In two teams as effervescent in attack as Manchester City and Tottenham have been this season, it can be all too easy sometimes to simply heap all praise upon the strikers. So often it’s the poachers, the finishers, the goal-getters that get the acclaim and adulation for a team’s success, while those who toil in other parts of the pitch are neglected, left brooding in the shadow of a striker’s glory.
Of course, this is the way of football and always has been. The old cliché goes that ‘goals win games’, and so it’s natural that those who stick the ball in the net more than most receive the lion’s share of the credit. Sergio Aguero, who was one of the favourites in football betting odds from Betfair to end the season as top scorer is often credited as one of Manchester City’s key men.
But this season has perhaps seen a slight shift in the way fans and media alike perceive the true reasons for a team’s success. Tottenham and Man City provide perfect examples of this—two sides who in Harry Kane and Sergio Aguero possess two of the world’s most talented and prolific centre forwards, boasting a combined 45 Premier League goals so far this season.
And yet, despite this scoring prowess, much of City and Spurs’ respective success has been attributed to others, namely Kevin De Bruyne and Christian Eriksen. While Aguero and Kane may provide the finishing touches, it is these two midfield maestros who bring the thrust, the verve and the flair to each performance. And the meeting of the duo in Saturday’s upcoming clash between the two sides is mouthwatering to say the least.
The comparison between Eriksen and De Bruyne is a natural one to make. These are two players who operate in the same part of the field, lurking between midfield and attack waiting to cut open opposition defences in the blink of an eye. But despite their similarities in terms of position and general roles as midfield creators, both Eriksen and De Bruyne have unique qualities and nuances in style that set them apart from each other.
Eriksen is perhaps the more conventional attacking midfielder, both in style and stature. Light-footed and possessing a low centre of gravity, it is hard to believe that the Dane stands a full six feet tall. The way he plays portrays the archetypal ‘small’ midfielder, hurrying around the pitch in flurries of acceleration, playing the ball with accuracy and finesse, picking out passes with hawk-like vision.
It is this nimbleness that makes Eriksen such an exciting player to watch. The ability to evade defenders, to create space out of nothing, head always up seeking to feed Kane, Heung-Min Son or Dele Alli with the kind of eye-of-the-needle ball that has become his trademark. Indeed, this season has seen Eriksen increase his goal return too, notching an impressive 10 goals so far for Mauricio Pochettino’s side. There is something unassuming about the way Eriksen carries himself, seemingly content to let others take the praise and commendations even though they owe it all to him.
On the other hand, you have De Bruyne, similarly Man City’s chief creator; provider-in-chief of assists and quality deliveries, but he fills the role in such a different way. Bold and robust in his movement, powering through midfield with strength and assurance before unleashing the kind of precision passes some strikers can only dream of. If footballers are ever to be replaced by synthetic humanoids, you feel De Bruyne would make the ideal template for their creation—the confident, strident gait, the smooth swivelling of his hips to dodge the hacking challenges his opponents must resort to. In terms of techinque, he is a model player if ever there was one.
If Eriksen is footballing poetry, then De Bruyne is footballing engineering. His playing style is more measured, more mechanical, but just as unstoppable. Some of the Belgian’s assists this season have been simply breathtaking in their power and exactness, creating the kind of chances that Aguero, Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling would be able to score in their sleep. And he relishes this, stating in an interview with the Manchester Evening News that he gets “more joy from an assist sometimes, just in the way I feel” rather than even scoring a goal. De Bruyne’s position at the top of the assist charts reflect this love of providing for his teammates, further proof that footballers, fans and pundits alike can take as much joy in the creation of a goal as in its conversion.
And so this weekend provides a showdown between two teams overflowing with talent, with De Bruyne and Eriksen as their inimitable and unwavering metronomes. Something that surprised predictions on the football results was City’s title party being rudely gatecrashed by Man Utd last time out, meaning that this game holds even more significance in that City still need two wins to sew up the title and this would be huge step towards it. Spurs have their own front to fight on, still desperate to paw off the advances of Chelsea towards those hallowed top four positions, and even make up ground on Liverpool and United above them.
It may well be that a screamer from Kane or Aguero decides this game, but you can be sure that whichever side comes out on top will have either Eriksen or De Bruyne to thank for another defence splitting pass, mazy dribble, or deadly set-piece delivery. The odds of Tottenham to come out on top were 29/20 on the 7th April, while the odds of Man City taking another big step towards the title were 15/8. The talent Eriksen and De Bruyne possess are the pieces of quality that separate the great teams from the also-rans, and the presence of these two uniquely dynamic players are a huge reason for both Man City and Tottenham’s place among the best in English football.