Just before the hour mark, and as Gabriel Jesus was replaced by Leroy Sané amid applause from the home supporters on the back of a devastating display in front of goal, Kevin De Bruyne could be seen speaking with David Silva and Sergio Agüero.
The Belgian went over to each in turn and appeared to be telling them what to do. It was impossible to pick up what he was saying, but given everything that had happened up until then, it would not have been a surprise to have learned that his message was a simple one: “Keep going, lads, I’ve got this.”
Manchester City’s biggest home win over Liverpool since September 1935 was a collective pummelling – and one aided by Sadio Mané’s initially controversial, but ultimately justified, sending-off – but what it highlighted amid the showers and sunshine of an early autumn afternoon is just how good De Bruyne is, and just how central he could be, in more ways than one, to City reclaiming their status as champions.
The 26-year-old was sensational here, assisting City’s first two goals, scored by Agüero and Jesus, playing a role in their fourth – put away by Sané – and generally providing a muscular, intelligent and technically excellent display from an advanced midfield position.
De Bruyne did not stand out by a distance among those in blue, but he did stand out, and at times appeared to be playing a completely different game to everyone else, such was the time and space he was able to find on the pitch. Little wonder Agüero and Silva listened so intently to his instructions – they knew as much as anyone that De Bruyne was in control of proceedings; that he well and truly had this.
“I am so happy with his performance,” said Pep Guardiola of City’s No17. “He is good on balls on the feet. He is good running, attacking the space. He is a complete player, one of our captains.”
With his two assists here, De Bruyne has now provided 39 in all competitions since arriving from Wolfsburg for £51m in August 2015. There have also been 23 goals and numerous man-of-the-match displays. Yet he cannot consider himself undroppable, and especially while Guardiola continues to deploy a system containing a three-man midfield in which Fernandinho provides the defensive support to two playmakers.
De Bruyne is competing to fill one of those spots not only with David Silva but also Bernado Silva, who is increasingly getting up to speed after his late arrival from the Confederations Cup and having signed from Monaco for £43.6m in May. Then there is Yaya Touré and Ilkay Gündogan to consider, with the latter returning to City’s matchday squad on Saturday for the first time since tearing cruciate knee ligaments in December. The competition is fierce and standards for those involved in the battle for recognition simply cannot drop.
De Bruyne appears to be aware of that if his display here is anything to go by. Deployed alongside David Silva for a fourth league match in succession, he tormented those in red from start to finish, starting off in a right-sided position but continuously moving across and through the lines. On 20 minutes he popped up on the left and caused Liverpool’s right-back Trent Alexander Arnold such concern with his incisive running that the teenager, so assured so far this season, found himself with no other option but to yank the midfielder down just outside the area and subsequently receive a yellow card.
Five minutes later came De Bruyne’s first assist and it told you so much about his assurance and ability. There was a touch to control the ball after it came his way from Fernandinho inside the centre circle and then, with nonchalant ease, a perfectly weighted through ball to set Agüero running free through the heart of the visitors’ defence. The Argentinian’s goal made it six from six home league games against Liverpool.
The second assist, in first-half stoppage time, was more straightforward but no less perfectly executed – a left-wing cross that Jesus fired past Simon Mignolet via a header from an unmarked position – and then, on 77 minutes, came the pass to Sané, which eventually led to the German scoring the first of his two goals. Again De Bruyne was in a central position and, again, Liverpool had no idea how to handle him.
It should be noted that post-Mané’s sending off Liverpool were incredibly poor, all but giving up en route to their heaviest defeat under Jürgen Klopp, but that should not take away from City’s performance, one full of swagger and ruthlessness, and which suggests that for all their defensive frailties, which again were on show here, they have enough in attack to win the title.
And at the heart of it was De Bruyne, the reserved figure who catches the eye time and time again. Drop him if you dare, Pep. “This season he is in a good mood, maybe because he is a father,” said Guardiola. “We are a lucky club to have Kevin.”
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