Kevin De Bruyne shrugs at a comparison with Zinedine Zidane, purveying an unostentatious approach to being likened to the Real Madrid coach when he once graced the game as a player – and acclaimed among the world’s best right now.
With poise, a powerful stride, technique, vision and passing and shooting skills that often defy belief, the Manchester City midfielder’s style is reminiscent of the legendary Frenchman.
“I don’t know about that,” said De Bruyne. “It’s nice when people say this kind of [positive] stuff. It means I am doing good – and that’s about it.”
The modest response is indicative of De Bruyne’s mindset, focus and attitude. Down to earth off the pitch, driven on it.
It appears plaudits won’t change his personality, nor the will to win and approach in trying to produce football that ranks alongside the finest.
“Maybe yes I am playing my best football, but it’s so difficult to say,” De Bruyne told Sport360 exclusively.
“It depends how you look at football. If you look at my football in general, as a complete player, I probably am.
“But some people like more the purity of football, some people like the statistics. It doesn’t matter. I feel good, I feel I can help my team and that’s about it.”
It is not just the glorious assists, 15 of them – becoming the first in Premier League history to provide 15 and more in three different campaigns – or goals, seven of them, that have defined De Bruyne’s quality this season, and ever since his £55 million arrival from Wolfsburg in 2015.
But it is his leadership too.
Pressing, probing, hustling, heroic, the brilliant Belgian has often been City’s driving force, setting the high standards for others to follow and pushing them to fulfillment.
“That’s how I play,” said the 28-year-old, a strong contender to captain City next season after David Silva leaves this summer.
“I still have a lot of energy and I think it’s important for the way we play. We play pressing and if I give the example the team will follow. That’s the only thing I believe.
“Now I’m like one of the older players and you have to set the example. The way you play on the pitch shows what the intentions are.
“Everyone makes mistakes, nobody is perfect, but I always try to do the things I need to do. I know the young guys will follow.
“I think it’s the right way to show yourself as a professional and help the team, to help push them as winners.
“If you want to play for a team like City then you want to win.
“I think it’s something I had always. I think I was even worse when I was younger, always wanted to win, and you think about it more after the game.”
The arrival of children, Mason, 3, and one-year-old Rome, with wife Michele, has also helped provide De Bruyne with a different perspective on footballing fortunes.
“Before I had family it was just football,” he added. “Now sometimes it’s easier to deal with it. If you lose a game or play badly, then you go home and see your kids and it’s a different feeling.
“In the end we work very hard and we know other teams are really good – and in the end if you do what you have to do and lose sometimes, then that’s just the way it is.
“I don’t think anything is different from last year really [in our desire]. We know where we are in the league, we work hard and just try to win every game. This year we lost some games, lost some points, but we just take it how it is and that’s because the other teams are good – and that’s it.”
Only three players have been directly involved in 20+ goals in the Premier League this season:— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 1, 2020
🇧🇪 Kevin De Bruyne (22)
🏴 Jamie Vardy (21)
🇪🇬 Mohamed Salah (20)
The Egyptian King joins the list. pic.twitter.com/h7MF7mz2fR
The ‘other teams’ are namely Liverpool, leading champions City in the league by 22 points in an unbeaten campaign so far and well on course for a first top-flight title since 1990.
But there is still much at stake for De Bruyne and City as they face a League Cup final date with Aston Villa, a trip to Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup fifth round and Zidane’s Real in the last 16 of the Champions League.
The Spanish side, who host the first leg on February 26, have won the competition 13 times and three times in Zidane’s first spell in charge from 2016-18.
Having become English football’s most successful club over the past decade in domestic competition, City would no doubt love to create the same storied history in Europe.
“Yeah, but it’s difficult.” added De Bruyne, who faces west ham on Sunday – the club he scored against on his City debut in September 2015. “Obviously it’s a different tradition. City are an old club and on another path, but the path that this club has taken, we are now writing history for ourselves.
“People talk about what happened 30-40 years ago, but what we do right now is a good thing and the only thing we can do as players.
“In the end it would be nice if people are talking about how special this team was, but, at the moment when you play the game, you don’t really care.
“You want to be remembered as something good later on, but yeah, what is that? For everyone that’s different.
“There are seven billion people and if someone likes you for your attitude, for your skills, for the way you work, it doesn’t matter.
“What do I want to be remembered for? Winning, love for the game, for my family. It’s not pressure, but you want to do well for everyone around you, make yourself a better person, a better example to the world and better for your kids and your family.”
Keeping his family happy is also key to De Bruyne’s future.
Signing a new contract to keep him at the Etihad until 2023 was a “pretty easy” decision for him and, despite links with Real and Barcelona, he feels City are a perfect fit.
Do you wish you could play like a pro?@BrendonNetto uses @Wyscout to break down Kevin De Bruyne's devastating crossing ability and explains how you can emulate the Man City star.. #MCFC— Sport360° (@Sport360) November 19, 2019
“I feel comfortable because this is the club I have played for the longest apart from Genk, but that was because I was in the youths, so that was different,” said De Bruyne, who left Genk after seven years in 2012 for a frustrating spell at Chelsea, where he also spent a season on loan at Werder Bremen before joining Wolfsburg in 2014.
“But I feel comfortable here because I’m happy here. I play at one of the best teams in the world, one of the best leagues in the world and my family is settled, my kids are happy. So it makes it more comfortable.
“If one of these things wasn’t in place it would give you stress, but I don’t have that stress at the moment. I feel relaxed and feel I can focus on what I need to do to be ready.”
And he will relish the tough test against Real – and a potential reunion with compatriot Eden Hazard, who is hoping to return for the tie after an ankle injury.
“I played against him when he was at Lille, when he was at Chelsea, so I have played with him and against him. It’s 90 minutes as opponents and then back to being friends.
“With the draw, I don’t think there was a small team we could have had. If you want to win the Champions League you need to beat the best.
“I think this is what you want to play for. You want to play Champions League, World Cups, Euros, all that stuff.
“Obviously it’s something I have not won so maybe subconsciously it’s something that we want more.
“But you want to win everything, League Cup, FA Cup, Champions League, training also – sometimes it’s even worse in training.
“No matter who we play, we respect the opponent and that’s the way we have to do it in every game. Even like Port Vale in the FA Cup [third round], we put out a good team to show we want to win. No matter who we play, no matter which competition, we always want to win.”