After the fractured skull and eye socket came the ankle ligament damage. Kevin De Bruyne has spent the summer being hurt, returning from injury and playing through the pain barrier.
His Premier League campaign began as his Euro 2020 ended, with De Bruyne a fitness doubt. He made a swifter-than-expected recovery – another recurring theme – to play for the last 12 minutes in Sunday’s defeat at Tottenham. But he missed training on Friday, leaving Pep Guardiola unsure if his talisman will face Norwich on Saturday. The Etihad Stadium will be packed for the first time since a De Bruyne masterclass against West Ham in February 2020, but he may be a spectator as his stop-start year continues. He is becoming a constant concern.
After the facial injuries sustained in a full-blooded collision with Antonio Rüdiger in the Champions League final, De Bruyne was forced to limp off in Belgium’s win over Portugal. He nevertheless started the quarter-final against Italy five days later, but played with torn ligaments. Issues remain. “Kevin has a little bit of a problem with his ankle,” Guardiola said.
Last season, too, was interrupted by injuries. Guardiola summoned him from the bench in a bid to avert defeat at Spurs but may need to manage which games De Bruyne plays. “He has to be fit, he has to be good,” said the City manager. “In certain age of players, they always have disturbing pain. You play free, free, free then there are some difficult parts of your career.” Belgium’s triple header of World Cup qualifiers looms in September and Guardiola said: “I would like all the players when they are fit to go to the national team. Otherwise, they will stay here if they are not fit, or they are injured.”
The demands are greatest on the best and the reigning PFA Player of the Year was nominated for Uefa’s men’s player of the year award this week. If De Bruyne’s body is giving way, perhaps it is no surprise: he played 68 games for club and country in 2017-18. At 30, he has made 576 senior appearances.
Nor is he alone in being overworked. By the end of Euro 2020, Raheem Sterling played 75 and Rúben Dias 77 games in 13 months, albeit partly because of an artificially congested fixture list. Yet, rather than bemoaning the schedule, Guardiola told his charges they do not have a day to waste in their playing days.
“The seasons connect to each other,” he said. “It is non-stop. The players’ careers are short: 10 or 12 or 15 years. This is the reality, unfortunately. I can be a manager until I am 80 years old. They cannot be a player until they are 80 years old. The guys who are 26 or 27 have five or six years left playing football.
“My advice is use every day as best as possible to extend your career because after that you can have the break if you want for one or two or three years.” Guardiola, at least, sounded refreshed after a summer of rest. “The backroom staff have a break of five or six weeks so we cannot complain,” he added.
He gave his England and Brazil internationals a month off after their summer exertions. A weakened City duly began with back-to-back defeats in the Community Shield and the Premier League. Their game has required fine-tuning. Guardiola listed the areas for improvement he saw at Spurs: “The relationships, the distances between lines, our accuracy in not losing simple balls, the physical condition, being aggressive in the final third,” he outlined. “We have to defend better the transitions and in the set pieces. There are a thousand things.”
One is integrating Jack Grealish, who could serve as the creator in chief in De Bruyne’s absences. They have formed a mutual fan club but the £100m man’s City career has begun with successive setbacks. “The team is going to help Jack to be who he is and he is going to help us be the team we want to be,” pledged Guardiola. That side will not include Robert Lewandowski, despite speculation. “He will stay at Bayern Munich,” said the former Bayern manager.
He is beginning a sixth campaign at City but an ability to manage at 80 does not mean he will be found in dugouts in the 2050s. “Absolutely not, I have to reduce my handicap,” said a keen golfer with a famous friend. “I have Tommy Fleetwood as a good teacher so I have some drills. We play once a year. His schedule is busier than mine.”