This will be the first of a series of looks at how our loan players did this spring while on loan. While technically he can play again for Genk, Kevin De Bruyne's broken toe means he's done for the remainder of this season. He was a target of ours for about a year prior to his signing in January, and we nearly finalized a deal for him on the last day of the August window. With that in mind, we'll look back at his whole season as opposed to just looking in on how he did since we officially signed him.
De Bruyne started the 2011/12 season with an injury scare, a calf injury so severe many feared he had broken his leg while playing against Lierse back in August. After X-rays confirmed De Bruyne had not suffered a season ending injury, he was quickly back on the pitch and training in anticipation of the club's upcoming UEFA Champions League campaign.
De Bruyne was a clear cut starter from day one for Genk, having firmly established himself as on of the club's two best players in the title winning campaign of the previous season (along with Chelsea purchase Thibaut Courtois). He'd generally play on the left wing for Genk, although occasionally he'd be used on the right wing or shifted to the center of the midfield as the situation dictated the move. He even dropped back into a double pivot occasionally as Genk tried to protect leads, and his long passing looked very impressive. While he'd be excellent anywhere he was played, De Bruyne appeared best suited to play on the wings just due to his ability to control the ball in tight spaces and exceptional crossing. Those traits are hard to find in the modern game.
Between all league, cup, and champions league ties, De Bruyne managed 36 appearances and a whopping 3175 minutes. That's a pretty major workload for a player who still qualified as a U-21 this season. He tallied 13 goals on the season, an exceptional number for a winger. Unfortunately I can't find an accurate number of assists on the season for De Bruyne, but there were plenty of those as well. The Jupiler League doesn't seem to have very solid statistical coverage, although with Belgium quickly becoming a hotbed of talent that may soon change.
De Bruyne has also become a fairly regular part of the Belgian national team in the last year. While he's still only made 2 appearances on the pitch for the side, he's become a regular member of the 18 man squad which is bursting with talent on the wings. I don't think anyone doubts that he'll be a regular contributor when World Cup qualifying begins after the Euros. That Belgium side is going to be an awful team to draw into your group.
Now for the highlights. One major game of note for De Bruyne was early in the season when he notched his first career hat trick:
We got an up close and personal look at De Bruyne in the Champions League as Genk were drawn into our group:
Later in the season, De Bruyne would catch fire. He'd amaze us with this:
And then this:
So what does the future hold for De Bruyne? Back in January when his signing was made official, it appeared that he'd be destined for another loan spell next season. AVB made that clear, and seemingly went out of his way to make sure we knew that Michael Emenalo was behind this signing and not Villas-Boas. AVB has since been sacked though, and De Bruyne took his already impressive game to another level this spring prior to breaking his toe. Emenalo 1- AVB 0.
Stylistically, De Bruyne seems to offer quite a bit of what we're missing right now. He's a natural winger, he's as capable of cutting in and shooting from distance as he is at maintaining width and providing excellent service while running at full speed. He's also proven to be fairly versatile, something that should serve him well when trying to break into a big club. His passing and crossing took giant leaps forward this season, and his ability from a set piece has never been in doubt. From that aspect it's easy to see him fitting right in here.
Whether or not he's currently of Chelsea class is a bit more debatable. he's clearly a major talent, but the gulf in class between the Jupiler League and the Premier League is enormous. We have to look no further than Romelu Lukaku for evidence of that, as the giant that won a golden boot at 16 has struggled to even make the bench this season in England. It may be best for De Bruyne to have a stepping stone loan in the fall to help him adjust to the difference in class.
The Champions League final will probably have a large impact on what we do with De Bruyne as well. It's not hard to see him getting fairly regular minutes if we're relegated to Thursday nights next fall, as he's clearly more than good enough to contribute to a solid Europa League run. Combine that with the Carling Cup, and I'd have a hard time justifying a loan should we fail to win in Munich.
A win in Munich makes things a bit less clear though. Without those six low pressure games, it may be harder to find a place to use De Bruyne. With the versatile Marko Marin newly added and talk of us likely adding another player capable of contributing on the wings, it's hard to see a situation where both De Bruyne and Kakuta both remain in London without those six fixtures. Kakuta likely has the inside track due to his status as a "homegrown" player who will qualify as "club trained" for European competitions. That said, I'd fully expect the new manager (or Di Matteo) to fully asses both De Bruyne and Kakuta, keeping one around regardless. De Bruyne has certainly done enough to warrant that opportunity. That probably means those of us in the USA will get a look at him in blue come July. Hooray!
Should we choose to loan him out, I'd have to hope we'd be looking at either Spain or Germany as a destination. While there is certainly going to be interest from the Netherlands, Portugal, and France, I imagine De Bruyne is developed enough that he'd be better served going up against the higher level of competition available in the best leagues around. I'd almost rather not see him loaned to a Premier League or Serie A outfit, as in general clubs just seem to fluctuate their starters much more due to having better veteran depth on the whole. Depending on the situation though, those two leagues could prove ideal.
All things considered, it was a very good season for De Bruyne. While he'd have certainly benefitted from better overall quality of competition, the Champions League and playoff format of the Jupiler League did expose him to a good amount of talented opponents. He logged a ton of minutes as well, and frankly that's probably the most important thing for his development at this point. The improvement has been notable, as a year ago I felt his crossing and through balls were still a bit suspect. Those same types of passes are now one of his greatest strengths. No doubt it will be harder to maintain that sort of excellence against better defenses, but it's certainly good to know what he's capable of. All in all this was a good season for De Bruyne, and he's certainly in the discussion for a role with Chelsea as early as next fall.