probably knew he was going to reach another level this season. Just before the campaign started he posted a video with highlights of last season on his social channels. In the background he has “Watch me” by The Phantoms: it was his announcement that his year is coming. He has bought into his manager’s philosophy and feels Guardiola has made him a better team player. In addition, he is tactically more disciplined than ever. His passing accuracy has gone from 78% to 84% and, as the team have mastered the system, he has been able to move into pockets of space more easily. The understanding of the fast-moving players around him makes him even more ruthless: he can find them without looking up. In Guardiola’s game of geometry and triangles, De Bruyne is the segment that connects them all. In a slightly deeper role than before he is at the heart of all attacks.
He was rightly lauded for his winner against Chelsea but his assists against Stoke City were almost more breathtaking, not to mention the moment he hit the bar with that supposed weak foot, his left. Has he reached peak De Bruyne? Probably not. Has he stayed the same person as he was when he grew up? Absolutely.
He is a player who has never signed a contract with the aim of earning as much as possible. He is a person who still thinks twice before buying something expensive and he once walked out of bar when he found out that they charged £26 for a bottle of Coca-Cola. Outside football he loves nothing more than spending time with those who matter most to him, his wife Michèle, his son Mason Milian and a small circle of close friends. Last season he celebrated a stellar performance against Manchester United with a take-away and a swim with his son.
Guardiola has pushed De Bruyne to another galaxy, constantly comparing him to the world’s best, but the praise slides off him like Teflon. He is determined to stay the way he is: a gem without the bling. Just Kevin: excellence simply delivered.