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Same 'super chilled' de Bruyne despite success

Kevin de Bruyne has been used effectively by high-flying Man City's manager Pep Guardiola as a playmaker.
Kevin de Bruyne has been used effectively by high-flying Man City's manager Pep Guardiola as a playmaker.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • "He just held on to one of the posts and refused to let go. He was in a rage. We tried to pull him away from it but we didn't manage."

Kevin de Bruyne's youth coach at Genk, Frank de Leyn, remembers the incident well.

A young de Bruyne had been reprimanded for not helping to clear up the pitch after training and became so infuriated at being told off that he grabbed one of the posts and refused to let go.

"He was stubborn as hell, like a mule," de Leyn continues.

"But I also think that it is that stubbornness, that character trait, that has made him the player he is now."

De Bruyne's rise has been remarkable and he has reached a different level this season. Arguably the best player in Manchester City, his performances have stood out and last week there was a flash of that anger, that stubbornness, that sets him apart.

Most of the time the 26-year-old is the quietest, most amenable man - 99 per cent of the time the Belgian is, in his own words, "super chilled".

KEY FACTOR

He was stubborn as hell, like a mule... It is that stubbornness, that character trait, that has made him the player he is now.

FRANK DE LEYN, de Bruyne's youth coach at Genk, on the player's determination.

However, every now and then, as we saw at half-time in the Champions League game against Napoli, he erupts and reacts with a fury that few have witnessed.

"Let me talk! Let me talk! LET ME TALK!" de Bruyne shouted at David Silva as he tried to get past his team-mate to admonish the officials, having been booked. He was eventually led away by team-mates and was back in "super chilled" mode afterwards.

Most of the time he is modest, calm and collected, but when he does not agree with something, he will let everyone know in a brutally honest way.

He has a long history of straightforwardness. Back at Genk when he was 19, de Bruyne reprimanded the team's star player, Elyaniv Barda, because the latter did not work hard enough.

While at Wolfsburg, he was caught in a media storm after insulting a dawdling ball-boy. But most of these eruptions happen without malice. It is the winner in him taking control.

Throughout de Bruyne's early career, however, he had to fight the perception that he was a difficult character. Aged eight, he told his Drongen coach that he was joining Gent "because their training sessions are much better".

At Gent, one of the coaches made it his mission to "tame" de Bruyne. It backfired. "People were saying that I wasn't going to make it because of my poor character. I told myself at that point, 'Let's see who has the last word'," he said.

He went on to star for the Under-21s and made his first-team debut as a 17-year-old. And after de Bruyne won the Belgian league with Genk, Chelsea signed him.

Fast forward 18 months to September 2013. De Bruyne had enjoyed a good loan spell at Werder Bremen but decided he did not fancy becoming one of Chelsea's serial loanees and pushed for a transfer two months later.

He eventually signed for Wolfsburg despite then-Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho wanting to keep him.

The current Chelsea manager, Antonio Conte, talked of his frustration that the club had let de Bruyne go, after the Belgian scored City's winner in September's league meeting at Stamford Bridge .

The player is older and wiser now and with Pep Guardiola, he has clicked. The Spaniard wants his team to circulate the ball quickly, apply intense and constant pressure, and needs players thinking ahead to the next move when they are passing.

In Guardiola's game of geometry and triangles, de Bruyne is the segment that connects them all. He ended the City manager's first season in charge with the most number of assists in the league (18) and has already recorded another six in nine games this campaign.

Has de Bruyne reached his peak? Probably not. Has he stayed the same person as he was when he grew up? Absolutely.

He is a player who has never signed a contract with the aim of earning as much as possible. He is a person who still thinks twice before buying something expensive and he once walked out of a bar when he found out that they charged £26 (S$46.70) for a bottle of Coke.

Guardiola has pushed de Bruyne to another galaxy but he is determined to stay the way he is - a gem without the bling. Just Kevin: excellence simply delivered.

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2017, with the headline 'Same 'super chilled' de Bruyne despite success'. Print Edition | Subscribe