Man City and brilliant Kevin De Bruyne still have another gear to find

Kevin De Bruyne celebrates scoring against Brighton

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Pep Guardiola knows what he is doing when he gently suggests that one of his players could be playing better. The Manchester City manager usually protects his squad to the hilt publicly, particularly if their performances are widely under the spotlight. One of the more memorable lines from the Amazon series documenting the 2017-18 title-winning season was his promise to defend his players “until the last day of my life at the press conference”.

And so when he suggests that someone could improve, he usually means it. That was certainly the case with Riyad Mahrez a few weeks ago. “We need him to come back to his best,” Guardiola said, when asked about the Algerian’s indifferent start to the new season, going as far to suggest that a lack of fitness is a factor. “He has to come back to better physical condition.”

Mahrez started the 3-1 win over Brighton and Hove Albion on Saturday but was replaced on the hour mark, not long after missing a one-on-one to go three up without reply. Brighton subsequently went up the other end, scored through Leandro Trossard and threatened a comeback.

Guardiola later described Mahrez’s chance as the game’s “turning point”. Even if it ultimately had no bearing on the final result, it marked the start of a 20-minute spell where Brighton were the better side at the Etihad. “Normally, he doesn’t miss it but because it’s football it can happen,” the City manager said of Mahrez.

“One minute later, we concede a goal and when we concede a goal the emotions are there. Against this team, it was difficult. At that moment, they were better.”

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Brighton’s bright spell only came to an end with a quarter-of-an-hour remaining and the spectacular Kevin De Bruyne strike that settled the contest once and for all. Squinting through a black eye, whirring up his right foot from 25 yards out, De Bruyne won the game at a critical juncture in an instant. “Thanks to him we did not suffer the last 15-20 minutes, when the game was more in their side,” Guardiola said.

And yet, even De Bruyne was not immune from his manager’s criticism. The goal was fantastic, yes, but “Kevin can be better,” he insisted when asked to comment on the Belgian’s form in general. “He’s not playing at his best level yet. He scored a fantastic goal, but he’s not playing at his best. He knows, I don’t have to tell him. His dynamic is still not perfect. I’ve spoken to him.”

It was the second time in the space of a week that Guardiola has dropped De Bruyne’s name unfavourably. Though Joao Cancelo was the one left apologising to his team-mates after the defeat at Anfield last weekend, for his part in allowing Mohamed Salah to run through and score the winning goal, Guardiola saw fault in De Bruyne too, and not just for his underwhelming delivery of the City free-kick that preceded Liverpool’s counter-attack.

“We didn’t follow the transition,” he said. “We know every time Alisson plays quick. Kevin did not follow and Joao lost the duel.”

It all sounds quite harsh on someone who, on top of Saturday’s magnificent strike, has eight assists in his last 10 appearances and has already set up more Premier League goals this season than he did in the last, when he was competing with Salah in the end-of-season player of the year awards. As you might expect, no player in the top-flight currently has more assists, key passes or chances created.

That does not necessarily make Guardiola’s criticism incorrect, though. The De Bruyne witnessed at the back end of last season was unquestionably the best midfielder in European football at the peak of his powers. As well as the vision and invention that are his trademark, there were the lung-busting bursts with the ball at his feet – reminiscent of Yaya Toure in his pomp – and he had suddenly added a lot more goals to his game too.

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That extra edge that almost indisputably makes De Bruyne the best in the league has been missing somewhat of late, but then that is also nothing new. It was around this time last season that the Belgian was clearly struggling to get up to speed after the disappointment of injuries during the Champions League final and at the European Championships with Belgium. He was an unusually muted presence, only turning his form around post-Christmas.

Like any player, De Bruyne has these momentary dips. It’s nothing special or particularly out of the ordinary. What is special, though, is that even when he is not playing “perfectly” as Guardiola wants, he still has more assists, more key passes, more chances created and the threat of more goals like Saturday’s, that extinguish any faint hope City’s opponents have of getting a result. No wonder Guardiola wants De Bruyne back at his very best, because you imagine they will then be unstoppable.

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