Early in the 2011-2012 season, Racing Genk’s Dutch coach Mario Been warned Kevin De Bruyne about signing for a big club only to rot on the bench. De Bruyne should have been so lucky. Been’s prophecy has come true but the young midfielder has not even made the Chelsea bench in most games and he’s been rotting in the stands at grounds around England.José Mourinho has hardly selected De Bruyne this season but he’s mentioned him favourably at a couple of press conferences. As for the young Belgian, he was hoping for more than tea and sympathy. No coach is obliged to select a player of course and Chelsea do have a surfeit of midfield players – central and wide – on their books. I did a recent headcount and stopped at 14, and that was before I reached Josh McEachran.
When De Bruyne was about to sign for Chelsea in January 2012, the then coach Andre Villas-Boas said it was not his idea. One wonders who exactly is pulling the strings at Stamford Bridge. Since De Bruyne signed on for Chelsea, the club has brought in Oscar, Andre Schurrle, Marco Van Ginkel, Eden Hazard and Willian; now they are on the brink of signing Inter’s midfielder Fredy Guarin. OK, there’s some deadwood in the first team but it’s hard to see any cohesive strategy.
But back to De Bruyne. Chelsea fans seem to be in two camps. In the first are those who admire the player and feel he’s not been given a fair chance; the rest say he was rubbish against Swindon and Sunderland and should be sent packing. It’s not just a Chelsea thing however; when Belgium recently lost two friendlies in Brussels, Marc Wilmots said his main problem was the number of players not getting regular matches. He probably had De Bruyne at the forefront of his mind.
The turning point of Belgium’s triumphant World Cup qualifying campaign was the 2-0 win in Serbia. Two players were instrumental in that victory: Thibaut Courtois and De Bruyne. The former has made a name for himself by avoiding Stamford Bridge while the latter returned to London in July – after success in the Bundesliga – to try and force his way into the team.
It’s not worked out and Chelsea fans have seen nothing of the player who scored 18 goals and had 23 assists in his last two seasons at Genk and Werder Bremen. When he was playing in youth football, De Bruyne was a number ‘10’ and he only started his professional career on the wing as Frankie Vercauteren didn’t want to disturb his central midfield. Nowadays the two-footed De Bruyne can function as a ‘6’, ’7’, ‘8’, ‘10’ or ‘11’ but that message has not reached the Chelsea staff.
The one incontrovertible fact is that De Bruyne is a determined fighter. At the age of eight, De Bruyne decided by himself to leave his local club and join Gent. Later, aged 14, he felt that a move to Racing Genk would improve his career chances. He didn’t make friends that way and he does have a reputation of being someone not afraid to speak his mind.
His move to Genk – living away from home – was tough but De Bruyne stuck it out and succeeded by breaking into the first team aged 17. He famously told Israeli international Elyaniv Barda to bring in the cones after one training session, feeling that the senior player was not pulling his weight. By his standards, therefore, De Bruyne has been remarkably restrained about his lack of opportunities at Chelsea. This is probably due to the influence of his agent – Patrick De Koster.
Certainly Wilmots wants De Bruyne to be playing regular football ahead of the World Cup. The Chelsea midfielder was arguably Belgium’s main outfield player in the qualifiers – with four goals and five assists. But it wasn’t just the statistics that spoke for him, De Bruyne’s enthusiasm and sheer love of the game typified the team’s fighting spirit.
In one sense it’s hard to blame Chelsea for De Bruyne’s plight. The Premier League is full of clubs aiming to buy success by signing on players regardless of the makeup of their current squads. Many players are happy to accept time on the bench – if they are lucky – but De Bruyne just wants to play football.
Mario Been warned him about rotting at a big club and De Bruyne didn’t heed those words. That was no doubt because he had the confidence to feel he could succeed; and self-belief is a key element of any successful career. One hopes that De Bruyne’s confidence will not have been too dented when he moves on – as seems highly likely – in the coming transfer window.