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Why Man City should drop Haaland and De Bruyne

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Manchester City’s star playmaker came on for his first Premier League appearance in five months with his team 2-1 down to Newcastle United at a raucous St James’ Park.

A sublime goal and a signature assist later, he’d crafted a dramatic 3-2 win for the reigning champions in a bravura performance to strike fear into the rest of England’s top flight.

All that was missing was WWE commentator Jim Ross howling: “Bah gawd! That’s Kevin De Bruyne’s music?!?!”

That cinematic reintroduction for De Bruyne was the start of a purple patch on his return from hamstring surgery. He has racked up 11 assists across all competitions in 2024. Among Premier League players across the whole of this season, only Pascal Gross (13), Bukayo Saka and Mohamed Salah (both 12) have more.

A couple of weeks after he took down Newcastle, De Bruyne made his second Premier League start of the season against Burnley, a game where Pep Guardiola’s team cantered to a 3-1 victory and Erling Haaland returned from almost two months on the sidelines with a foot injury.

MORE: Newcastle vs Man City final score, highlights and result as De Bruyne inspires last-gasp win for champions

City had hung in a three-way title battle with Liverpool and Arsenal and now had their two destroyers back in harness. On February 10, De Bruyne played a textbook through ball for Haaland to score his second of the game and seal a battling 2-0 victory over Everton. On February 27, they went to town on Luton Town in the fifth round of the FA Cup. Haaland rattled home an astonishing five goals, the first four of which were assisted by De Bruyne.

With big games on the horizon, plenty of observers felt City were primed for one of their imposing and destructive kicks for the finish line. It hasn’t quite panned out like that.

In the derby against Manchester United on March 3, City came from behind to win 3-1 but only after an astonishing horror miss from Haaland. The big Norwegian, who remains on course for a second consecutive Premier League Golden Boot, recovered to complete the scoring but it was hometown hero Phil Foden who took centre stage as De Bruyne cut a marginal figure.

The Belgium international’s reputation as a big game animal has been justified time and again over recent run-ins. It was therefore surprising to see him substituted during a 1-1 draw with Liverpool at Anfield on March 17. Last weekend, Foden was hooked by Guardiola but De Bruyne was still unable to make any impression in the drab 0-0 draw with Arsenal.

A recent groin injury serves as mitigation for the 32-year-old. In any case, it was Haaland who drew the bulk of the post-match attention after Manchester United great Roy Keane remarked that the centre-forward’s all-round play was akin to that of a “League Two player”.

“I do not agree with him, absolutely not at all. It’s like me saying he is a manager for the second or third league. I don’t think so,” Guardiola responded in defence of his striker, throwing in an acidic reference to Keane’s underwhelming coaching career that remains in a prolonged period of hiatus.

“He is the best striker in the world. He helped us to win what we won last season and the reason why we don’t create more chances is not [because of] Erling. We need more presence in the final third, with more people.

“I reviewed the game against Arsenal. We played an exceptional game, just we missed more people in the final third.”

MORE: Man City vs Arsenal stalemate highlights Premier League golden era myth

As Guardiola’s assessment of the Arsenal game shows, factors far beyond goals and assists are tallied up as he decides what constitutes a good or a bad performance. However, Haaland and De Bruyne’s particular qualities — what they do better than probably anyone in the world and, perhaps more tellingly, what they don’t do — puts them in an interesting spot.

“Kevin is so important, like Erling,” Guardiola said when both men were sidelined around the turn of the year. “I would say these two types of players don’t help you to play good, but these two guys help you win games.”

Put simply, if Haaland and De Bruyne are demonstrably not helping City to win two huge games in which the collective did not “play good” then it is not absurd to wonder whether Guardiola is looking at alternatives for Wednesday’s crucial clash with Aston Villa. They don’t enhance the Pep fundamentals of possession and positional play and, right now, are difference makers not making a difference.

It should be noted that this apparently flawed City have not lost in 23 matches across all competitions, winning the FIFA Club World Cup and staying firmly in contention for the three trophies that made up last season’s treble.

Haaland picked up his injury during the club’s most recent defeat, also against Villa when Guardiola’s men were well-beaten at Villa Park on December 6. Picking up the pieces in Haaland and De Bruyne’s absence was a duo the City coach should consider turning to again this week.

Foden played as City’s most advanced attacking midfielder in a come-from-behind win at Luton Town on December 10. That combination was to the fore as City beat Fluminense in the Club World Cup final, where Alvarez scored twice and provided the assist for Foden’s second-half goal in a 4-0 win.

“Me and Julian get on really well. We’ve built a good connection; we’re scoring a lot of goals and assisting each other at the same time,” Foden told City’s official website earlier this season.

They each scored as they led the attack in a 3-1 comeback win at Everton on December 27. When the big names were absent, Foden and Alvarez inspired City to a trophy they had never won before and kept the title charge on track.

The England international is enjoying the finest season of his career, with 18 goals and 10 assists to his name. Plaudits have not been so easy to come by for Alvarez, who was utterly dreadful on his most recent start in the 1-1 draw at Anfield. But not for the first time, he was filling holes in unfamiliar attacking midfield positions and the Argentina striker’s 16 goals and 12 assists this term have helped to mitigate the close-season loss of Riyad Mahrez and Ilkay Gundogan.

Looking back at a couple of those Foden-Alvarez games, Foden passed to his team-mate nine times at Kenilworth Road, while Alvarez picked his colleague out five times at Goodison Park. By contrast, De Bruyne found Haaland twice in the recent home game against Manchester United and not at all versus Arsenal.

De Bruyne and Haaland will have a huge influence over how City’s season finishes. Their phenomenal talents and past achievements demand it. But as they toil short of prime form, the Villa game feels like time for them to take a break and recharge for the battles ahead, perhaps licking their lips on the bench as they observe Unai Emery’s customary high line.

Villa will not be able to dictate terms as they did against a depleted City in the reverse fixture if Guardiola’s men “play good”. It feels as if there is a much higher chance of that with the in-form Foden taking centre stage and enjoying the foil of his under-rated partnership with Alvarez. 

Of course, if that doesn’t work, Guardiola could bring on Haaland and De Bruyne to solve a very first-world problem.

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