Kevin De Bruyne is getting dropped by Pep Guardiola for the first time

Pep Guardiola ruining Kevin De Bruyne with Erling Haaland obsession

The Manchester City paradox runs through everything. They are scoring at the same rate as last season but look notably less creative. Erling Haaland is performing to expectation but is damaging to his team. Man City have never looked more like a true Pep Guardiola side but appear stifled by it.

And Kevin De Bruyne is on course to break his own Premier League assist record but is playing like a shadow of himself.

What links all of these things together is a manager looking inwards, attempting an unscheduled and unnecessary rebrand that revolves around one marquee signing.

City should never have signed Haaland

Manchester City striker Erling Haaland

Haaland to Man City always felt wrong, yet most of us ignored that instinct because, well, Guardiola knows best. But as time passes it increasingly looks like Guardiola has simply got this one wrong and, desperate to correct the mistake, is digging an ever-deeper hole in his search for a solution.

The latest experiment, in the 1-0 defeat at Tottenham, was a new nadir on the Haaland journey – and a personal low point for the one player we would have thought immune to the reshuffle, De Bruyne, who was given just 30 minutes from the bench.

De Bruyne on the decline?

Kevin De Bruyne stats

De Bruyne is not quite the player he was last season, despite what the statistics tell us.

His 11 assists in 18 starts is easily the best in the division and he tops the charts for shot-creating actions with 6.53 per 90, up from 6.20 the year before. But this misses his decline in others areas of the field and the general downturn in assertiveness; in his capacity to be the most urgent creative outlet in the City side.

This, too, is all about Haaland, and the reasons were writ large in the defeat at Spurs.

We all knew Haaland would not get involved in the play as much as a typical Guardiola forward, but how the club would adapt was always up for debate.

At the halfway point in the season it has become perfectly clear: Guardiola has sought to replace the lost touches with greater control – with more touches of the ball - in other areas of the pitch.

'Discarding the dribblers'

Bernado Silva scores twice as Manchester City beat Watford
Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva were previously key players

That has meant discarding the direct dribblers that used to provide an important point of difference in favour of slower playmakers like Jack Grealish and Bernardo Silva.

Historically Guardiola teams have relied on verticality from the flanks to work against the grain of his metronomic possession, from David Villa to Arjen Robben to Leroy Sane or Raheem Sterling, yet with Haaland at the top Guardiola has felt the need to pack the team with controlling playmakers.

Again, this reached a new low on Sunday. For the trip to Tottenham we saw a new 3-2-3-2 formation that lacked width as Julian Alvarez, Silva, Rodri, and Rico Lewis all buzzed in the central column of the pitch, leaving Riyad Mahrez and Grealish isolated on the flanks.

It was therefore relatively easy for Spurs to squeeze the middle, safe in the knowledge they could double up on City wingers receiving no overlapping support.

De Bruyne would have improved their showing, and indeed he did so from the bench, cleverly moving between the lines to present City with the progressive passing option needed to break the Spurs shape and push the hosts back.

Nevertheless, he did not shine, looking a little timid once again - as Guardiola has previously noted.

Kevin De Bruyne came off the bench at Spurs, to little effect
Kevin De Bruyne came off the bench at Spurs, to little effect

“Kevin when he plays with this fire inside of him — he has to find himself this fire — what a player,” he said to Sky Sports after the 3-2 victory over Liverpool in the Carabao Cup. “Always I push him to find this fire, sometimes he’s a little bit… I know there’s a lot of games but in important games when he has this, unstoppable.”

Pep fails to see damage done to De Bruyne

For Guardiola it’s a question of fire, of motivation. But what he misses here is that De Bruyne feels the loss of Haaland’s arrival – and the subsequent rejig - as much as anyone else.

The point of a Robben or a Sterling is to suddenly change the tempo, often via a long diagonal switch. Guardiola teams aims to pull opponents from one side to the other, first gaining territorial control and then, dragging everyone to one side, quickly switching the play for a dramatic behind-the-line run from Sane or Villa, for example.

That move has disappeared now that the only run-maker is Haaland, whose attempts are infamously being ignored by his new City teammates. With everything slowed down, and no out-ball to an unmarked wing, De Bruyne is crowded out considerably more often.

Historically we have seen the Belgian in the right half-space, open and ready to cross, or arriving from deep to get the ball out of his feet and pick out a perfect pass.

'Haaland must radically alter his own style'

Pep Guardiola: Man City boss gives instructions to Erling Haaland during their 3-1 home win over Brighton
Erling Haaland must learn to play the Pep Guardiola way

Visualise a typical De Bruyne action and you’ll most likely conjure an image with space ahead of him. That is thanks to his supreme skill in wriggling away from his marker, but it is also the consequence of Guardiola’s football creating unexpected pockets.

De Bruyne is not a man who works subtly in congested midfield zones, yet he is forced to do so this season because Man City are so much more ponderous in possession.

Like everyone else, De Bruyne has been weighed down by the need to increase measured control around Haaland. Like everyone else, he is struggling with Guardiola’s decision to move towards caricature; towards the tiki-taka cliché he has always rejected.

The solution is unclear, although as performances flat-line Guardiola may need to consider adapting his fundamental strategy in order to suit Haaland, rather than make up for the missing false nine by increasing the possession recycling everywhere else.

That would mean seeking out Haaland’s runs early, looking for counter-attacks in transitions, and letting go of the need for absolute control over every zone of the pitch.

The chances of that happening are slim, which leaves only one option. Haaland must radically alter his own playing style under Guardiola’s tutelage, otherwise Man City risk losing a considerable portion of what made them – and De Bruyne specifically – so dangerous.

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