Kevin de Bruyne struggled to make an impact at the World Cup – and ensuring he avoids a hangover from Belgium’s failure will give Pep Guardiola arguably the toughest job when the Premier League returns
When the World Cup is over and elite club football restarts, managers of Qatar 2022 players will earn their considerable corn. Make no mistake, there will be different reactions from different characters to relative success or failure at this tournament.
You will be reading of such-and-such a footballer suffering from a World Cup hangover, for sure. Antonio Conte, for example, will be having a close look at Harry Kane, whose penalty miss against the French will take some getting over.
Every manager of club squads that have provided a lot of players for Qatar 2022 will be in the same boat when it comes to judging how much mental and physical rest someone will need before being thrown back into the hurly-burly of the Premier League, La Liga, the Bundesliga, Ligue 1, etc, etc. And Pep Guardiola will have as tough a job as any.
Not only will his five England players – John Stones, Kyle Walker, Kalvin Phillips, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish – return dispirited after that heart-breaking quarter-final defeat, his main man, Kevin de Bruyne, will have to put behind him one of the worst couple of weeks of his career.
Many of the world’s best failed to light up this tournament and that happens every four years. Not every galactico can shine. But, perhaps, there was no blue-chip star who had as little impact on Qatar 2022 as De Bruyne, the man who came third in the Ballon D’or voting for 2022.
The recriminations over his contribution to Belgium’s hugely disappointing group stage exit are still being chewed over in his homeland. From the moment the 31-year-old said in a pre-tournament interview that this generation of Belgian players was “too old” to win the World Cup, he has carried a lot of the can for the under-performance in Qatar.
Former Belgian winger Jan Cuelemans said: “What kind of leader belittles his own team-mates? I think he is not even in the top ten Belgian players I have seen.”
Extremely harsh but there is no disputing De Bruyne had a stinker at Qatar 2022 even though, bizarrely, he was given the official Man of the Match award after Belgium had scraped a lucky win over Canada. In the defeat to Morocco, De Bruyne lost the ball 28 times and had no touches in the opposition penalty area.
De Bruyne had no goal involvements at this World Cup and a 68 percent pass accuracy rating that is startlingly low compared to his Premier League numbers. And that, of course, could be the simple truth. For some reason or other, international football might not suit his style and his mentality in the way that club football obviously does.
Or tournament football, being in camp away from his family – he has three young children and in that pre-tournament interview, stressed that family life was his be-all and end-all away from the pitch – might be a struggle for him. It clearly looked that way, judging by his demeanour out here in Qatar.
There was talk – denied by Thibaut Courtois – that De Bruyne was at the centre of a bust-up between certain factions with the squad. And there is now speculation that, after 97 caps, De Bruyne might be considering international retirement. That is difficult to imagine but it would not bother the City hierarchy or their fans.
Although De Bruyne himself might not be too ecstatic about his return of three Premier League goals so far this season, he again leads the assist table, with six. And he will obviously be key to City reining in Arsenal, who have a five-point lead, over the last 24 games of the Premier League season, not to mention spearheading Guardiola’s quest for a first Champions League trophy with the Manchester club.
But of all the managers who will need to give their players a lift following this unique World Cup, Guardiola might just have the toughest job.