“This award is always for Liverpool.” Not this time, Pep.
Kevin De Bruyne is the Professional Footballers’ Association Player of the Year and the first Manchester City player to win the men’s award in its 46-year history.
It is belated recognition, and not only because it comes in the second week of September, four days before the start of the delayed 2020-21 season, just as the previous campaign finally begins to retreat into memory.
De Bruyne arguably should have won the PFA’s award in 2018, when he was the outstanding member of City’s 100-point Premier League champions. Instead, much to Pep Guardiola’s bemusement, it went to 32-goal Mohamed Salah of fourth-place Liverpool.
There was yet more irritation in July – both inside the Etihad club and among the fanbase – when the Football Writers’ Association overlooked De Bruyne and instead named Jordan Henderson as their Footballer of the Year.
Guardiola congratulated Henderson at his press conference later that same day but still suggested that end-of-season awards – the PFA’s, the FWA’s and those of every other variety – would always go to Liverpool’s players over City’s, given their history, tradition and support base.
This ignored the many valid reasons for picking Henderson over De Bruyne at the end of last season. These awards are often about trophies won and legacies left. Henderson not only captained Liverpool to the Premier League title, but to a holy grail that they had spent the last three decades chasing.
And, in these most extraordinary of times, they can also reflect the impact and influence that certain players have off-the-pitch. De Bruyne was an authoritative and eloquent voice when representing City’s squad in meetings on the safety of Project Restart and pay contributions to the NHS, but Henderson was the figurehead of the laudable Players Together initiative.
Yet at their most fundamental level, the traditional end-of-season awards are about ability. They are about which player out-performed their peers in that given year. They are about recognising the best. And by that measure, no player – not Henderson nor any other – can hold a candle to De Bruyne.
In what should be remembered as a remarkable individual campaign regardless of City’s collective failures, De Bruyne’s headline achievement was equalling Thierry Henry’s Premier League milestone of 20 assists in a single campaign. For context, only Lionel Messi and Thomas Muller managed more in Europe’s top five leagues, and only one more at that.
Even so, De Bruyne accepted the award on the final day with a hint of bitterness. “I have got two more. You guys took two away from me that I am still claiming,” he told television reporters, referring to a pair of assists against Arsenal six months apart – one at the Emirates, one at the Etihad – taken away from him for minor deflections. If you watch the video, don’t be fooled by the typically dry, deadpan delivery. He was not joking.
There were still plenty of other statistics to measure De Bruyne’s greatness by. No player in Europe’s top five leagues played more key passes. No player created better quality goal-scoring opportunities. Only Messi matched De Bruyne for passes, dribbles, fouls and other actions which led to shots on goal. It is no overstatement to call this genius.
But that genius does not arrive as raw numbers. It comes in moments, like the side-step around a sliding Jorginho before shooting low to score against Chelsea, the chest and half-volley in off the underside of the crossbar against Newcastle, or the teasing of poor Marco Stipermann before firing into Norwich’s net from distance on the final day.
It often comes as a cross from the right wing, delivered from the half-space between an opposition centre-half and left-back, where the arc of the ball bends tantalisingly close to the retreating defence though not close enough for them to intercept until a City team-mate finishes at the far post.
This is quickly becoming De Bruyne’s trademark pass. Tottenham, Watford, Everton, Aston Villa and Arsenal all fell victim to this precise ball at some point last season. They all knew it was coming, having seen De Bruyne do this to others previously, sometimes even the previous weekend, yet could do nothing to stop it.
For all those moments, some will ask whether De Bruyne can be considered last season’s best player when City fell short of their usual standards. The Belgian played in seven of their nine league defeats – which was the most Guardiola has suffered in a single campaign during his managerial career – and failed to prevent them.
But just as with Salah in 2018 or Virgil van Dijk last year, it feels right in this instance that an individual award should honour individual excellence. The best player in the country has finally been recognised as such, and Guardiola will on this occasion have little complaint.
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