Kevin De Bruyne sheepishly entered the confines of Jose Mourinho’s office, wiping tears off his red rosy cheeks. The then 22 year-old had let emotions get the better of him, breaking down in front of his manager. He just wanted to play football and couldn’t understand why he was tied to a leash.
A few weeks earlier, Mourinho gathered all Chelsea’s attacking midfielders in a circle on the perfectly manicured turf at their Cobham training ground. He compared the statistics of the six players in question and pointed to De Bruyne’s unfavourably. “I simply answered him: ‘Sorry, that’s not logical. I’ve played less games than the others,” De Bruyne said in an interview with the Telegraph last year. “How can you compare me to the others?’ That was just not fair in my eyes.”
According to Mourinho though, the Belgian wasn’t ready for the cutthroat nature at the top level of the sport. He perceived De Bruyne as immature and lacking the ruthless instincts required in his Chelsea team. “He told me he wanted to play every weekend. I told him this is Chelsea, you are very young, you have Eden Hazard, you have Mata, you have Willian, you have Schurrle, and I cannot promise you that.”
Mourinho looked at De Bruyne and identified a player of potential but without the readymade tools to succeed at that moment. “It was like a wall, a block. He was not ready to compete. He was an upset kid, training very badly.” When the winter transfer window opened in January 2014, Mourinho and the club allowed him to leave for a fee of £20 million.
So De Bruyne went to Wolfsburg and was instantly one of the best players in Germany. He was a revelation in Lower Saxony, tormenting Bundesliga defences with a combination of speed, trickery and his unnervingly accurate right foot. That summer, he was one of Belgium’s rare rays of sunshine in an otherwise gloomy World Cup. In January 2015, just under a year after he was deemed unsuitable for the highest level by Mourinho, De Bruyne utterly destroyed one of Europe’s very best sides Bayern Munich.
In 18 months with Die Wolfe, De Bruyne scored 20 goals and assisted a further 28. He was voted footballer of the year in Germany, was named in France Football’s best XI in Europe for 2015 and won the DFB Pokal for his side. Wolfsburg coach Dieter Hecking was gushing in his praise as it seemed inevitable he would be on his way. “Kevin is a player the world wants. Even if our days together should not continue, I would already now like to wish him all the best.”
Eyebrows were raised when Manchester City paid a club record £55 million for De Bruyne, not least at Stamford Bridge where Mourinho found himself under fire and rowing backwards on the decision to allow him leave. “I wanted to keep him and he told me that it was not in his personality to be competing for a position in the team. He needed a team where he knows he can play every game. So I was not happy when he left.”
Manuel Pellegrini didn’t share the concerns of his adversary. In his initial games at City, it appeared as if De Bruyne had rejuvenated an ageing team. Many of City’s players downed tools in the second half of the season, but his injury also curtailed their chances of keeping tabs on improbable champions Leicester City. It isn’t a coincidence that City’s run to a Champions League semi-final coincided with De Bruyne’s return, as he grabbed the decisive goal against Paris Saint Germain in the last eight.
Fast forward a few months and De Bruyne has carried on where he left off. It would have been intriguing to gauge Mourinho’s reaction as he witnessed at close proximity De Bruyne carving through his Manchester United defence like a juicer blending through soft fruit. The first ever player/coach cam split screen would have been an immediate ratings winner, watching the United manager’s glazed eyes on the numerous occasions De Bruyne drifted unopposed into the chasm left by Paul Pogba. Mourinho had more pressing concerns in the immediate aftermath of their derby defeat, but the guy he voluntarily allowed leave two years ago looked every inch the footballer he couldn’t envision.
At the weekend, De Bruyne was involved in three of City’s four goals against Bournemouth and earned man of the match honours again. He scored with a crafty free-kick, expertly placed under the leaping defensive wall. De Bruyne has already left a lasting impression on his new coach Pep Guardiola. “Messi is on a table on his own. No-one else is allowed. But the table beside, Kevin can sit there. He is one of the best, there is no doubt about that. We are lucky to have him.”
To refresh back to the beginning again, the irony of Mourinho’s stats debrief is that in the near three years since De Bruyne left West London, he has both scored and assisted more goals than Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian. Of course, Chelsea as a club are culpable for this as well. Their willingness to circumnavigate financial fair play rules by flogging youth graduates on loan or permanently to compensate for spending on expensive targets was bound to get returned with interest at some point.
So in summation, Mourinho’s impatience, aligned with Chelsea’s short-termism has diminished their own team, whilst arming a direct rival who in turn are leaving the Portuguese’s new club behind. It’s amusing how life works out sometimes.