The creative brilliance of Kevin De Bruyne was conspicuous by its absence at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, but the Manchester City superstar was back to his absolute brilliant best on Thursday as the catalyst in the 3-2 win over Liverpool in the Carabao Cup.
The midfielder cut a frustrated figure in Qatar as his side were surprisingly eliminated in the group stage. De Bruyne did not hold back in his criticism of his national team squad, declaring them 'too old' to challenge for the ultimate prize in a clear sign that it was an unhappy camp.
End of an unhappy era for Kevin De Bruyne's Belgium
“No chance, we’re too old,” said Kevin De Bruyne at a press conference following the narrow victory over Canada in the opening game. “I think our chance was 2018. We have a good team, but it is ageing. We lost some key players. We have some good new players coming, but they are not at the level other players were in 2018. I see us more as outsiders.”
Belgium manager Roberto Martínez took the side to the semifinals in 2018, but he confirmed that he would not be staying in charge after the tournament. Having been in position since 2016, the Catalan coach has overseen a period of significant progress. Combining his role with that of technical director meant that he carried complete responsibility for the short and long-term future of the Red Devils.
"Yes, that was my last game,” said Martínez. “It has been six years. I arrived with the clear idea of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. Then we became so engaged with the project and won a bronze medal. I'm so proud of these players. It has been amazing. It has been six years where we've been able to do everything you want to do. The team has played and given people real joy. But this is the time for me to accept [it is over]. I don't resign. It's the end of my contract.”
Belgium's golden generation fail to deliver
There's no doubt that Roberto Martínez was blessed with a golden generation of talent during his tenure, and Kevin De Bruyne headlined a list of illustrious names. A key player for Manchester City since his arrival at the Etihad in 2015, he has established himself as one of the greatest players in the Premier League era. He's one genius Pep Guardiola would struggle to replace.
Consistently brilliant for Manchester City, De Bruyne showed every ounce of his talent on Thursday evening. Creating two goals and acting as the creative catalyst to every attacking move, his freedom to roam was in direct contrast to the shackles of Belgium's tactical shape and system. Guardiola unlocked him from his cage on Thursday night.
There was no surprise to see De Bruyne perform like he did against Liverpool. What was surprising is that we didn't see anything like the best of him in Qatar. Of course, he was not the only global star to underperform on the world stage, but such genius must be managed in the right way.
Argentina won the World Cup thanks to Lionel Messi. Manager Lionel Scaloni built a tactical shape around him and allowed Messi the freedom to perform to his best. Guardiola has also had the privilege of managing Messi and treated him in the same way, the only way, and in the same way that he now brings the best out of De Bruyne.
A team built around brilliance
What is significantly different is that Lionel Messi was clearly enjoying his football with Argentina, despite the shock opening defeat to Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Kevin De Bruyne was a red flag to the issues that were clearly plaguing the Belgian changing room. As he closes in on a century of international appearances at the age of 31, the next appointment will be crucial for De Bruyne's future with the national team.
Watching De Bruyne at his best is a privilege. His delivery and vision are unmatched, while his determination to win when he's afforded the freedom he needs to perform means Guardiola continues to build his team around him. He has competition for his position, but De Bruyne embraces the challenge and raises his game each time.
The world stage deserves to see the best of players like Kevin De Bruyne. Belgium captain Eden Hazard announced his international retirement after the tournament having also failed to reach the highs of his own club career with his country. The successor to Roberto Martínez will inherit a rebuilding project in a period of significant transition for Belgium.
Meanwhile, Kevin De Bruyne will be performing to his best in the colours of Manchester City as they continue their push for an unprecedented quadruple of the Premier League, FA Cup, Carabao Cup and Guardiola's holy grail of the UEFA Champions League. The Belgian will once again be a pivotal player to what his side achieve.
The key decision for De Bruyne will come in March when the qualifying campaign for EURO 2024 begins for Belgium against Sweden. While he deserves to reach a century of appearances for his country, he will not compromise on club success to make this personal milestone if the appointment of the next national team manager doesn't suit his style of play.
Time of transition for Belgium
The fallout of the World Cup for Belgium will be the accelerated change their early exit has prompted both on and off the field. A new era will now begin for the Red Devils, and they will be desperate for Kevin De Bruyne to play a key role in this period of transition.
Belgium will hope that the player getting back to his best with Manchester City with immediate effect will eradicate the sour taste of what happened in Qatar before international football returns in March. If not, he could become Belgium's biggest regret.
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