The sight of a hooded Kevin de Bruyne limping along in a knee brace as he attended Wednesday’s premiere of ‘All Or Nothing’, the Amazon docu-series of Manchester City’s 2017-18 season, was shocking, but should not have been too surprising.
English football has been careless with its stars of the World Cup and it would be little surprise to see other players of De Bruyne’s ilk being signed off with injuries before too long.
Precious commodities, some of the globe’s best players, are being treated like low-grade, all-weather handicap racehorses as clubs rush them back to action far too prematurely.
De Bruyne signed off from Russia on July 14 as a member of the Belgium team that finished third.
Last Sunday, barely five weeks later, he was playing the last half hour of City’s 2-0 win at Arsenal and will now miss two months minimum of the embryonic season.
Two days before that, Paul Pogba, with hardly a week’s training under his belt, was starring for Manchester United against Leicester, just as he had in the World Cup final 29 days earlier for France.
In Leicester’s opposing defence, was Harry Maguire, greatest living Englishman a month ago, but thrown into the full-pelt, helter skelter of the Premier League. He looked a tad leggy against United and understandably so.
Tottenham, meanwhile, having brought no new blood into their squad during the summer transfer window and been the club with most collective minutes in Russia, had little choice but to begin their Saturday lunchtime match at Newcastle with five starters who had played a part in the World Cup’s closing weekend in Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Eric Dier, Hugo Lloris, Jan Verthongen.
Each of last season’s top five all won their matches, with Liverpool benefitting from a cameo from Jordan Henderson and Chelsea able to introduce Eden Hazard from the bench when winning at Huddersfield, but the rest and recuperation period for World Cup players has been punishingly short, and is bound to lead to knock-on effects once the hammer goes properly down as the action pushes into top gear.
Sports science discerned long ago that tired players are more susceptible to serious injury, and clubs are thus taking a heavy risk with their crown jewels.
De Bruyne’s has been described as a “freak injury” by his club, but accidents are statistically much more likely to happen when an onerous workload is placed on heavy limbs.
In Russia, De Bruyne played 540 minutes of football, while Maguire played 645, second overall of Premier League outfield players behind Dejan Lovren on 651. Lovren sat out Liverpool’s win over West Ham, however Chelsea fielded N’Golo Kante, who played 595, at Huddersfield for 90 and even got a goal from him.
Of Europe’s major leagues, only France’s Ligue 1 has chosen to kick off their season so early, with Serie A and La Liga taking their bow this weekend and the Bundesliga to follow next week.
Not that Europe’s clubs are that much more careful. While Kylian Mbappe was able to sit out Paris Saint-Germain’s opener last weekend as he rests the back injury that might have ruled him out of his starring role in Russia, Wednesday’s UEFA Super Cup between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid featured Raphael Varane, Lucas Hernandez, Antoine Griezmann and Thomas Lemar, all four not so fresh from winning the World Cup with France.
Each escaped that fixture with a clean bill of health, and it is City left to count the early cost of losing a leading man to injury. De Bruyne was their undoubted kingpin last season, the fulcrum of the team as it accelerated away from the rest of the Premier League and the best player in England for the majority of the season until Mohamed Salah’s goal rush could no longer be ignored as the individual awards were handed out.
Last season was the first time City had been able to get a full campaign out of their Belgian genius, who suffered injury absences in each of his first two seasons, with a knee problem ruling him out for two months in 2015-16 and a series of muscle problems the following season.
Even within Pep Guardiola’s team of all the talents, nobody can replace his qualities in midfield where in tandem with David Silva, he has rewritten the rulebook on flair players being used in deep-lying positions.
With City only adding Riyad Mahrez in the summer, Fernandinho excellent but overworked last season and 33, and having missed out on Jorginho and been unable to land a work permit for young Brazilian midfielder Douglas Luiz, Guardiola’s midfield options are far scarcer than he would like.
Although may now represent a decent opportunity for Ilkay Gundogan, Bernardo Silva, Fabian Delph or even John Stones stepping forward.
At least Guardiola has been confronted with such a problem with the season in its early stages.
The wear and tear that the World Cup puts on players means that his competitors may not be nearly so fortunate with the timing.