Pep Guardiola’s system has come into fruition this season as Manchester City has electrified the Premier League with their scintillating football this season. Belgian international Kevin De Bruyne has been one of their many shining stars this season and is looking the favorite to win Premier League Player of the Season. Such success should not just be credited to the brilliant Belgian, but also to the system and role in which he operates in – an evolution of a role the Spanish boss popularized during his time in Barcelona.
The summer of 2008 will go down as one of the most crucial and transformative periods in football history for two reasons that go hand in hand – the birth of “tiki-taka” and the introduction of a fresh-faced Pep Guardiola into the managerial world.
Tiki-taka is a style of football popularized by the Spanish that emphasizes patience and possession of the ball through intelligent off-the-ball movement and short, quick passing exchanges. It is an abstract style that requires not only tremendous technique and general footballing ability, but also a high-level footballing IQ as it is an abstract zonal system where understanding of space and surrounding players are paramount. The late Luis Aragones adopted this system after Spain’s failures at the 2006 World Cup and introduced it on the world stage at Euro 2008 with La Roja – winning their first international tournament since 1964 in style.
That same summer, a young Pep Guardiola had just been promoted from the manager of FC Barcelona’s B team to the manager of the senior squad. Fresh and full of ideas, the Masia graduate built a game plan from the “total football” foundations laid down by his former mentor, Johan Cruyff, and the tiki-taka style of the national team that would go on to dominate world football for the next four years. However, such success would not have been possible without the right players as Guardiola noted himself, “at Barcelona, I had the best players ever, and they helped me to be a successful manager.” Of these players, one in particular was pivotal in ushering in Pep’s era of dominance with Barcelona: Xavi Hernández.
Despite the presence of a blossoming Lionel Messi, Xavi was at the center of every move Pep’s Barcelona made. Operating in a midfield three alongside fellow midfield maestros Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta, Xavi conducted every move with pinpoint accuracy – rarely ever relinquishing possession in the process. The Spanish virtuoso was always pipped for greatness, but he took his first steps into the upper echelons of footballing legend under Guardiola — a process we may be witnessing happen again before our very eyes at the Etihad with Kevin De Bruyne.
The Evolution of Kevin De Bruyne
Following Guardiola’s first ever trophyless season as a manager last year his in first season at Manchester City, whispers of “fraud” started to be heard around England. Such whispers have since been hushed and never been heard again as the Citizens have absolutely blown all competition out of the water this year, losing only twice in all competitions. Scoring goals at will and playing an intoxicating, free-flowing brand of attacking football, Manchester City have been the talk of the town this season with De Bruyne headlining the conversation.
The Belgian international has had a stunning season with The Sky Blues — scoring 7 goals and providing a league-high 14 assists in the league, while also contributing a goal and 4 assists in the Champions League this season (the second-most in the competition thus far).
De Bruyne has always looked like a star on rise since his nightmare stint with Chelsea, but this season he has gone to the heights of entering the conversation of Europe’s best midfielder. Finishing 2017 in UEFA’s prestigious Team of the Year, it is clear to see that the young man from Ghent has truly stepped up a level under Guardiola.
Formerly taking a more advanced position up the field either on the flanks or in the hole at the 10 position, De Bruyne has progressively dropped deeper each season under the Spaniard’s reign, finding the perfect position on the right of a midfield three in the “quarterback” role ala Xavi.
The Xavi Parallel
After Guardiola’s first season at the Etihad, it was clear he wanted the Belgian in a more central and deeper position in order to give him the freedom and space to orchestrate the game, but the correct pieces were not in place for such a game plan to come into fruition. However, after a transitional year of learning and understanding the ex-Barcelona boss’s tactics and philosophies, and the addition of key fresh faces along the backline in Ederson, Benjamin Mendy, and Kyle Walker, the well-oiled goal scoring machine of Manchester City was looking ready to go with De Bruyne sitting at the helm as head engineer.
Lining up in a 4-3-3 with Leroy Sane, Sergio Aguero, and Raheem Sterling up top, David Silva roaming just ahead of him in the hole, and full-backs either side of him providing the pace and width to overload the opposition, De Bruyne has a plethora of options to pick out from deep. The Belgian playmaker will often roam the middle of the pitch searching for space to play in, while always keeping his finger on the trigger — ready to set off an attack with one killer pass. De Bruyne does, however, move out to the right wing in coordination with wing-back Kyle Walker, who will tuck inside if it draws markers away from the Belgian. In either scenario, the opposition defense is at the 26-year-old’s mercy as De Bruyne possesses an outstanding eye for a pass and is capable of completing nearly any pass with deadly accuracy, regardless of difficulty. Boasting the league’s second-highest key passes per game at 3.1 with the league’s fifth-highest passes per game among midfielders at 73.3 at a success rate of 83.3%, De Bruyne is one of England’s elite creators and is making a strong case for Premier League Player of the Season.
The Belgian international’s role in this City side and the level at which he plays it at harks back to the man who once dominated the role for years at Barcelona — Xavi.
This year’s City team has inevitably drawn parallels to Pep’s Barcelona sides, and, to be fair, there are similarities in their systematically and stylistcally. However, the similarity between Xavi and De Bruyne is one of the more fascinating comparisons.
Playing in similar systems of fluid, ameoba-like, interchanging offenses, both playmakers possessed similar options to utilize to different degrees (i.e. Raheem Sterling vs Lionel Messi). The key similarities lie in the roles they played in their respective systems. Both midfielders sat on the right of a midfield three in the quarterback role — roaming the midfield in deeper pockets of space looking to either simply facilitate play or probe the opposition backline for an opening. Their natural ability to find pockets space to work in are unheralded as it keeps their side ticking in possession by always giving their teammates an option to pass to, while also making themselves a pest for the opposition to deal with. What each of them does in the space is what makes them exceptional — their ability to find the killer ball. Xavi made a name for himself for his ability to find an opening where there is none, while De Bruyne is currently making headlines for doing the same. The 26-year-old is having a career year in terms of his playmaking, but he, unsurprisingly, can not hold a candle to Xavi’s stats so far. The Spanish legend’s career-high key passes per league game is similar to the Belgian’s at 3.2, but his passes per league game and success rate blow De Bruyne’s out of the water at 110 and 94.4% respectively.
In the stark contrast between the midfielders’ passes per game stats lies a telling difference between the two — their overall styles.
De Bruyne’s Evolution of the Role
Both Xavi and De Bruyne have been fairly heralded as some of the best playmakers of their respective generations with the former in the conversation as perhaps being the greatest of all time in his position. However, while both occupied the same role in their teams to devastating effect, they each played it with their own twist.
When Xavi eventually decides to hang up his boots in Qatar, the world will celebrate one of the football’s greatest ever virtuosos of the game. Gifted the immeasurable ability to dictate a match with his deadeye passing and Einstein-level understanding of the game, Xavi was the heartbeat and metronome of every side he played in — able to conduct the pace and intensity of a game at will like a true maestro.
However, this was just about Xavi’s only responsibility on the pitch. Take nothing away from him as he fulfilled the responsibility to an otherworldly level, but he was not the one seen busting a gut to get up and down the field or trying to fashion a chance for himself. To simplify it, Xavi was “only” a world-class facilitator and playmaker, nothing more. That was all that was needed for the time, but as Bob Dylan so eloquently put it, “the times they are a-changin’.”
Part of Xavi’s reason for leaving the Catalan giants in 2015 was because of this change. The Spaniard admitted himself it was clear it was time for him to leave as the way the way the game was beginning to move too fast for the then 35-year-old. Football was beginning to transition into a period of higher intensity with a greater emphasis on athleticism and physicality. Such a transition was highlighted in the 2014 World Cup when reigning world champions Spain were knocked out of the group stage in humiliating fashion – collecting 2 losses out of 3 games, including a humiliating 5-1 defeat to 2010 runner-ups Netherlands. Gone were the days of tiki-taka, as newly-crowned world champions Germany ushered in a new era of athletic, high-tempo football.
This shift of thinking in the footballing spectrum eventually seeped down into Guardiola’s school of thought during his time with Bayern Munich, and the results of such a change are visible in his Manchester City side – specifically in Kevin De Bruyne. The Belgian magician is utilized in the same role as Xavi in a similar system, but his duties differ from those of the Spaniard due to both necessity and his general style of play. While the Spaniard was primarily tasked with orchestrating the match and creating chances for his side, the Belgian is responsible for tracking back and helping out on the defensive end, while also creating chances for his teammates and himself, with less emphasis on controlling the tempo of the match.
This season, De Bruyne averages 0.5 more tackles per league game (1.7) than Xavi’s career-high of 1.2, 0.3 more dribbles per league game (1.6) than Xavi’s career-high of 1.3, and 1.4 more shots per league game (2.7) than Xavi’s career-high of 1.3. The evolution of football has necessitated an increase in responsibilities for each player as it is expected that each player contributes to more areas of the game. This change paired with the intense and direct end-to-end style football played in the Premier League required an evolution in Pep’s tactics, and, consequently, in De Bruyne’s role.
De Bruyne’s iteration of the role can be simply described as a more direct, all-action version of Pep’s quarterback position that Xavi moulded in Barcelona – an appropriate and necessary evolution of a role for a significantly different league, player, and era of football. It is only the Belgian’s first season playing in this role, and he has already started to make it his own. Xavi himself has publicly praised the Belgian saying:
“Pep’s teams win as teams, but even the most special sides need that player to look to when they need something special. At Barcelona we had it with Messi and this team Manchester City have it with De Bruyne. Every time he has the ball, you get the feeling that he is going to do something special with it.”
Under the guidance of Pep Guardiola in his newfound role, it will be interesting to see if De Bruyne can repeat his positional predecessor in taking the next step into the best of his era.