The attacking midfielder is fit again after a month on the sidelines but the runaway Premier League leaders have flourished without him
Kevin De Bruyne has not been in Manchester City’s starting line-up for their last eight matches and yet somehow last season’s Player of the Year hasn’t been missed.
The Belgium international has been sidelined with a hamstring injury since January 20 but Pep Guardiola’s winning machine has just powered on without him.
City even beat Liverpool at Anfield, where they had never triumphed under their Catalan coach, and are now 10 points clear at the top of the Premier League, thanks in no small part to a record-breaking run of 17 successive victories in all competitions.
It may seem ridiculous but Pep Guardiola genuinely now faces a dilemma: should De Bruyne go straight back into the starting line-up?
“Everyone has a challenge, everyone,” Guardiola said when pressed on the merits of changing a winning team.
Nobody can be considered a guaranteed starter at the Etihad – not even a player that has delivered as consistently as De Bruyne during his five-and-a-half years at the club.
“They have to play well to stay in the team,” Guardiola reasoned, “because they know when they are not playing well, then they have no chance to stay in the team.”
De Bruyne’s creativity remains of an incredibly high standard, so it merely highlights how well his team-mates have performed in his absence that his recall is even in question.
Despite missing five games before making a 10-minute cameo in the midweek win over Everton, De Bruyne is still only one behind Tottenham’s Harry Kane in the Premier League assists table.
And this is after a season in which he equalled Thierry Henry’s all-time record of 20 Premier League assists across a single campaign – in spite of the fact that City had an underwhelming 2019-20.
However, the goals are now flowing for City, whether De Bruyne plays or not. Indeed, they’ve netted 24 times in their last eight matches.
Of course, much of the focus for City’s fine form has fallen on Ilkay Gundogan, with the German international arguably playing the best football of his career.
Having been moved into an advanced role, he has scored six goals and created two others in his past five Premier League outings, and is expected to recover from a groin strain in time for Sunday’s meeting with Arsenal. He will be expecting to feature.
Bernardo Silva will also be upbeat about his chances of playing. In recent weeks, he has rediscovered the form that made him such a key figure in City’s last title triumph, in 2018-19.
Shining alongside the Portuguese at Everton was Phil Foden. At City, they expect the academy product to end up playing as an attacking midfielder, rather than as a wide attacker, where he has been so effective this season, but whatever he has been deployed lately, he has excelled.
Still, brilliant as the supporting cast have been in recent weeks, De Bruyne remains the big draw, simply because he has that X-Factor. He brings something extra to the party.
No player in world football can see, let alone execute, the passes that the 29-year-old pulls off on a weekly basis, which is why he has such an extraordinary talent for prising open opposition defences.
And with an intense determination that drives his team-mates forward, De Bruyne has become one of City’s leaders on the pitch, which will be vital as they move into the critical part of the season where any slip-up could prove terminal to their hopes of recording a historic quadruple.
“I cannot forget that in this incredible run of games, Kevin was there,” Guardiola told reporters. “We would not have done these incredible things – 100 points and 98 points – without him.”
“But, of course, he has to play well; that is what we need. That is what I want, that is what he wants and that is what we need.
“The competition [for places] is so healthy. Today, the schedule is crazy: 11 months, playing every three days – we don’t have one week off since I don’t know when. Maybe seven or eight months [ago].
“That’s why it’s so good that when a player is out through injury, or because of my decisions, I see his team-mate playing well and winning games. That is the best way to be a competitor and a team-mate.”
City’s schedule is indeed “crazy” and they are unlikely to have a free week between now and the end of the season.
Premier League fixtures against Wolves and Southampton have already been brought forward to make room for a Carabao Cup final and FA Cup quarter-final.
On Wednesday, their Champions League challenge restarts with a last-16 trip to Hungary to face Borussia Monchengladbach.
As big favourites to beat the German side, a run in Europe is going to seriously stretch their resources, with Guardiola desperate to keep the prospect of a quadruple alive for as long as possible.
Having the opportunity to rest players may be just as important as giving them game time. The return of yet another quality attacker from injury will only provide Guardiola with more chances to rotate.
In reality, the De Bruyne dilemma is just a choice that every other manager in the Premier League would dearly love to have.