After the latest in a series of X-rated challenges on City players, Pep Guardiola’s playmaker said opponents should perhaps resort to a cynical tug of a shirt rather than launch themselves into a reckless assault with the potential to wreck a player’s career.
And De Bruyne is just hoping the runaway Premier League leaders have enough men left standing to complete their challenge for an unprecedented quadruple of trophies.
There is a growing feeling at the Etihad that opponents, frustrated by not being able to outplay City, are setting out to kick them off the pitch.
But Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger and former Liverpool player turned TV pundit Danny Murphy have not backed City’s claim that referees are not offering them enough protection. Ahead of the Manchester derby, Mourinho suggested City players went over easily, Wenger has accused Sterling of diving, while Murphy castigated Swansea for not hitting City with a few tackles.
De Bruyne has so far managed to survive some of the horror challenges this season – James McClean’s scything attempt to bring him down in the build-up to City’s second goal was only Wednesday the latest.
Youngster Brahim Diaz also escaped serious injury after being brought down by a X-rated thigh-high challenge by Matt Phillips, who was only cautioned by referee Bob Madley.
Former Premier League referee Dermot Gallagher said: “If he [Madley] had had a clear view he would have sent him off every day of the week. It was high, it was late, it was at speed and it was likely to endanger the safety of an opponent.”
It came just four days after Cardiff’s Joe Bennett only received a caution for a reckless tackle on Leroy Sane that damaged the German winger’s ankle ligaments and ruled him out for two months.
When asked about McClean’s attempt – which evoked memories for older fans of Ron “Chopper” Harris’s infamous attempt to stop George Best back in 1970 – De Bruyne’s diplomacy was under-pinned by genuine concern for players’ safety.
“I didn’t know what the tackle was like that until I saw it back on the tape,” said the Belgium international. “Let’s just say the ball was not in the neighbourhood!
“The referee said to me he didn’t touch me good enough to get the red card but obviously I told him, ‘I saw the guy, I was jumping’.”
De Bruyne is favourite to be voted player of the year – if he makes it to the end of the campaign. Apart from McClean’s crude attempt, Dele Alli and Jason Puncheon have both made reckless attempts to stop him and received only cautions – although Puncheon’s challenge was so fierce he ended up damaging his own knee ligaments, an injury that has ruled him out of the rest of the season.
De Bruyne, who scored City’s 100th goal of the season with the second against Albion, shrugged his shoulders at the treatment. “I’m in the middle, there’s a lot of times we get the ball and make a stride. Teams get frustrated,” he said.
“I don’t know what they are thinking – but you can also pull a shirt, that’s more effective than a tackle.
“Sometimes it gets frustrating for us. A lot of teams are making a lot of fouls against us. But it seems when we make a foul, we get a yellow card – I don’t know how it’s possible sometimes. I know sometimes there are tactical fouls but it’s just the way it is.”
Guardiola has been noting the misdemeanours against his players with increasing concern. It started in September with Sadio Mane’s high-boot challenge on goalkeeper Ederson Moraes, though the Liverpool striker was red-carded.
But Harry Kane and Alli both escaped reds after committing nasty challenges on Raheem Sterling and De Bruyne respectively in the home game against Tottenham. Over Christmas Jacob Murphy came under fire for a late and high challenge on Ilkay Gundgoan, four days before Puncheon’s notorious tackle on De Bruyne at Selhurst Park. Then came Bennett’s challenge on Sane on Sunday before the McClean and Phillips incidents on Wednesday.
Manchester City have not always been angels themselves. Fernandinho breathed a sigh of relief yesterday when the FA declared he will not face retrospective action after appearing to stamp on Grzegorz Krychowiak on Wednesday. The FA say the incident was seen by the referee and his assistants, who felt there was no intent in the challenge.
That’s good news for Guardiola as he views a growing casualty list.
David Silva came off with what appeared to be a back problem on Wednesday and is a doubt for tomorrow’s visit to Burnley. John Stones missed the Albion game through illness, Sane is out for two months, Gabriel Jesus is still up to a month away from a return while Phil Foden, Fabian Delph are also still sidelined along with long-term casualty Benjamin Mendy.