Kevin De Bruyne injury: Manchester City’s star still has a lot to offer despite recurrent hamstring problems

There is a familiar narrative into which Kevin De Bruyne’s latest hamstring injury fits. The muscles start to strain as a decade-plus of intense action wears them down. Eventually, the confidence to test your body slips just an iota, the body taking an instant longer to do what your mind can still perceive in a flash, and before you know it, you’re not the player you were.

It is easy to see that sort of future on the horizon for the 32-year-old, who may not play again in 2023 after limping out 28 minutes into Manchester City’s season opener with a recurrence of the hamstring issue that forced him off in the Champions League final in June. Speaking on Tuesday, Pep Guardiola offered a worrying assessment of a player who, even in the Erling Haaland era, remains City’s best.

“It’s serious – a big blow, really tough for us,” he said. “We have to decide whether he has surgery or no surgery, but it will be a few months out. In the next days we will decide on surgery. The injury is a big loss, Kevin has specific qualities. You can lose him for one or two games but for a long time it’s really tough for us. But you have to look forward.”

Guardiola meant that in terms of the City squad, but it is hard not to project forward where De Bruyne is concerned too, to assume that the ever growing injury list in his past must lie in his future as well. That is eminently plausible. The track record particularly worrisome. Since the start of the 2020-21 season the Belgium international has had 10 different injury issues that have forced him to miss a combined 35 matches for club and country, according to Transfermarkt. In among that group are eminently more hamstring and other muscular issues than City would want to see. The specific problem sidelining him now dates all the way back to April.

Will his absence hamper City? Perhaps, though in every season since 2016, Guardiola’s men have won the league when De Bruyne has played fewer than 30 league games. There is far, far more correlation in that fact than causation, but as fellow midfielder Rodri noted, this is a team that is well set up to weather any injury storm. “He has to recover and we’re going to miss him,” said the Spain international, “but at the same time, we have a very complete squad to play without him for the time he is away.” Rodri hinted he would like to see Phil Foden step infield, Guardiola did not rule out that option but he could well have alternate options with City working on deals for Rennes winger Jeremy Doku and Lucas Paqueta, who, when he started to get his head around the Premier League late last season with West Ham, had the look of the sort of player you might sign to cover for De Bruyne.

While rival clubs will naturally hope that a De Bruyne injury heralds a downswing year for City, they would do well not to assume that their tormentor in chief over recent years is a spent force. After all, while he was carrying that hamstring issue in the final weeks of last season he was still logging big minutes, still tearing Premier League defenses to shreds. De Bruyne delivered the same 23 goal involvements in 2022-23 that he had the previous season, though unsurprisingly the pendulum swung dramatically towards assists given that he was now playing alongside Haaland.

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According to some creative metrics, De Bruyne was more devastating last term than he was when many would argue he hit his overall peak, the 2019-20 campaign when he became the first Manchester City player to be named PFA Player of the Year. In that season he averaged 1.06 big chances created per 90 minutes (a brain-defying output that was superior to both Norwich and Crystal Palace in their entirety). In 2022-23 he hit 1.15. He would have sat 13th in a table of the Premier League teams that created the most chances per game. He did all that across 2,425 minutes, a sizeable total for any attacking midfielder in Guardiola’s squad. Similarly De Bruyne bettered his 2019-20 mark for passes into the penalty area and though he wasn’t averaging as many assists, expected or actual, in both categories he was notably up on the two intervening seasons. 

For all that the injuries make you worried about what is around the corner for one of the Premier League’s greatest ever players, there is nothing from his output on the pitch to suggest he is on the sort of downslope you would expect of a 32 year old just starting his 12th season as a regular player in one of Europe’s big five leagues. Time will come for De Bruyne, as it does every footballer, but if he can get back on the pitch then there is plenty more to give.