Kevin de Bruyne shines as a perfect false forward as Man City await their new No9

Pep Guardiola can be the scourge of the centre-forward, the pioneer who threatens to render them an endangered species. So how better to celebrate signing the world’s most coveted young striker than by presenting an argument that he doesn’t really need him?

Just the second player to score four goals in a Premier League game this season was a Manchester City midfielder, Kevin de Bruyne. Wolves, who had one of the best defensive records in Europe a few weeks ago, conceded five.

Guardiola joked he was disappointed De Bruyne, who also hit the post, did not get five of his own. The only other player on four this year, incidentally, was the City striker who decided he wasn’t a striker, in Gabriel Jesus. He was long seen as Sergio Aguero’s long-term successor; instead, Erling Haaland may belatedly assume that mantle, but only after two seasons when City should win the Premier League without needing a specialist centre-forward in their strongest side.

Haaland offers the potential of 40 goals on his own, but City’s collective commitment to scoring is such that they have 22 in five games. They may yet finish this season with a century in the Premier League, the vast majority from those who can be called midfielders, wingers or No.10s; anything except strikers.

Guardiola celebrated Haaland’s imminent arrival by doubling down on his Pepness. There wasn’t even a semblance of a striker at Molineux. Instead, his bespoke ploy came in duplicate. Why take one false nine to Wolves when you can take two? It was the dual false nine, the false front two, the false 18.


Between them, they are a 20-goal front man: Bernardo Silva had scored seven league goals by early December. De Bruyne has 13 since then. Over the last five months, only Heung-min Son has more top-flight goals than the Belgian.

“The second part of the league [season] was beyond perfect,” Guardiola said. “He is always so generous and has the sense to make an assist but I think this season he also has the sense to be prolific and score goals. We spoke during the years that you have to arrive to the box, to be close to the box and to score, and this is the season he has done better and better.

“Hopefully he can continue for the rest of his career. I have the feeling now he is starting to enjoy scoring goals. Before it was just assists. Now it is he likes it when his teammates come to hug him because he scores.”

There is something Guardiola-esque to it, to converting a technician into a scorer. Last season, it was Ilkay Gundogan’s turn. In winter, Riyad Mahrez had a spell as a goal-a-game man. De Bruyne, with 16 goals and 12 assists in his last 28 starts, has sustained that sort of impact for longer. If everyone in a Guardiola team is a midfielder, De Bruyne is a better midfielder than everyone else.

And, still more than usual, everyone was a midfielder. Haaland, a career centre-forward, may wonder what happens when his next manager goes ultimate Pep. The starting 11 featured a ball-playing goalkeeper, a ball-playing centre-back and nine players who felt midfielders of varying types, from the playmaker full-backs to ‘the Stockport Iniesta’ on the left wing.

It was an advertisement of the merits of playing without a striker, both in terms of potency and positioning. There is a tactical logic when playing against a side who use three central defenders to give them no one to mark, while using wingers high and wide to force them into deploying a back five. It still requires attacking midfielders capable of judging and timing their runs into the box.


“Our front four were able to find the right moments to come in and go deep,” said De Bruyne. He had illustrated it by coming from deep for his first goal. And his second. And his third. And his fourth. “When Bernardo was coming in, I was trying to drop deep and vice versa,” he explained. It meant he could be scorer and supplier, playing a part in the build-up to three of his goals. Perhaps Haaland, the specialist scorer, will not lend that creativity.

He once described his role under Guardiola as a “free eight.” At Molineux, he said his best position was “between a No.8 and a No.10.” He looked liberated. City will soon have a genuine No.9. In the meantime, De Bruyne was deadly as a free false nine.

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