After spending long spells of last season absent with injury, Kevin de Bruyne now looks refreshed and back to his best. Might those injuries have been beneficial to him in the long term…?
Kevin de Bruyne looks like a new man.
On Monday night he toyed with Scotland, scoring one and setting up Belgium’s other three goals in a 4-0 victory at Hampden Park. You’ll want to see the second assist in particular, one of those low crosses whipped with extreme prejudice into the box, the sort that it almost seems impossible not to score from.
Admittedly, this was ‘only’ Scotland, a team in a state of rolling crisis who have only beaten San Marino and Cyprus in these Euro 2020 qualifiers. But this has been a continuation of the form he has showed for Manchester City in the early stages of the season, a key part of their juggernaut steaming towards another Premier League title, even though the season is just four games old.
“I think he’s in the best moment of his career,” said Belgium coach Roberto Martinez after the game. “This campaign has started with a freshness and real driven feeling of playing at his best and when he does that he’s as good as it gets. There’s no other midfield player that can create space, a playmaker that can execute the passes that he does. It’s a joy to see him fitting into the group.”
A joy it is, but it feels like the key word in Martinez’s quote was ‘freshness’. De Bruyne has muscled his way back into the City team despite being absent for large chunks of last season. He missed 18 games with assorted injuries, primarily a knee ligament tear that put him out for the meat of the first half, before a couple of minor problems prevented him from getting a consistent run of games in the second.
Being out injured for half a season isn’t ideal. De Bruyne cut a frustrated figure for much of the campaign, as you would if you were rendered unable to do your job. But are we now seeing the benefits of what essentially amounted to months away from top-level football?
De Bruyne clearly wasn’t just sticking his feet up during the time he was out. Recovery from injury, particularly the knee ligament problem that laid him low, is notoriously gruelling as much on the mind as the body.
But crucially De Bruyne would have been absent from the punishing nature of the first-team game, from matches which grind down the body millimetre by millimetre, from 90 minutes of pure hell a couple of times a week.
In that respect it’s no wonder both his club and his international manager have commented how refreshed he looks. Counterintuitively, a series of fitness problems might have been just the thing to help his fitness. An injury’s as good as a rest.
Perhaps this will send a broader message about the benefits of not flogging footballers as if they are sturdy old workhorses, that if you give them a bit of time off every now and then, it will be a positive in the long-run.
Take Liverpool’s front three, for example. Roberto Firmino began his 2019/20 season in the Community Shield on August 4, four weeks after his 61-game 2018/19 ended with the Copa America final, which came after the World Cup and another 62-game campaign. There’s another Copa coming up next summer, too.
Mo Salah played in every one of Liverpool’s Premier League games and missed only one Champions League fixture last season, topping that up with an Africa Cup of Nations finals, his second summer in a row with a major tournament. Sadio Mane’s workload was similar, although the workshy layabout only made 36 league appearances.
There are plenty more examples, the most obvious being Son Heung-min who played in three international tournaments inside six months, squeezing his extensive Tottenham commitments around those duties. Sure, those players have kept up their levels so far, but everyone has a tipping point.
Of course, Premier League clubs have advanced medical teams who monitor the physical exertions of their players, knowing when they reach the ‘red line’ but that is more about maintenance, and they might get a game or two off. But sometimes players need a longer break, and while it might not be practical to give players of this stature extended time off, De Bruyne is perhaps showing how beneficial that can be.
“Last season he didn’t have holiday but he has had more time to rest and he came back like he did two seasons ago,” said Pep Guardiola of De Bruyne in the summer. “Hopefully he can keep his level.”
By the looks of things, he very much is.
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