It was not the complaint that a midfielder who specialises in delivering goals and assists in copious quantities might have been expected to voice. “We work in a day and age where everyone talks just about goals and assists,” said Kevin De Bruyne. His last two trips to Molineux have yielded four goals and three assists, rendering him a topic for conversation and praise alike. By creating two goals on Saturday, he drew level with Steven Gerrard on 92 in the Premier League’s all-time assist charts and, by the end of next season, he may overhaul Cesc Fabregas, who mustered 111, and stand second only to Ryan Giggs who has 162.
It is a record that is still more remarkable when his 35 Bundesliga assists are factored in. Judge De Bruyne on the end product and he is a creative phenomenon as well as a player who had the most prolific season of his career last year before reverting more to the role of supplier after Erling Haaland’s arrival.
Judge Jack Grealish on his goals and his assists and he looks unexceptional. De Bruyne’s selflessness is often shown when he picks out a teammate in a better position and the man who has unlocked many a defence defended Grealish. The Belgian scored 15 league goals last season, five times as many as the Englishman. De Bruyne nevertheless echoed his manager’s regular refrain that he does not judge players on goals.
It can be Pep Guardiola at his most esoteric, putting him at odds with both the wider world and Manchester City’s record signing. “All my career I haven’t scored enough goals,” reflected Grealish after a belated first of the campaign. “I do want to add that to my game.” A teammate could be a role model: De Bruyne is four years Grealish’s senior but their respective tallies for clubs and country stand at a vast 158 and a relatively meagre 45 respectively.
Grealish may be the mesmeric dribbler but De Bruyne is the entertainer who also has a purposeful productivity. The £100m man can be a magnet for the ball and criticism alike. De Bruyne argues much of it stems from his price tag and his nationality. A Jack-the-lad persona can endear Grealish to many, but also bring added attention. If there is an English premium to transfer fees, De Bruyne thinks locals are also disadvantaged when it comes to coverage.
“It is not about football,” he said. “Outside of football, the focus is more on them. I understand because they are English and people tend to look more what is happening. I feel like foreign players, if you have a night out, we don’t really get checked that often. Whereas I feel if an English player goes out, it is always in the media somewhere. I think people are taking this on board also. What he does in his private life he does, nobody should care, but people do.”
De Bruyne believes references to the £100m fee can be a case of playing the man, rather than the ball, asking for greater understanding of Grealish’s circumstances. “I don’t feel people [who criticise] tend to care about persons anyway,” he said. “They try to see the facts and talk about the money and talk about all the rest around it. I don’t feel anybody necessarily thinks about how he felt moving away for the first time and people think it is always easy to do that.”
Yet it can be natural that price tags confer expectation. A contribution always extends beyond goals and assists, as he said, but eight City players scored more than Grealish last season; 10 made more goals. If scrutiny comes with money, it is also a consequence of joining a club higher up the league. If Grealish ever won the numbers game, it was during his last season at Aston Villa, when 24 starts produced six goals and 10 assists. Yet trading his hometown club for the champions took him into a more pressurised environment.
“With all due respect, he was at Villa before and if you lose a game sometimes it is not the end of the world,” De Bruyne said. “But if we lose a game it is different.” As Grealish can testify, victory can bring an inquest, too. He conceded he may have been fortunate to retain his place after an unimpressive performance against Borussia Dortmund. “It probably wasn’t my best,” he said.
And that openness is an appealing trait. De Bruyne may have taken aim at Grealish’s doubters, but players who were on the same wavelength after 55 seconds on Saturday struck different notes. Grealish is commendably candid. People have been questioning him. “Rightly so,” he said. He detects room for improvement. “I am always going to have people talking about me with the amount I got bought for.”
Thus far, the big numbers refer to the sum City spent, not Grealish’s attacking output. He has been the anti-De Bruyne, bailed out by his more clinical colleagues. De Bruyne laid Grealish’s first goal of the season on a plate. But regardless of cost or nationality, he knows he needs plenty more. If everyone is talking about goals and assists, that includes Grealish himself.