Kevin De Bruyne’s flash of old-school magic leaves Chelsea spellbound

Put out more flags. Book in the ticker-tape cannon. Prepare, once again, to be long-range triumphant. Make a nice cup of tea and perhaps everyone else will be along in a moment.

At the final whistle here there was a heartfelt staccato cheer around those swooping cantilevered stands. Fists were clenched, seats vacated, aisles filled, the moment locked in.

It would be churlish to suggest that the home fans failed to appear suitably wowed, zapped or gripped with ecstasies at the realisation, two weeks into January, that this was pretty much it, another Premier League title all-but-lassoed in by a measured victory against a Chelsea team billed (it says here) as Manchester City’s closest challengers.

In the event Chelsea played out most of this game like a high-grade FA Cup minnow in search of a lucrative replay. But then, this is where we are now, the pitch of sustained performance attained by this brilliantly relentless sky-blue machine. The strangest thing about the table isn’t City’s 13-point lead, but the bit that states they have apparently lost two games along the way. Veramente? Can we factcheck this? Can we have a deep dive into exactly when and how this happened?

This meeting of first v second boiled down into a kind of slow-burn tactical arm-wrestle, a struggle for space decided by a startling moment of thrust from perhaps the most interesting player in City’s ranks.

Kevin De Bruyne is an unusual presence in some ways. He has the standard broad portfolio of roles, from deep midfield to false nine. But one of his key strands is a kind of throwback role, something from the 1990s: the rampage-midfielder, the Gerrard-archetype, the knees-high, shooting powerhouse who drives from box to box, shoots from distance, Captain Marvels around the place and who might, in a Pep Guardiola team, seem a little risky and out of kilter.

Not, anche se, when you can do it like this. It was that De Bruyne surge, that old-school dance move that broke this game open after 75 minutes on a mild, damp, misty day in Manchester that had seemed to be congealing into stalemate.

“We will hunt them down and make them underperform,” Thomas Tuchel had announced before kick-off, che è, se nient'altro, expert pre-match fighting talk. We will do such things. They will be terrors of the Earth. But what would those things be?

Tuchel’s plan, his depth charges, the bombs dropped on this City system, turned out to be a kind of cold porridge of strangulation. Everyone has a plan until you stand slightly too close to them and nibble their ankles. For much of the first half those two banks of blue pushed up against one another, leaving no space, no air.

At times there were groans around as City repeatedly made space but seemed to lack something simple: a body in the right space to finish, an urge to cross the ball. It is tempting to crave these old-school comforts when City are bogged down by an opponent like this. Would Chris Wood make a difference? Should Guardiola revise his plan, tear up the playbook, go “proper”, instruct his wingers to bomb in the crosses? Then again, City are 13 points clear, così, sai.

But someone needed to do something. It was De Bruyne who found that moment with the decisive intervention that will look, in isolation, like an old-school moment of surge-power but which was in reality a case of waiting, waiting some more, and being able to see that single opening when it came.

João Cancelo laid the ball inside and suddenly De Bruyne was in space between those tightly knit lines. He felt it instantly and began to surge, legs pumping, bouncing off N’Golo Kanté, who also read it but was just the wrong side.

De Bruyne knows this pathway to goal, has something in his stride, the picture his brain conjures at these moments, the way he starts to see the arc of the shot, to angle his body four steps ahead. He veered inside, unobstructed, with time to nudge the ball into his path and, with a full sight of the goal, curl the shot into the far corner. Kepa Arrizabalaga dived and, for form’s sake, raised an arm a little sadly, but his only real function here was to act as a kind of usher, a ground crew member semaphoring the ball into the corner of the Chelsea net.

De Bruyne left the pitch with five minutes to go, like a grandee being wheeled away by his retinue, applauded on all sides, race run, bath chair calling. For much of the second half he looked a little puce and drained of breath.

It has been seven years now for De Bruyne at City, six of them under Guardiola. He seems, as he enters his 30s, a little more distinct, a more stately figure. But he had four shots at goal here, the same number as the entire Chelsea playing staff, made four dribbles, more than anyone else on the pitch, and provided the single outstanding moment of a game that became the first step on the victory lap.

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