On Wednesday, Kevin De Bruyne, Man City’s talisman last season and possibly the best player in the league, suffered a knee injury during training. Initial reports suggest that the Belgian could face up to three months on the sideline, leaving Pep Guirdiola with the daunting task of replacing the engine of his team. De Bruyne’s abilities – specifically finding killer final balls and crosses – can’t be replicated. He lead the league in both assists, expected assists (predicted number assists based on pass location and shot quality), and expected assists per 90 minutes. Pep will have to adjust his system to compensate.
Fortunately, the Spaniard has quality depth to choose from, namely the trio of Ilkay Gundogan, Bernardo Silva, and youngster Phil Foden. Each player has different strengths and weaknesses, and, now that David Silva now 33 years of age, it is highly likely that two, or maybe even all three, will be on the pitch at the same time. With Liverpool challenging, along with Tottenham and Manchester United lurking, choosing the right combinations will be key in forging yet another successful season at the Ethiad. However, it remains to be seen whether any combination of the three can truly replicate De Bruyne’s contributions.
Gundogan has the inside track
One of the most underappreciated players of his generation has the inside track for De Bruyne’s position. Versatile and intelligent, the German’s outstanding passing is the closest Pep can come to replicating KDB’s passing. While his summer was marred by the ugly feud between him, Mesut Ozil and the DFB, his performances for Man City have ranged from decent to excellent when he has been on the field.
Of course, Gundagon has spent almost as much time off the pitch as on it, since being purchased by BVB in 2011, Gundagon has struggled with not just minor knocks, but also major injuries that required months off from playing. The first was a back injury suffered on international duty in 2014 that required surgery and a year off, and the more recent was an ACL tear in 2016, right when the German was hitting stride playing under Pep.
Pep did not trust Gundagon to stay healthy, refusing to place a large work load after he came back from the ACL tear. While the German’s talent is unquestioned, his ability to stay healthy and performing is rightfully a worry fro both Pep and Man City fans. Expect many appearances from Gundagon, but rarely 90 minutes, subbing on some games, and not playing in a few based on Pep’s tactical plans. If Gundagon can increase his playing time, Pep’s job will become a little easier.
Bernardo Silva: right man, right time
The second year explosion under Pep is coming. Regardless of whether KDB got hurt, I was expecting to see more of Silva this season, and the early returns suggest the Portuguese man is key to Pep’s plans this season. During the Community Shield, Silva was head and shoulders above the rest of his teammates, string together intricate passing sequences and controlling the game effortlessly. After, Pep said “The performance of Bernardo Silva was a masterpiece…Right now, it is Bernardo and 10 others.”
A left-footer, Silva plays much like David Silva, a needle player who is responsible for quickly and correctly passing and dribbling to break lines and create numerical superiority. Additionally, Silva’s adaptability was one of the key features of Pep’s team last year; he played both wings, as a false nine, and in central midfield, allowing Man City to rest players without a drop-off in performance.
Going into the season, Silva looked to be the immediate backup in several positions, and a match nightmare for opposing team. With KDB out, Silva will look accelerate his progress to make the position his and claim his rightful place as David Silva’s heir. If the early games of the season are any indication, the wait will not be long.
Too soon for Phil Foden?
Foden may be still just 18 years old, but has been well known in Europe for quite some time. Nicknamed the “Stockport Iniesta”, Foden has already won a Premier League title and an EFL cup in his club career, and added to it with a silver medal at the U-17 Euros and a gold medal at the U-17 World Cup. It was in this tournament that Foden really shined, scoring three goals, including a brace in the final, and capturing the Golden Ball as the tournaments best player. Going into the season, Pep hinted at a bigger role for the 18 year old. He may yet get his wish.
Stylistically, Foden is very similar to Bernardo Silva, combining superior technical ability with great intelligence and movement, ideal for playing central midfield in Pep’s system. Foden’s problems are going to come from lack of experience, especially in the Premier League. Plenty of talented youngsters have found the jump up to league play too tough, and when a player is shoved in too soon, it can cripple a player’s career.
Pep, I suspect, will ease Foden in, giving him substitute appearances in most matches while starting lesser cup games and maybe a CL group stage match when Man City have clinched the knockout stages. If Foden can be comfortable and rested heading into March, April, and May, then Pep will have a secret weapon which he will deploy with frightening effectiveness. In between, Foden will learn and grow, until his time to shine comes.
Pep and Manchester City certainly have cards to play when it comes filling the void left by the Belgian maestro. However, no option is perfect. For as long as De Bruyne is forced to wait on the sidelines, City will miss his dynamism and work-rate. Guardiola, the master problem-solver, thus has an enormous task on his hands. He has options, sure. But De Bruyne’s contributions to City cannot be fully replicated, no matter how hard Gundogan and Silva might try to fill his shoes. If this situation does prove to hold a silver-lining, it might well be development opportunities it grants to Foden. That said, nothing can truly compensate for the loss of De Bruyne.
This article was originally published here at CUGuyBlog.