Gabriel Jesus dispatched an unfussy left-footed finish to put Manchester City 4-0 up before half-time at Villa Park but knew this was no time to bask in his own achievement.
Beaming in a giggling grin, the Brazil forward made straight for Kevin De Bruyne, City’s playmaker extraordinaire who had made it virtually impossible for him not to score the 14th goal of a quietly impressive season.
De Bruyne collected possession just inside the Villa half and strode purposefully away from Danny Drinkwater, who was enduring the sort of debut the director of a slasher horror movie might have found a little on the nose.
Soon enough he was in the position. The Kevin De Bruyne position.
You know the one – just on the edge of the final third, a little wide of the right-hand side of the penalty area. The perfect angle for De Bruyne to wrap that delectable right foot around the ball and arc it towards and then tantalisingly away from goal.
The sort of cross that screams “score me”. All of Villa’s back three heard the cries, with right-sided centre-back Ezri Konsa flinging himself in an ungainly heap in a futile attempt to stop the inevitable.
It was De Bruyne’s 14th assist of the Premier League season and plenty of those have been similarly picture perfect. Number 13 also featured Drinkwater in the rear-view mirror for a simple pass to Sergio Aguero, who rifled in spectacularly from 20 yards to set himself on the way to a hat-trick.
— Kevin De Bruyne (@DeBruyneKev) January 12, 2020
Aguero’s part in this scintillating 6-1 spree saw him pass Thierry Henry as the Premier League’s top-scoring overseas player and Alan Shearer as the man with the largest collection of trebles (12) in the competition.
But there is no doubt De Bruyne is the beating heart of this City team, something that has become abundantly clear over recent weeks in the face of a new reality established by Jurgen Klopp’s relentless and ravenous Liverpool.
Without wishing to underplay Guardiola’s achievement in marching an intricate, high-end team to back-to-back Premier League titles, the past two seasons largely consisted of him sending out his favoured 4-3-3 formation and watching the marvellous Mancunian machine take flight.
Compromised by form and fitness problems for key players this time around, and with Liverpool disappearing over the horizon, the City manager has shuffled his pack into a range of tactical shapes over the past month.
A fluid 4-2-3-1 was rolled out for a 3-0 triumph at Arsenal in December – the second victory in a run of 10 wins from 11 in all competitions, where City began a recent theme of doing decisive damage before half-time.
De Bruyne ran the show as a number 10, scything a bouncing ball into the top corner with outstanding technique and curling home a more controlled effort either side of bursting through the right-hand side of the Gunners defence to set up Raheem Sterling.
There were similar antics the following weekend, from the right this time, as the Etihad Stadium bellowed De Bruyne’s name after another assist that relegated a Jesus finish to a role in the supporting cast. High-flying Leicester were condemned to a 3-1 defeat.
10+ – Kevin De Bruyne (15) is one of three Premier League players to assist 10 goals in all competitions this season:
Kevin De Bruyne 15
Riyad Mahrez 10
Trent Alexander-Arnold 10
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) January 12, 2020
City’s only defeat in this prolific sequence came amid Ederson’s early red card at Wolves. Guardiola substituted De Bruyne – whose throughball created Sterling’s second of the game – and watched a 2-1 lead become a 3-2 loss.
A 3-4-3 reboot followed a lacklustre first half against Sheffield United. Guardiola deployed De Bruyne as a deep-lying and roving midfield general, who tore forward to make the points safe having set up Aguero to break the deadlock.
That configuration remained for a 2-1 win over Everton before De Bruyne excelled as one of Guardiola’s false nines in a beguiling besting of Manchester United in the EFL Cup. He left Phil Jones twisted and bereft on the turf for the third goal in a 3-1 semi-final first-leg win.
It was back to old faithful and 4-3-3 at Villa Park, with De Bruyne lurching low and high into those pockets of maximum destruction. He even managed to create Riyad Mahrez’s opener without touching the ball thanks to a delightful dummy.
City’s newfound flexibility bodes well for when their Champions League campaign resumes with a mouth-watering last-16 clash against Real Madrid. Opening up these new shape-shifting possibilities would have been impossible for City and Guardiola without their Belgian master key.