It should be Liverpool who made the quadruple, not Kevin De Bruyne. But just as Manchester City agreed to sign a goalscorer, De Bruyne proved they already have one, borrowing from Erling Haaland’s winning streak and trademark. The £51million Norwegian should be a guarantor of goals next year but De Bruyne has garnished his all-around excellence with four goals in one game to make this the most prolific season of his stellar career. He took his tally to 19 with a performance of exceptional dominance. City Haaland might not need it on nights like these. With performances like this, they should earn a fourth league title in five seasons sometime in the next 11 days.
While Patrice Evra had claimed Pep Guardiola favored players without personality, De Bruyne expressed his authority on a potentially awkward occasion. Only Sadio Mane and Dwight Yorke had previously scored a Premier League hat-trick within 24 minutes of kick-off. De Bruyne’s front three were all the more admirable because each came with their less-favored left foot, and all the more significant because they restored City’s three-point lead at the top of the table while putting their goal difference potentially out of Liverpool’s reach.
De Bruyne finished second to Mohamed Salah in the Footballer of the Year poll. He can miss individual awards for Liverpool players but showed determination to collect the team award. He has been the Premier League’s outstanding player since December and put in a brilliant performance with fine passes, a series of drives and a quartet of goals. City emulated Liverpool, who had beaten spirited opponents in the West Midlands the day before. Guardiola’s men have stumbled at Molineux in the past, conceding the equalizer to Leander Dendoncker and injuries at centre-back forced them to place 37-year-old Fernandinho in the middle of their defence. When Aymeric Laporte, who had last stood, was substituted for the final half-hour, De Bruyne promptly scored again to ensure nothing else counted.
If City retains their title, it will be won on their trips. Despite all their technical competence, they are a team that proves itself time and time again along the way. It makes last week’s meltdown in Madrid all the more incongruous as they haven’t lost a Premier League game outside of the Etihad since August and won that in under half an hour.
The opener was a glorious goal that came from a combination of City’s back-up front two. In the absence of a striker – at least until Haaland – they instead used two attacking midfielders and played a brace, Bernardo Silva delivering a delicious touch and return ball to De Bruyne to deflect his shot past Jose Sa.
His ability to be both creator and finisher was demonstrated again in his second. It was from another of his own passports, albeit indirectly. He was looking to find Raheem Sterling and while Sa came out to block he failed to capture the ball and allowed the advancing De Bruyne to get in with the side foot.
The third saw a masterly performance as De Bruyne slid between two defenders and unleashed a left-footed shot. His fourth was a third when he was involved in the build-up, feeding Phil Foden and providing the finish after Jonny Castro Otto’s Englishman crossed. He may also have earned an assist and almost got one when he let go of Phil Foden, who hit the woodwork. Sterling hit the post in a different sense and collided with it when he failed to convert Foden’s cross. Sterling eventually scored his goal, a tap-in from Joao Cancelo’s cross, but De Bruyne almost overshadowed him again just inches from a fifth when he shook the post.
If wolves felt unhappy facing him in this form, their unhappiness extended to management. They were exhausted in the dugout, missing Bruno Lage and goalkeeping coach Tony Roberts, who was acting as his deputy at Stamford Bridge thanks to positive Covid tests, with assistant manager Carlos Cachada in charge. It felt like a thankless task.
In the end, it felt academic that Wolves had equalized, although that was thanks to a scintillating counterattack. Raul Jimenez led it, feeding the overlapping Pedro Neto and cutting the ball back Dendoncker came into the box to pocket his shot. They showed more attacking intent than on many other occasions this season, but the reality is that De Bruyne is joining Jimenez as the top scorer in league games at Molineux this season. Wolves had never conceded four goals in a game during Lage’s reign. Then they let four in to the same player. This is the De Bruyne effect.