In Focus: De Bruyne's Belgian brilliance bodes well for City run-in
Manchester City will hope Kevin De Bruyne’s impressive international break can spark the Belgian back to his brilliant best for the domestic season's final weeks.
The midfielder was instrumental in his nation's 3-2 friendly win over Germany on Tuesday, assisting the first two goals before scoring the third himself.
Yet the 31-year-old has not reached his usual high standards for City this season — even finding himself in the unfamiliar position of receiving public criticism from his manager.
Ahead of a crunch clash against Liverpool on Saturday which could have a big impact on the Premier League title race, we examine De Bruyne’s mixed campaign.
Before the second leg of Manchester City’s Champions League last-16 clash with RB Leipzig, Pep Guardiola spoke out about De Bruyne’s performance levels.
The Spaniard, 52, said: "What I’d like, I spoke many times to him, is to go to the easy principles and do it well.
"He has an incredible ability to make an assist, to score goals and see passes like no one else. But I always have the belief that they will increase and get better when the simple things are done well.
"Like don’t lose the ball, the mobility, the incredible capacity to be active in the movement.
"When the simple things are done perfectly, we are in the right moment to move outside, inside, and when we have to attack the channels or whatever you do, or feel in that moment.
"The actions to create incredible passes that he — only he — can find, it will be easier, it will be better."
Erling Haaland would go on to grab the headlines that night after scoring five goals in the 7-0 thrashing of Leipzig but De Bruyne rounded off the rout with a glorious curling strike.
Despite the occasion, that contest was surprisingly open and the Belgian made the most of the space afforded to him by City's Bundesliga opponents.
Guardiola’s previous criticism seems to relate more to when sides sit back against the English champions and look to make quick transitions on the break.
To protect his defence, he is asking De Bruyne and his attacking colleagues to play pragmatically and retain possession, rather than attempting risky passes.
The trouble is, with Haaland leading the attack, the early ball often looks to be on — especially for a midfield maestro with such an impressive range of passing.
Interestingly, Guardiola has started with De Bruyne on the bench in four of City’s last nine Premier League games.
The manager surely needs his most creative player on the pitch as much as possible during the run-in, with Arsenal currently eight points ahead in the Premier League and both the FA Cup and Champions League still up for grabs.
Though it has not been the creator's best campaign, statistics suggest he still has much to offer.
The fact he has scored only six times compared to 19 in his previous campaign, for example, can easily be explained by new arrival Haaland now shouldering most of City's goalscoring burden.
Conversely, De Bruyne has already supplied 21 goals for his colleagues, putting him on course to have his best ever season for the club in terms of assists.
With Haaland ready to finish off any chances created for him, Guardiola's quest for more defensive solidity should not lead to De Bruyne losing his starting spot.