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De Bruyne may have solved City's biggest Premier League problem

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Kevin De Bruyne was up to his usual attacking tricks at Newcastle on Sunday, threading unlikely passes through to David Silva and unerringly finding the corner of the net from the penalty spot.

But the Belgian was sitting unusually deep at St James' Park, and that role could be a strong solution for Manchester City when they face teams who defend in depth and counter-attack them.

De Bruyne is at his most eye-catching when leading the press, his dynamic style forcing errors, and then making runs down the channels created by City's touchline-huggng wide players.

But in the FA Cup quarter-final, he was almost forming a double pivot with Ilkay Gundogan, the two of them ensuring City had the midfield completely clamped down.

It is not the first time Pep Guardiola has asked De Bruyne to play a much deeper role - the Catalan switched him from a right-sided attacking role to the number eight position he now normally occupies, effectively making him the man who turns defence into attack for the Blues, but also forms the first line of defence when the ball is lost.

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That is the De Bruyne who has become world-class in the last three or four seasons, a player who attacks and defends in equal amounts.

But this season City have been exposed by the counter-attack more than in the last two campaigns.

Part of that is down to the lack of a dominant central defender, with Aymeric Laporte absent through injury, and partly it is down to the lack of pace in the defence, especially as Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy both push high up the pitch.

City have slow centre backs in Nicolas Otamendi, Eric Garcia and - to a lesser extent - Fernandinho and John Stones, while the cover is provided by Rodri or Gundogan, both of whom are not blessed with pace.

City have been vulnerable to counter-attacks all season

Those shortcomings have been repeatedly, and brutally, exposed by teams this season, and that provides a major reason why Liverpool have won the title without being seriously challenged.

Of course, Guardiola has tried to deal with the problem before, usually by tightening the noose around the opposition and restricting the counters.

Last season at Anfield he played Bernardo Silva in a withdrawn role, clearly out of respect for the counter-attacking capabilities of Mo Salah and Sadio Mane.

De Bruyne has also occasionally been asked to curb his attacking instincts for the team, but never so effectively as he did at Newcastle.

In November, City dropped another two precious points in the north east, as the fleet-footed Allan St Maximin persistently led driving counter-attacks from his own half, scattering nervous defenders every time he got on the ball.

The Geordies were hoping he could do a similar job in the cup tie.

But the first time the flying Frenchman got the ball, De Bruyne pounced, muscled him off it and set City back on the attack.

It became a common sight, and Newcastle's only recourse was to hoof it long for Andy Carroll, an isolated figure who was hassled out of his stride by Otamendi and Laporte.

Playing deeper does not mean De Bruyne is curtailed as an attacking force. Indeed, the given reason for him playing deeper against Newcastle is that City were up against a five-man defence.

So, rather than seeking out gaps to dash through, the Belgian knew he would get time on the ball by sitting in front of a ten-man defence and picking his passes.

With David Silva finding space between the ranks of opposition defenders and midfielders, and Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling giving wider options, De Bruyne was given the kind of time and space that players of his class know how to use.

If Newcastle wanted to disrupt the way he and Gundogan dictated the rhythm and tempo of the game, they would need to break ranks to chase him down, and that could be fatal.

So, against a counter-attacking team, De Bruyne was a key defender without losing much of his attacking threat. Guardiola has used the system before, but rarely so effectively, and it could be the way forward for the rest of this season.




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