Man City's De Bruyne dilemma: How will Guardiola cope without 'irreplaceable' assist king?

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Kevin De Bruyne

Just when it appeared that Manchester City's title charge was about to click back into 'almost unstoppable' mode, Pep Guardiola's men have suffered a significant blow.

Losing someone like Kevin De Bruyne for any length of time would be a major setback in any season, but in a schedule impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, a possible six-week interruption could see the Belgian playmaker miss as many as 12 matches, including Premier League trips to Liverpool and Arsenal, as well as the Champions League first leg against Borussia Monchengladbach.

Even the potentially pivotal clash with Manchester United on March 6 may come too soon for De Bruyne.

"You have to know that I’m going to miss Kevin a lot," Guardiola told reporters on Friday. "We’re going to miss him a lot, he’s almost irreplaceable with the quality he has.

"He was nominated the best player in the Premier League last season, so we all know how good he is.

"But, at the same time, if you want to win important titles, you need things that are also irreplaceable: the charisma that the team can have, the commitment, the relationship between all the stars in the locker room. You cannot win titles without respect between the players."

De Bruyne is City's creator in chief, their Premier League assist king.

Even in a campaign when the goal count has dipped considerably – 19 fewer than the 50 they had scored at the same stage of last season's Premier League – he was on target to beat his own assists record (20), having racked up 10 in 18 games.

But Guardiola is not about to sit around moping about the loss of such a talented player, and will not sacrifice any of the four competitions City are competing in. 

And rightly so. Guardiola has numerous options available to him as he looks to ensure City cope with the loss of their influential playmaker.

Build around Bernardo

City's last title, in 2018-19, was won largely without De Bruyne, who missed half the season with a number of minor injury setbacks.

And it was Bernardo Silva who filled the creative void with a relentless display of innovation mixed with industry that earned him Guardiola's pick for player of the season after helping City claim all three domestic trophies.

The Portuguese international isn't a like-for-like for replacement – no player on the planet can match De Bruyne's remarkable passing and vision.

Manchester City GFXGoal

But Silva can still pick an assist and unlock defences with his dribbling, and he made 15 goal contributions when City pipped Liverpool to the title by a point two years ago.

Last season, he struggled to replicate his form but Guardiola argued after the midweek win over Aston Villa that Silva is now reproducing his very best form.

“He’s back, he struggled last season, maybe because of the lack of minutes I gave him,” Guardiola said.

This would certainly be the perfect time for Silva to shine again.

Foden to the fore

Phil Foden has long been touted as the long-term successor to David Silva and was one of the reasons why City didn't sign a replacement when the Spaniard left in the summer.

But the Academy graduate has spent the majority of his playing time this season further up the pitch as an attacking wideman rather than as a No.10.

Playing in that creative position, particularly under Guardiola, comes with huge responsibility and experience is seen as key.

In recent weeks, Foden has become a bigger factor in the former Barcelona boss' tactical thinking and it was notable that when City were still chasing the opening goal in the 2-0 win over Villa, it was Raheem Sterling who was taken off – not the 20-year-old.

Manchester City GFXGoal

Guardiola has also hinted that Academy players may get the opportunity to impress in the FA Cup, starting with Saturday's fourth-round clash away to League Two outfit Cheltenham Town.

And the City boss has a number of exciting young players pushing for inclusion as attacking midfielders.

Cole Palmer showed his quality earlier in the season when he made an impressive debut in the Carabao Cup victory away to Burnley.

FA Youth Cup-winning captain Tommy Doyle is another regular around the first team, while James McAtee is quickly gathering admirers with the Under-18s.

Three at the back

Guardiola has occasionally experimented with three centre-backs and pushed his full-backs further forward to virtually play as wingers.

While he has never persevered with the plan for too long, he suddenly has an embarrassment of riches in defence.

The re-emergence of John Stones and massive impact made by summer signing Ruben Dias have been the biggest stories of City's season so far.

But Guardiola still has Aymeric Laporte – the club's best defender for the past three years – and former Bournemouth ace Nathan Ake in reserve.

Add to that Eric Garcia, who looks like he will remain at the Etihad Stadium until the summer with a Barcelona move delayed, and youngsters Taylor Harwood-Bellis and Luke Mbete-Tabu, and City have plenty of options for a mobile central defence.

Manchester City formation GFXPlaying Surface

With Joao Cancelo showing his adaptability and Benjamin Mendy more trustworthy when shorn of defensive responsibilities, it gives Guardiola another option.

But the City boss says tactics will only get his side so far and believes that other factors will prove more important to their title tilt.

"Quality does not win titles," he said. "It wins games and more games but titles are won because there is something the captains build for the team and everyone accepts it."

Guardiola has lost one captain in De Bruyne, but he has numerous others ready, willing and able to lead the team forward in his absence.