Blonde Vengeance: Why Kevin De Bruyne's success could condemn the Chelsea system for good
From a supposed Chelsea reject – a guy sent packing from Stamford Bridge after being deemed surplus to requirements – to arguably the best-attacking midfielder in the entire Premier League and possibly one of the best in the world too. It’s been a curious path to the top for Kevin De Bruyne, and I don’t think anyone could dispute the fact that he’s had to work seriously hard to get there. But can he really complete the dream and win the Premier League with Manchester City this season, taking the title away from his former club – the defending champions – in the process? It’d be a hell of an achievement.
To understand the redemption of De Bruyne, you’ve got to go back to the start of 2012 and the January transfer window that year. At that time just 20 years old, De Bruyne had already been starring for Belgian side Genk for three seasons having made his debut at the end of the 2008/09 season. At Genk he’d been one of the outstanding performers, winning the Belgian league in 2010/11, and it was clear that big things were surely on the horizon for him.
Sure enough, a £7m move to Chelsea was brokered in that January transfer window; with the idea being that de Bruyne would complete 2011/12 at Genk before moving to London in the summer. The problem? At the time De Bruyne was signed, Chelsea’s manager was Andre Villas-Boas. The Portuguese was fired a couple of months later, and once the Belgian arrived at Stamford Bridge, Jose Mourinho had been appointed boss for the second time.
Despite bringing a reputation as an exciting talent, it came as no surprise when Chelsea decided to ship De Bruyne out on loan to German side Werder Bremen for the entirety of the 2012/13 season. After all, he was only 21, and Chelsea also signed Eden Hazard and Oscar that summer, two players who immediately leapfrogged him in the pecking order. Given Juan Mata, Frank Lampard and Ramires were also at Stamford Bridge, the move made sense.
De Bruyne’s form at Werder was generally excellent – he was practically an ever-present for them, scored 10 goals in 33 Bundesliga appearances, and his reputation came on leaps and bounds. By the time 2012/13 was over, it was clear that De Bruyne was ready for the big time. He was linked in the summer of 2013 with a move to Borussia Dortmund, but instead, Mourinho assured him he was part of his plans and brought him back to Stamford Bridge. Along with new signings Willian and Andre Schurlle that was – both of whom played in similar positions to the Belgian.
Mourinho was not true to his word. De Bruyne made just three Premier League appearances for Chelsea as 2013 came to an end, and his omission from Chelsea’s Champions League squad that October posed so many questions that Mourinho ended up storming out of a press conference. By the January 2014 transfer window, Germany’s biggest clubs were sniffing around the Belgian and unsurprisingly, he made an £18m move to Wolfsburg, giving Chelsea around £11m in profit.
The rest, as they say, is history. De Bruyne’s form for Wolfsburg was even better than what he’d displayed for Werder, and his reputation simply soared. 2014/15 saw him make 34 Bundesliga appearances for his new club, and while he scored a reasonably impressive 10 goals, it was another stat that made everyone sit up and take notice of the Prince Harry lookalike – he assisted in 21 goals, breaking a Bundesliga record in the process. De Bruyne was named 2015 Footballer of the Year in Germany, and suddenly he was one of the most wanted players in Europe.
His move to Manchester City – for £55m, a then-British record fee – followed and he’s gone from strength to strength from there, being shortlisted for 2015’s Ballon d’Or, helping Manchester City to the 2015/16 Champions League semi-finals – a first for the club – and since Pep Guardiola’s arrival at Eastlands that summer he’s somehow improved even more.
Which begs the question – how did a club like Chelsea allow a man who developed into one of the world’s best players slip away from under their nose? And who was at fault? Was Jose Mourinho to blame, was it the Chelsea system, or was it partly down to De Bruyne himself?
You can probably rule out the latter. Although De Bruyne has stated that his experiences at Chelsea have made him stronger in the long run, there were never any reports of the Belgian having any attitude problems or issues with training. Nor did his form suddenly improve after his move – he was fantastic at Genk and at Werder too, and simply continued to improve once he reached Wolfsburg and finally City, just as you’d expect a young player to do.
Mourinho, however, is a manager who has gained a reputation for being cynical of youth players throughout his career, and due to his win-at-all-costs attitude, he’s often been guilty of being unable to see the forest for the trees; the point being that he’d rather go out and spend big money on a proven talent than take a risk on a young player who may be ready for the big time. Chelsea lost out on Romelu Lukaku due to this and de Bruyne definitely fits the same narrative.
But then, the same thing could be argued to be happening all over again with the Blues, even though Mourinho has now been gone for close to two seasons. This summer, standout youth talent Nathaniel Chalobah was sold to Watford for a cut-price £5m after finding no opportunities to break into the first team, only to see Chelsea sign Tiemoue Bakayoko – only slightly more proven, but for a huge fee. And despite Chelsea loanee Tammy Abraham currently scoring goals for Swansea, the talk is already that the Blues may spend up to £65m for Leicester’s Jamie Vardy in January rather than wait for Abraham to return.
Simply put, the problem is not with a single manager but with Chelsea’s use – and potential abuse – of the loan system. And while it may spring up the odd success, like Thibaut Courtois, more times than not it ends up with a story similar to De Bruyne’s – that being, a young player who performs well for his loan club, but just can’t break into the first team due to the club’s penchant for signing players with big reputations for big fees, rather than trusting in what they have already.
Does it even matter for Chelsea? Some would argue not. De Bruyne gave them £11m of profit; Lukaku fetched even more than that. And although they ended up missing out on a pair who have developed into two of Europe’s most talented players, Chelsea can simply sign whoever they wish anyway, meaning both were simply replaced.
It may matter in the end, however, if Manchester City are able to capture the Premier League title and tear the trophy away from Stamford Bridge – with De Bruyne leading the title charge, as he’s expected to do so. That would be both poetic revenge for De Bruyne himself, but it’d also be a condemnation in the finest way of the Chelsea system. Maybe this would finally make the club open their eyes?