So let’s just imagine for a moment that you’re the owner/operator of a popular treasure hunt attraction on the Suffolk coast. Who’s the last person you want to see turning up at the start line? Probably someone with incredible speed and ground coverage, impeccable attention to detail and a ruthless competitive streak. Not to mention an uncanny – bordering supernatural – ability to see an objective before it physically materialises.
Alas, posterity does not record the exact noise emitted at the moment said treasure hunt operator first set eyes on Kevin De Bruyne and his printable entry barcode last autumn. The Manchester City midfielder had been out of action since sustaining a hamstring injury against Burnley in August, and had seized the opportunity to take his family on a rare mid-season holiday to Suffolk. Nor does posterity record how the De Bruynes actually fared in their scavenger hunt. But we can safely conclude from De Bruyne’s post-hunt debrief – “it was fun,” he later said of the experience – that he probably got what he came for.
For De Bruyne, the last five months have been all about reset and renewal. A chance to escape the treadmill of elite football, with its punishing schedule and relentless rhythms. A chance to let the ligaments and joints heal properly, to enjoy a proper training block, to spend time with the kids, to live something approaching a normal life. The next five months, by contrast, are all about making up for lost time. For De Bruyne, the real treasure hunt starts now.
It all begins with an FA Cup fourth-round tie at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Friday night, a ground where City have weirdly never scored, let alone won. With De Bruyne still making his way back to his physical prime, a full 90 minutes is probably unlikely. Even so, a first start since his return is possible, and so watching De Bruyne against a quick, slingy, concussive Spurs side will give us some idea not just of where his fitness is at, but where exactly he fits in Pep Guardiola’s shifting, slippery City team.
The assumption for some years has been that over time De Bruyne will gradually withdraw to a deeper midfield role, a withdrawn playmaker, just as Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard and even Cesc Fàbregas did before him. Micah Richards described him on Match of the Day as “a quarterback” after his match-winning cameo against Newcastle a couple of weeks ago, meaning a midfielder who directs play from deep, plays searching diagonal balls and pinpoint crosses.
On a superficial level, it makes a certain sense. Phil Foden and Julián Álvarez have succeeded this season in more central roles. Erling Haaland will be back imminently. Something has to give in that front five, so why not an ageing De Bruyne, using his technical ability to control games from the middle of the park against packed defences? But of course there are two main problems here. First, it’s not remotely how Guardiola sees De Bruyne’s career going. And second, it’s not remotely how De Bruyne sees himself.
Guardiola often draws an intriguing distinction between players who “help you play better” and “players who win games”. Bernardo Silva and John Stones are examples of the former; Haaland and De Bruyne are prime examples of the latter. Guardiola continually refers to De Bruyne as a player who makes a difference “in the final third”, whether through goals, assists or pre-assists. This month he justified not starting De Bruyne against Huddersfield by arguing that in the first half “the game was tighter and it was so difficult to find space”. Previously he has declared that “in any transition, Kevin is the best”.
None of which seems to portend a move deeper into midfield, where space is even rarer and where De Bruyne has often struggled to influence games for Belgium. The last time Guardiola tried it for any sustained period was in 2019-20, which was also the last season City failed to win the title. Instead, his role against Newcastle suggests that De Bruyne will be deployed in high-impact situations: big games where there is a little more space to operate, and big moments where his touch of genius can make the most difference.
And of course there has always been a certain ego at work there too, a player who for all his dedication and professionalism ultimately wants to be a difference-maker in the final few years of his career. All great footballers start to redefine and refocus their goals as retirement begins to appear on the horizon. For Lionel Messi, winning the World Cup with Argentina became an all-consuming ambition. Cristiano Ronaldo’s later years have been defined by a search for records, accolades and personal supremacy. Xavi Hernández and Gerard Piqué, who won pretty much everything there was to win in football by the age of 30, pivoted early towards personal development and the lucrative second career they would make for themselves.
What does De Bruyne want most of all over the next few years? With the best will in the world, he’s not going to win a World Cup with Belgium, although the Euros this summer remain an outside possibility. Medals alone and money alone have never truly seemed to motivate him. Even in victory he cut a pretty subdued figure after last year’s Champions League final, savouring the success but also crushed at having had to hobble off on such a lofty stage for the second time in three years.
So perhaps what De Bruyne is searching for above all is the crowning moment: not just another title or another Champions League but a triumph with which he is inextricably associated, as Sergio Agüero is with 2012 and Yaya Touré with 2014 and Rodri with 2023. Not watching on from the centre circle, or on the bench with his leg strapped. Being there. Doing it. Crafting the moment that will elevate him from greatness to immortality. He knows, above all, that there is beauty in the quest. But ultimately, you never take your eyes off the treasure.