Questions were asked of Pep Guardiola when he named one of his most creative influences among the substitutes at Norwich on Saturday.
That decision backfired, with City suffering a shock 3-2 defeat at Carrow Road.
De Bruyne played down any suggestion afterwards that his benching contributed to a rare setback, but he was returned to the starting XI for midweek Champions League duty.
The 28-year-old starred against Shakhtar as Guardiola’s side ran out comfortable 3-0 winners.
Former City star Zabaleta believes a selection pointer has now been hammered home, with it clear that a Belgium international should be among the first names on the team sheet.
He told BT Sport: "Good to see some of the players like Kevin De Bruyne. You see what he brings to that team, he was just absolutely outstanding.
"We usually see two or three assists from him or maybe goals but what he brings on the ball and off the ball is just fantastic so he really makes a difference.
"He has to play every single game at the moment."
De Bruyne was used in a slightly different role against Shakhar to that which he is accustomed to.
Rather than operating in a three-man midfield, the Belgian was asked to push forward and influenced proceedings from a No.10 post just behind lone frontman Gabriel Jesus.
Zabaleta, who spent nine memorable years at City before leaving in 2017, added: "Normally when they play a 4-3-3 formation, he [De Bruyne] always plays on the inside but in this game it looked at times like it was a 4-4-2.
"The picture is just perfect and you see Kevin de Bruyne playing like a striker. Normally we see him play deeper and just play through balls and that but I think he was in a different position, further forward on the pitch.
"He’s a player who can adapt to different positions. And with all the runs he does, his work-rate off the ball is fantastic."
De Brunye struggled with a series of niggling knocks in 2018-19, which severely restricted his game time, but he is back to fitness now and clearly closing in on full match sharpness.