“It’s f***ing Kevin De Bruyne. F***ing stop him.”
The screeching voice, stemming from the left of the press box at the Emirates and only a few rows up from the home dugout, chorused that in the opening minutes before quickly quitting.
Arsenal had tried. They couldn’t. He had tried to implore them to do more. He couldn’t.
It was Kevin De Bruyne and there was no stopping him. It was another one of those fixtures decorated and dominated by him to leave you wondering just how this exceptional player has escaped major individual honours in England. Perhaps it is because he has made extraordinary the norm? His supreme ability is so consistent and thus expected so it does not receive the full appreciation it deserves.
It merits awards and an overflow of column inches, standing ovations and the acceptance that we are lucky enough to witness a midfield phenom at work.
Arsenal had one brief dose of bliss 35 seconds into the encounter, when Gabriel Martinelli took ownership of a long ball before motioning away from Fernandinho on the edge of the box to release a left-footed shot that an onrushing Ederson stifled.
Less than a minute later, everyone took their seats – the hosts included – for what would become The De Bruyne Show. It was tragicomedy watching Freddie Ljungberg’s team attempt to thwart the dynamo only to be overpowered, out-thought and so easily surpassed on loop. Name them and they had their pants pulled down: Calum Chambers, Lucas Torreira, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Matteo Guendouzi… no-one was safe.
It all felt a bit Home Alone – Kevin laying booby traps everywhere and his unsuspecting adversaries embarrassingly falling for it, which was apt given the City fans taunted their counterparts with chants suggesting they should have gone shopping or watched Christmas movies instead.
For his first act, De Bruyne was on the run, watching Gabriel Jesus’ ball into the box from the byline. He sped up slightly, 15 yards from goal, just as he was about to hit it after it had bounced and smacked in a side-footed finish of absolute precision. The ease in which he did all those things at once despite the technique required was absurd.
De Bruyne was central, then right, then left. Regardless of where he was, he drew the attention of multiple Arsenal players. Regardless of their presence, he bent this match to his will.
On 15 minutes, he completely killed it as a contest. Arsenal, fully aware of City’s strengths, decided to leave themselves too exposed with the high press that the visitors causally played through with intelligence and efficiency. Rodrigo and Phil Foden supplied the smart passing before De Bruyne played a one-two with Jesus and scorched Chambers on the left side of the box. Torreira and Maitland-Niles tried to apply pressure too, but the midfielder’s cross took a slight deflection towards an unmarked Sterling at the far post to convert.
At times, De Bruyne looked to be playing within himself – conserving energy and ensuring City stayed compact – and yet he was in still in a different stratosphere.
The manner in which he rolled Guendouzi before curling a beauty low into the bottom corner with his left foot was art. Hang it somewhere and marvel at it.
Bernd Leno pulled off a magnificent save to deny the Belgium international a hat-trick with his first-time curving effort from 25-yards before half-time, but by that point De Bruyne had denied Arsenal anything in the encounter but ignominy.
The thing about the Belgian isn’t just about what he does, but the affect he has on others too. He is a reference point and Foden, man of the match against Dinamo Zagreb in midweek and making his first league start of the season here, drew inspiration from him.
“His shooting is a joke,” Foden said post-match. “When you’ve got a guy like this playing, you know anything can happen with the amount of chances he creates and scores. It’s a pleasure to play with him.”
De Bruyne makes his mastery look so simple and he even describes it that way too. “The ball came with the bounce, I tried to keep composed and don’t lean back too much,” he said of his first goal.
“The most difficult thing with that ball is to keep it as low as possible, and it was just low enough to put it under the bar.
“The second goal, the keeper didn’t really see the ball because it’s that low, it goes away and gives him less time to react.
“It would’ve been nice to get the hat-trick but to score two goals, to come away with a good win after the struggles we’ve had is really important.”
Typically understated, but the stunning power of his performances cannot be emphasised enough.